Beating the system

by Henry on August 9, 2003

Jon blogs below about winning office with a mere plurality, which touches on issues that political scientists, and theorists of a certain bent, have thought a lot about. Kenneth Arrow’s “impossibility theorem,” which I’ve blogged about before, indicates that if you make certain reasonable assumptions about people’s preferences, no possible voting system (or other means of social choice) can be expected to aggregate people’s preferences without distorting them. This suggests, according to the late William Riker, that democracy is bogus.

Riker argues that there’s no such thing as the “will of the people” – the result of any vote is as much a product of how choices are presented to people as the actual preferences of the electorate. The message is simple – there ain’t no such thing as a perfect electoral system. Let’s take two examples.

Example One: voters in the 1992 US Presidential election were presented with the choice of Bush, Perot, or Clinton. I’m not a US political scientist, so I’m simply going to go with the collective wisdom, which is that most Perot voters would have preferred to see Bush than Clinton become President. These voters might have preferred an electoral system like the French system, in which there are two rounds. First, there’s a free for-all vote in which all candidates participate. Then, if no candidate gets a majority, there’s a second round, in which all candidates are eliminated except for the two front runners. This would have allowed Perot voters to vote their conscience happily in the first round, and then, when Perot was eliminated, to vote for Bush (their second best candidate) rather than Clinton. In such a system, Bush might well have won. The same rationale applies to the Greens in 2000 – many Nader voters would have preferred a second round run-off too. After they’d scared the bejasus out of Gore, and perhaps pushed him a little to the left, they would be able to ensure that we did not get a Republican president – their worst possible outcome.

But a French style system has its problems too – just look at the last French presidential election. The two serious candidates were Jospin, for the Socialists, and Chirac, for the right. However, to everyone’s surprise, Jospin was eliminated in the first round – he ran a lacklustre campaign, and bled protest votes to various die-hard lefties, so that he came in third, behind notorious Hitler-fancier, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Thus, in the second round, Jospin supporters were faced with an unenviable choice between Chirac, a shady political hack, and Le Pen, who notoriously dismissed the Holocaust as a technicality. On the slogan ‘Vote for the Crook not the Nazi,’ they voted for Chirac. Jospin voters would very likely would have preferred a US style system, in which, indeed, Jospin might have won the election.

Riker’s adaptation of Arrow suggests that all electoral systems are going to have problems of this sort – the mechanisms of choice will sometimes have perverse consequences. Obviously, some systems of voting will be much worse than others – but all of them are going to have some sort of distortion.

So does this mean that democracy is a sham? That’s certainly the traditional interpretation. However, there’s also an alternative interpretation, which has recently started to generate some buzz among rational choice political scientists. On this interpretation, Riker’s critique points instead to the need to enhance democracy, by privileging deliberation – deep conversation and discussion, where people try to resolve political controversies through reasoned debate – rather than voting. At least in theory, deliberation isn’t vulnerable to the sorts of problems that Arrow and Riker identify.

The argument goes that even if deliberation is unwieldy as a primary form of political decision making – it’s awkward, messy and takes too long – it can work well as a form of “second order choice.” In other words, deliberation is a lousy way for people to take day-to-day political decisions, but it potentially allows people to decide over the different (imperfect) ways in which they can take these day-to-day decisions. For example, people might deliberate over, whether a particular voting system is the best way to make decisions in one area of social life, or whether a market based system is the best way to make decisions in another. This gives these choice mechanisms a sort of borrowed democratic legitimacy – even if they’re still flawed, people have decided democratically that they’re the best possible mechanism to use in a specific set of circumstances. Thus perhaps, people can at least have the option of real democratic choice over the various imperfect ways of making first order decisions that are on offer, which takes some of the sting out of Riker’s critique.

{ 21 comments }

1

James Riley 08.09.03 at 2:23 am

“Example One: voters in the 1994 US Presidential election”

You mean 1992.

Did they name the Star Trek character William Riker after the political theorist?

2

Bill 08.09.03 at 2:44 am

If we have two systems, the voting system (working similar to what we have now), how would the deliberative system work?

In a small group, say a family, committee, or maybe even a classroom, I could imagine a deliberative system working by full, rational consensus (i.e. everyone agrees with the best argument in a free and informed way). I’m not sure how this would work in a country, or even a county or company. Do you have any insight on this?

3

Daragh McDowell 08.09.03 at 4:05 am

Henry you have no idea how much I would have loved to point out that Quayle like ’94 gaffe, but it looks like I was beaten to it. Instead I’ll content myself by pointing out that serious studies undertaken on the ’92 election, specifically relating to Perot’s support base show that:
a) A significant body of Perot supporters voted for him due to his ‘outsider status’ and would not have voted for Bush OR Clinton if Perot hadn’t run.
b) That the remainder of Perot voters were more or less equally divided between Bush and Clinton.

Perot’s bitterness towards the Bush family not withstanding, his recent hints that he may enter in 2004, for all intents and purposes just to stick it to Bush, would probably not make a serious impact on the final result (especially due to Perot’s massive dropoff in support and credibility since 1992) and may even hurt a potential Candidate Dean, who’s Libertarian leanings sit closer to Perot, than Bush’s religious conservatism. It should also be pointed out that most Nader voters would have stayed at home if Nader had not run, and that the gap between Bush and Gore was so small in 2000 that the Worker’s Without Chains party could be accused of ruining the Democrat’s chances. The upcoming California recall gives America a unique opportunity to experiment with that superior form of representation-distribution, Proportional Representation, specifically of the Single Transferrable Vote kind. This system would be the only way to lend any form of legitimacy to an election of over 300 candidates. Maybe the Yankees will have to accept that their grossly under-representative electoral procedures, increasingly gerrymandered congressional constituencies, and increasingly hazy two-part system, is in need of a serious overhaul. Constantly they crow, their’s is the oldest and greatest democracy on earth, a little like claiming the Model T is the greatest car on earth.

4

Loren 08.09.03 at 5:14 am

“In other words, deliberation is a lousy way for people to take day-to-day political decisions, but it potentially allows people to decide over the different (imperfect) ways in which they can take these day-to-day decisions.”

Henry, I’m not sure deliberation is necessarily a bad way to think through everyday problems, although it is costly in terms of time and resources, certainly (I’m thinking of Jim Fishkin’s experiments, and some of Archon Fung’s case studies).

And I’m not sure I understand your point that I’ve quoted here. When you say “take” decisions, do you mean that citizens are to deliberate about the best procedure with which to address controversial disputes? If so, then it isn’t clear to me why enhanced deliberation gives more legitimacy to collective decisions about procedures compared to similar decisions about substantive matters.

As I read them, the usual lines of assault on the Rochester castle are (1) that deliberation transforms preferences and values in desirable ways (i.e. ways that soften the social choice concern by moving groups toward single-peaked preferences, for instance); or (2) that deliberation enhances the informational (“epistemic”) quality of certain sorts of collective decisions (i.e. when the aim is to get the right answer, a la Condorcet’s jury theorem).

My own take is that deliberation is ultimately valuable because it’s fundamental to the idea of democratic legitimacy, regardless of whether it’s transformative, or epistemically attractive, or gets around Arrow in plausible ways. If you think that democracy is important, then you are also committed to the idea that legitimacy is grounded in informed and sincere public discussion of reasons. This might improve the quality of collective decisions, or the coherence or manipulation-proofness of some decision procedures, or it might not (probably not, for the latter), but that’s what a democratic account of legitimacy commits you to.

5

Loren 08.09.03 at 5:23 am

“At least in theory, deliberation isn’t vulnerable to the sorts of problems that Arrow and Riker identify.”

Oh, one more, minor point: notice that this is only true if deliberation yields consensus, so that you don’t need to appeal to some sort of decision procedure to break disagreements. But if you try to get consensus through unanimity rules, you may well get a whole new set of strategic distortions. My sense is that the formal analysis of this problem is still generating some debate, and the experimental evidence for strategic effects under unanimity is still pretty sparse, but it’s suggestive — see Guarnaschelli, McKelvey and Palfrey’s recent research note in the American Political Science Review 94 (2000) on this point. No free lunch, as they say.

6

chris 08.09.03 at 6:26 am

I believe approval voting would solve the problems identified in both of your examples. If voters were allowed to cast votes for all the candidates they approved, both strategic (USA 1992) and protest voting (France 2002) would not be factors in the election.

7

back40 08.09.03 at 7:05 am

Both Arrow and Riker have ignored significant aspects of the election process and so their results are manufactured artifacts of their flawed data gathering. Elections aren’t discrete events that pit as few as two politicians against one another, they are the final phase of a selection procedure with many steps leading up to what amounts to a run off of those who have won previous rounds.

When we think dynamically, when we expand the time period and scope of consideration, various elections at multiple levels repeating periodically are “deep conversation and discussion, where people try to resolve political controversies through reasoned debate”.

By the time a given election takes place deliberation has yielded consensus on many, many issues. Each final candidate represents a coalition that may not approve completely of the party platform but can support it. Electoral victory depends on the efforts of various local groups who meet, discuss and work to gain support among uncommitted voters.

Deliberation will have yielded consensus on many, many issues for all parties. There is really very little difference between the major parties, and this accounts for the viciousness of their arguments over the few remaining points of dispute. When there are no big choices to make small things must be exaggerated and personalities become important.

However, in systems that fail to provide incentives for deliberation, that explicitly support factionalism, wildly anomalous results such as those that recently happened in France can occur. Perhaps worse in some ways is the coalition government such as has occurred in Germany where a small coalition partner ends up with disproportionate power and the ability to bring down a government. Better designed systems that encourage deliberation and consensus between factions have better results, more representative governments and better stability.

8

Maynard Handley 08.09.03 at 9:12 am

Does Arrow’s theorem still hold if negative votes are allowed? I have sometimes thought that it might be interesting to allow negative or positive votes—ie instead of only being able to vote FOR Jones, Smith or Black for president, I could choose to vote against Smith (“I don’t care who wins as long as it’s not that bastard Smith”). Certainly this might do something to reduce negative campaigning.

9

vlorbik 08.09.03 at 11:59 am

Here’s a
voting methods site
by Robert Loring of the
Center for Voting
and Democracy
and the
mathematics
and elections
meta-page at the
Math Forum.

10

Loren 08.09.03 at 5:28 pm

Some thoughts on various stuff here:

Maynard: “Does Arrow’s theorem still hold if negative votes are allowed?”

The theorem is remarkably general, and holds for any collection of rankings over states of the world, so if voting (for or against) reflects the transitive orderings of more than two voters over more than two states of the world, then the theorem applies.

Back40: “Both Arrow and Riker have ignored significant aspects of the election process …”

I don’t think this is fair. Riker — love him or hate him — knew a lot about American elections and U.S. political history. And while it’s true that Arrow wasn’t a scholar of politics, his theorem is a beautiful piece of abstract reasoning that applies with considerable (although not uniform) force to pretty much any elections.

“… Elections aren’t discrete events that pit as few as two politicians against one another, they are the final phase of a selection procedure with many steps leading up to what amounts to a run off of those who have won previous rounds.”

Actually, elections are reasonably discrete events that pit politicians or issues against one another. And if the preceeding many-stepped selection procedure involves the use of any mechanism that aggregates individual rankings over candidates, then Arrow’s results apply. We cannot avoid Arrow this way.

“Better designed systems that encourage deliberation and consensus between factions have better results, more representative governments and better stability.”

This seems to me to be too sweeping a claim: consensus has its own costs, and its own distinctive pathologies. I like the idea of more deliberation, certainly. But there’s this widespread hope that, if you just encourage people to talk things through, you’ll arrive at a happy consensus on a wide range of public issues. Maybe, but I’m sceptical, especially in contemporary settings with a lot of diversity and inequality. The hard cases, for political theorists and institutional designers, are those where thoughtful, reasonable, informed citizens disagree profoundly on means, ends, or both. In those cases we seem to need some sort of collective decision procedure, and then Arrow’s and Riker’s problem arises again.

As Chris suggests, alternative voting systems, such as approval voting, do mitigate the force of some of the Arrow results, but they don’t avoid all the implications of the theorem. The question is: which of Arrow’s axioms do you feel most comfortable violating, and why? Mathias Risse and Christian List (one of the authors Kieran refers to) have put together a veritable cottage industry exploring this question of late, and pushing various arguments about why some of Arrow’s assumptions aren’t that important to a legitimate rational democratic procedure. Some of it seems plausible.

11

back40 08.09.03 at 7:07 pm

“I don’t think this is fair. Riker – love him or hate him – knew a lot about American elections and U.S. political history.”

Arrow and Riker don’t ignore aspects of the election process because they are ignorant. It is viewing elections as discrete events disconnected from a discovery process that leads to seeing voters as atomized individuals with durable preferences. It ignores what are considered to be externalities.

“if the preceeding many-stepped selection procedure involves the use of any mechanism that aggregates individual rankings over candidates, then Arrow’s results apply.”

They apply but don’t illuminate the processes involved in selection. Those processes alter individual selections. They alter individuals. The snap shot aggregation only reveals the state of a dynamic system at a moment in time. This is significant, representatives gain office and policies are approved, but deliberation preceded the aggregation and continues afterwards. It isn’t that Arrow’s theory is false, it is that it is an apparent paradox resulting from asking a question in an awkward way that excludes the most useful bits of the system.

“…there’s this widespread hope that, if you just encourage people to talk things through, you’ll arrive at a happy consensus on a wide range of public issues. Maybe, but I’m sceptical…”

Me too. It isn’t a happy consensus that is reached, it’s a chastened acceptance of diversity informed by a theory of mind that accepts that other individuals and groups have different values and needs but are still human and require consideration. It’s not just compromise, splitting the difference between positions, it’s self limitation to avoid unacceptable pressures on others in the interest of achieving or maintaining cohesion. When this process is inhibited, when majoritarianism is too privileged, then oppression occurs and societies dissolve.

What social choice theory reveals is that there is no such thing as popular will, that consensus does not and cannot exist except in trivial special cases involving small, homegenous groups. The importance of deliberation in a discovery process isn’t as a mechanism to arrives at consensus, it is to inform all participants of diversity and lack of consensus. Those selected to represent a diverse group are made aware of the limited set of policies that can be supported.

Democracy isn’t majoritarianism and isn’t the expression of the will of the governed in any simple way. It is a process for communicating the views of others, of becoming more fully informed about society. Debate and deliberation before voting doesn’t resolve differences and arrive at shared values, it identifies the limits of currently acceptable policy efforts. It discovers what can be done and even more importantly what can’t be done without coercion and oppression of dissidents.

One idea I’ve read about that fully recognizes the function of debate and deliberation changes the last step in the discovery process. Instead of voting to select representatives they are selected by lottery from among all participants in the debates. It explicitly refutes majority rule in favor of minority rights and limited government that avoids imposition of policies that oppress and lead to rebellion. This isn’t a realistic possibility, I’m not advocating this system, but it is a useful thought experiment for recognizing the deep nature of self governance and ways to achieve durable and responsive social systems.

12

Loren 08.09.03 at 7:59 pm

Back40: “They apply but don’t illuminate the processes involved in selection. Those processes alter individual selections. They alter individuals.”

But that’s just denying one of Arrow’s axioms, (i.e. citizen sovereignty and the nonimposition of the social welfare function). And to be clear, your remark puts Riker’s concern in stark relief: in the final analysis, majoritarian democracy is ultimately a threat to important liberal commitments.

I mean, if you think that Arrow’s results don’t really matter to democracy because the process of public debate and collective choice is really a process of transformation, of shaping citizens (in sometimes rather dramatic ways), then you arguably aren’t a liberal democrat, at least not in the sense Riker means. Rather, you’re something more like a republican or communitarian democrat.

Maybe that’s a cost many people would be willing to bear for the sake of a stable democracy, sure. But that isn’t an answer to Riker’s concern. It’s more like a restatement of his worry.

Now as you say, democracy isn’t simply majoritarianism or populism: it’s complicated. Sometimes it’s about learning. Other times about affirming and fostering a certain ideal of citizenship. But Riker and Arrow are important precisely because of our liberal commitments: sometimes democracy is about making an authoritative collective decision that is representative of, and responsive to, the considered values and preferences of free and equal citizens. That’s also a part of the complicated mess that is democracy, and it raises the concerns that Arrow and Riker (and Sen, in a different context) face us with: in the hard cases of choice in the face of considered disagreement among free and equal citizens, democracy is going to threaten some attractive liberal principles.

In my view, we cannot answer this worry simply by pointing out that there are other features of democracy for which this problem isn’t as pronounced, or even relevant.

True, but what about the places were it is relevant?

Must we simply rely on gag rules in such cases? (this, of course, amounts to restrictions on liberty). Or do we trust in the reluctance of citizens to raise issues that will force such majoritarian quandries? (this probably leads us in the direction of forging citizen attitudes through early education and social pressures, which in turn will challenge some expressive liberties).

Messy stuff, and Arrow and Riker force us to deal with it head on.

13

back40 08.09.03 at 10:04 pm

I should begin by saying that I appreciate your thoughtful and informed responses Loren. I appreciate your taking the time and expending the effort to reason in good faith. It’s unusual and refreshing.

“if you think … the process of public debate and collective choice is really a process of transformation, of shaping citizens…”

It’s partly transformative of citizens, partly transformative of policies and partly unsuccessful at transformation. It’s lumpy stew rather than brothy soup. Coming to see that transformation is limited, that others have different values and needs is arguably even more important than transformation. It’s a challenge for ideologues, those who believe what they can’t know, those who have a very hard time accepting differences and allowing others to pursue their own happiness within reciprocal bounds.

“…sometimes democracy is about making an authoritative collective decision that is representative of, and responsive to, the considered values and preferences of free and equal citizens…

…in the hard cases of choice in the face of considered disagreement among free and equal citizens, democracy is going to threaten some attractive liberal principles.”

This is only justifiable in unusual situations when a dire threat to society exists and action must be taken though it disenfranchises significant minorities. There are very few instances where this is the case, when action cannot be deferred while society continues to deliberate and perhaps evolve or create superior solutions that require less transformation. History and hindsight reveal a nearly continuous record of stepwise progress as societies lurch from one precipitate decision to the next, always tacking and sometimes reversing. Overshoot and undershoot are the rule.

It is the stridency of advocates impatient with human behavior and time frames that creates a false sense of crisis and a false need for precipitate action. This is in a sense an act of violence against society, a pathology which degrades the social fabric. It’s the common problem of primitive cures that are more damaging than diseases. The only problem solved is the satisfaction of the impatient desires of those who lack empathy, who lack a fully developed theory of mind which recognizes the humanity of others. Many people have this characteristic, this problem won’t go away, but it can be useful to explicitly recognize the damage done by impatience.

I think a way forward is to adopt dynamic frameworks that see processes more than instances, that resist decohering essentially continuous systems into collections of points, that privilege connections over nodes in systems. Societies evolve at the boundaries between ordered subsets, where contact is greatest and interchange is maximal. Anything that imposes artificial order, either by forceful disregard or isolation of groups retards evolution and resolution.

In some ways this is a suffrage issue. It’s about honoring the views of all members not only because it is morally desirable but because it enriches society, makes it more inclusive, creative and resilient. Individuals are transformed and aggregate social views are transformed as intimately associating members coevolve. This isn’t a rapid process so it can be frustrating, but interrupting the process and forcing premature resolutions based on the incomplete information and understanding of majorities is the least effective way of achieving a just society. It is both slower and bloodier. In a way, avoiding premature action is enlightened impatience.

Perhaps this is another way of viewing the truth you noted in saying that “… in the hard cases of choice in the face of considered disagreement among free and equal citizens, democracy is going to threaten some attractive liberal principles.” Premature adoption of “authoritative collective decision[s]” is illiberal and I would add counterproductive when viewed from a systems dynamics perspective that considers the effects of such actions on systems in future. It’s an own goal resulting from short sighted impatience.

14

Loren 08.09.03 at 10:33 pm

Back40: “It’s lumpy stew rather than brothy soup.”

I like this image a lot.

Of late I’ve been wondering (not an original thought, by any means) if vast, dirty, noisy and apparently alienating urban centers might be good for democracy just because of the times when they force people to deal with the lumpiness of social life in particulary visceral ways. People don’t have to like the lumpiness, but they have to deal with it in ways that others can at least deal with themselves.

15

Robert Schwartz 08.10.03 at 3:35 am

I am always amused by these types of disscusions:

“On this interpretation, Riker’s critique points instead to the need to enhance democracy, by privileging deliberation – deep conversation and discussion, where people try to resolve political controversies through reasoned debate – rather than voting.”

The chattering classes decide that public life should revolve around debating. Now fancy that. Why didn’t they pick boxing? Or archery for that matter? The problem with all of these proposals is that the losers in any debate are not necessarily wrong, nor will they necessarily see the error of their ways and repent. Indeed, there is a certain inarticulate type who will lose the debate and walk away angry. Not only that, there is always someone who will seize that anger and use it for his own advantage. When you are good at “deep conversation and discussion, where people try to resolve political controversies through reasoned debate” and the losers are good at field striping and cleaning their rifles, you run the sever risk that the losers will decide that the skill they are good at should run society.

Voting is not an adjunct to, or a substitute for, debate. It is a substitute for mob violence and civil war. Arrow and his epigones demonstrated that voting has certain inherent limitations. Its OK. That is the way the world is. The object of political studies cannot be the creation of a perfect world, for men are far to imperfect to do that. Understanding our imperfections and the limitations on our abilities is an important part of our education because we must live with them and adapt our lives to them, not because they will ever disappear.

16

Loren 08.10.03 at 5:14 am

Robert Shwartz: “Voting is not an adjunct to, or a substitute for, debate. It is a substitute for mob violence and civil war.”

I feel the force of the intuition lurking here, but I’m not clear on why you think people would generally accept voting and majority rule as a substitute for mob violence, if there isn’t some sort of deliberation involved.

If persuasive reasons (and deliberation about them) don’t enter into the picture, then why not simply take up arms whenever the vote doesn’t go our way ? (and, of course, we also think there’s a chance of beating the majority into submission by force — we’re rational, after all, or at least marginally so, on average)

No doubt this accurately describes much of what has passed for “democracy” in many parts of the world at many points in history (Liberia? the Congo?), but that pessimistic observation doesn’t seem to support your case for voting as a pragmatic concession that we’d all agree to, instead of bloody wars or battles of champions.

What, in your view, makes the outcome of voting legitimate, preventing us from just trying to kick some ass whenever we lose at the polls? Is it the idea that majority rule by voting is less bloody than just kicking ass?

Maybe, but if all we want to do is avoid brutal violence, then we don’t need democracy. We just need a police state.

I suppose there’s a case for voting and majority rule as follows: it avoids bloodshed and there’s more chance that you’ll get your way than under a peaceful but oppressive police state. This utilitarian rationale (more people are satisfied than dissatisfied on any given vote) has a certain charm, but I’m not yet convinced that it warrants the the title “rule of the people” in anything but the most superficial sense of that phrase. Or maybe it’s the best we can hope for?

17

Brett Bellmore 08.11.03 at 11:12 am

“Voting is not an adjunct to, or a substitute for, debate. It is a substitute for mob violence and civil war.”

More precisely, elections can be concieved of as a form of war game, in which we determine who would probably win were a civil war to be conducted. Which is why nations with fully functional democracy don’t suffer from successful revolutions: If you could win a revolution, you’ve got everything you need to win an election.

But getting back to deliberative democracy, while it may not suffer from the same problems as regular democracy, it suffers from it’s own problems. Specifically, in a formal deliberative procedure, where you’re making an explicit effort to ensure those deliberating are informed, *somebody has control over the information provided to the deliberators*. This is blatently obvious in jury trials, where 90% of the battle is determining what the jury gets to hear, with trials frequently hinging on what arguments will be barred, and what evidence will be concealed. Why expect that deliberative democracy would function any diferently?

18

Loren 08.11.03 at 7:28 pm

Brett Bellmore: “If you could win a revolution, you’ve got everything you need to win an election.”

Maybe, but do you think this is really an informative (or even particularly accurate) appraisal of, say, recent election outcomes in Canada or the United States? Does my ability to win a seat in parliament or in congress really suggest my skill at leading a civil insurrection?

Or do mean that winning parties in nationwide or large regional contests would have such skills and resources at their disposal?

Maybe, but I’d like to hear more about why you think this is important, even if it is true (which isn’t at all obvious, given that winning civil wars quickly and brutally might not require, say, the same investments in winning hearts and minds that characterize long election campaigns — far more simple propoganda would probably suffice. You’d also need far more guns and soldiers than lawyers, pollsters, and neighborhood supporters, and it isn’t obvious that the same people who’d cast of vote for me at the polls, or hand out my flyer at the supermarket, would also take up arms to support me in a bloody uprising).

I mean, it might turn out that, yes, in some electoral settings the outcomes (in terms of winning parties with widespread scope and lots of resources) do indicate who could marshall sufficient resources and resolve to win a civil war. But even if we concede this point, what follows for our understanding of how democracies ought to be built and managed? Do you think that this purported fact about some elections is what makes voting desirable in a democracy?

Also, does the same observation hold for, say, large market shares gained by some corporations? Maybe the composition of a large-cap index fund would let us reliably predict which corporations could win a civil war? If so, does this tell us anything interesting about democracy?

I’m sceptical, but I don’t mean these as rhetorical questions: if what you say is true for even some elections, then I’d think that should lead you to certain positions on the merits of elections and how they ought to be monitored and regulated.

“in a formal deliberative procedure, where you’re making an explicit effort to ensure those deliberating are informed, somebody has control over the information provided to the deliberators.”

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: moderation and information rules don’t really challenge to the deliberative character of, say, a committee, or jury, or citizen focus group. You just need to make sure that samples of deliberators are reasonably representative for your purposes, and that the people doing the monitoring, and who are sifting through and sorting information, are themselves open to widespread public scrutiny.

19

Brett Bellmore 08.11.03 at 11:11 pm

Well, I *am* a libertarian, and you know what we think of democracy: “Two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner.” That something was decided by voting doesn’t give the result any special moral legitimacy. Majorities can vote to do some awful things, and routinely do.

The chief virtues of democracy are that, first, from a stark utilitarian standpoint you’re better off having the majority oppress the minority, rather than the other way around. And second, that if the people who would win a fight get to make the decisions WITHOUT having to fight, at least you avoid some bloodshed. It was that latter advantage I was refering to.

Certainly, it’s not literally true that in every case, including dead heats like our last Presidential election, the winner would win a war. But if you can’t win an election, in a free society, you sure don’t have the numbers, resources, and organization to be confident you won’t LOSE a war! Losing a free election should tell you that betting on winning a war would be stupid.

It follows that only in societies which do NOT have free elections can a force arise capable of winning a civil war, without ending up in control peacefully.

With regards to the information control in deliberative democracy, sure it matters, for exactly the reason that press censorship matters in a regular democracy. Control the information people base their decisions on, and nine times out of ten you control the decision they will make. And “scrutiny” is no solution, you’re demanding more attention on the part of the public to the workings of the deliberative process than the regular elections call for.

As a purely advisory mechanism, perhaps the idea has some merit, especially if the members were chosen genuinely at random, (You can stack a decision as easily by controling who makes it, as by controling what they know.) and not isolated from the general public. But for actually making decisions it stinks, possibly even worse than regular democracy.

20

Loren 08.12.03 at 12:58 am

“Losing a free election should tell you that betting on winning a war would be stupid.”

As I said before, this is not at all obvious, because the sorts of resources and support you need to win a free and fair election in a stable democracy don’t obviously transfer well to the business of staging a successful insurrection.

I might win a majority of votes in a presidential campaign by kissing some ass among party hacks, shaking hands and kissing babies around the country, buying airtime, and hiring good PR people. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to convince that same majority of voters to take up arms to support me against a small, committed, and well-armed and well-trained minority of insurgents.

Nor is it obvious that the ass-kissing and fund-raising skills that got me in an electable position will also allow me to mount an effective military response to violent revolts. It might, but it just as easily might not.

“Control the information people base their decisions on, and nine times out of ten you control the decision they will make.”

It depends on how much control, what sort of control, and the nature of the group in question.

“As a purely advisory mechanism, perhaps the idea has some merit, especially if the members were chosen genuinely at random …”

That’s a popular idea, although to be of much use there would have to be some expectation that officials would publicly respond to the decisions of representative citizen juries, i.e. explaining why they are not going to follow the judgement of a small group of informed citizens who have given the matter some thought and civil discussion.

“And “scrutiny” is no solution, …

I’d say better scrutiny is the solution to a lot of existing and potential problems with government.

“… you’re demanding more attention on the part of the public to the workings of the deliberative process than the regular elections call for.”

No I’m not (and I suspect you may be underestimating the amount of scrutiny that fair elections and responsible government require, or should require — so yes, maybe I’m demanding far more critical attention to politics in general, deliberative or otherwise).

“But for actually making decisions it stinks, possibly even worse than regular democracy.”

Currently people can vote in important elections on the basis of completely frivolous or offensive reasons, or without any coherent reasons at all. Under even a marginally more deliberative electoral scheme, voting would follow fair and informed public discussion and debate, for instance, through widespread press coverage of representative citizen deliberative assemblies on a range of issues at stake in the election (this in contrast to the current drivel that counts as public deliberation prior to elections — sham “debates” among candidates who can’t even write their own speeches, and faux “town meetings” with carefully staged questions scripted in advance from self-selected samples of citizens).

Obviously the sorts of reforms I’m hinting at would involve considerable costs, but how could the outcomes possibly be worse than the current system?

21

cks 08.12.03 at 5:28 am

What are concrete examples of “privileging deliberation – deep conversation and discussion, where people try to resolve political controversies through reasoned debate – rather than voting”?

This prescription brings to mind the U.S. Senate, especially since I recently finished reading Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate. From the first few chapters of the book, a miniature history of the Senate, it appears that “privileged discussion” is a primary intent and effect of the Senate rules.

The author of the book believes that the rules can have benefits as well as drawbacks. Caro argues that these rules delayed the Civil War by allowing the Senate to resolve disagreements about “nullification” of Federal Laws by certain states. Later, he criticizes the Senate rules because they were used by Southern Senators to prevent Civil Rights laws from passing.

I think that this piece of Caro’s book provides an indication that deliberation “privileged” by certain rules can also distort some of the preferences of the “majority”.

Comments on this entry are closed.