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Craigslist Government

August 26, 2009

Wired has a fascinating article on Craigslist and its founder, Craig Newmark:

Newmark’s claim of almost total disinterest in wealth dovetails with the way craigslist does business. Besides offering nearly all of its features for free, it scorns advertising, refuses investment, ignores design, and does not innovate. Ordinarily, a company that showed such complete disdain for the normal rules of business would be vulnerable to competition, but craigslist has no serious rivals. The glory of the site is its size and its price. But seen from another angle, craigslist is one of the strangest monopolies in history, where customers are locked in by fees set at zero and where the ambiance of neglect is not a way to extract more profit but the expression of a worldview.

The axioms of this worldview are easy to state. “People are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day,” Newmark says. If most people are good and their needs are simple, all you have to do to serve them well is build a minimal infrastructure allowing them to get together and work things out for themselves. Any additional features are almost certainly superfluous and could even be damaging.

Newmark has been working hard to extend the influence of his worldview. His public pronouncements have the delighted yet apologetic tone of a man who has stumbled on a secret hiding in plain sight and who finds it embarrassingly necessary to point out something that should long have been obvious. He seems to have discovered a new way to run a business. He suspects that it may be the right way to run the world.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if he had a way to run a government? Or start one on his own?

It is easy to find hypocrisy in the idealism of a business owner who prescribes democracy for others while relieving himself of the tiresome burden of democratic consultation in the domain where he has the most power. But of course, craigslist is not a polity; it is just an online classified advertising site, one that manages to serve some basic human needs with startling efficiency. It is difficult to overstate the scale of this accomplishment. Craigslist gets more traffic than either eBay or Amazon .com. eBay has more than 16,000 employees. Amazon has more than 20,000. Craigslist has 30. Craigslist may have little to teach us about how to make decisions, but that’s not the aspect of democracy that concerns Newmark most. He cares about the details, about executing all the little obvious things we’d like government to do. “I’m not interested in politics, I’m interested in governance,” he says. “Customer service is public service.”

Precisely. There’s a reason we keep harping on the idea of government as a business – because that’s all it is. Government is an industry, and governance is the service provided by that industry. The service provided in the status quo is awful. In a world where you allow the world’s best and brightest entrepreneurs to try their hand at governance, great things will happen.


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