Cognitive Democracy

by Henry Farrell on May 23, 2012

Over the last couple of years, Cosma Shalizi and I have been working together on various things, including, _inter alia_, the relationship between complex systems, democracy and the Internet. These are big unwieldy topics, and trying to think about them systematically is hard. Even so, we’ve gotten to the point where we at least feel ready to start throwing stuff at a wider audience, to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a paper we’re working on, which argues that we should (for some purposes at least), think of markets, hierarchy and democracy in terms of their capacity to solve complex collective problems, makes the case that democracy will on average do the job _a lot better_ than the other two ways, and then looks at different forms of collective information processing on the Internet as experiments that democracies can learn from. A html version is under the fold; the PDF version is here. Your feedback would very much be appreciated – we would like to build other structures on top of this foundation, and hence, really, _really_ want criticisms and argument from diverse points of view (especially because such argument is exactly what we see as the strength of democratic arrangements).

Cognitive Democracy

Henry Farrell (George Washington University) and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi (Carnegie-Mellon/The Santa Fe Institute)

In this essay, we outline a cognitive approach to democracy. Specifically, we argue that democracy has unique benefits as a form of collective problem solving in that it potentially allows people with highly diverse perspectives to come together in order collectively to solve problems. Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies, because it brings these diverse perceptions into direct contact with each other, allowing forms of learning that are unlikely either through the price mechanism of markets or the hierarchical arrangements of bureaucracy. Furthermore, democracy can, by experimenting, take advantage of novel forms of collective cognition that are facilitated by new media.

Much of what we say is synthetic – our normative arguments build on both the academic literature (Joshua Cohen’s and Josiah Ober’s arguments about epistemic democracy; Jack Knight and James Johnson’s pragmatist account of the benefits of a radically egalitarian democracy and Elster and Landemore’s forthcoming collection on Collective Wisdom), and on arguments by public intellectuals such as Steven Berlin Johnson, Clay Shirky, Tom Slee and Chris Hayes. We also seek to contribute to new debates on the sources of collective wisdom. Throughout, we emphasize the cognitive benefits of democracy, building on important results from cognitive science, from sociology, from machine learning and from network theory.

We start by explaining social institutions should do. Next, we examine sophisticated arguments that have been made in defense of markets (Hayek’s theories about catallaxy) and hierarchy (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s ‘libertarian paternalism’) and discuss their inadequacies. The subsequent section lays out our arguments in favor of democracy, illustrating how democratic procedures have cognitive benefits that other social forms do not. The penultimate section discusses how democracy can learn from new forms of collective consensus formation on the Internet, treating these forms not as ideals to be approximated, but as imperfect experiments, whose successes and failures can teach us about the conditions for better decision making; this is part of a broader agenda for cross-disciplinary research involving computer scientists and democratic theorists.

Justifying Social Institutions

What are broad macro-institutions such as politics, markets and hierarchies good for? Different theorists have given very different answers to this question. The dominant tradition in political theory tends to evaluate them in terms of justice – whether institutions use procedures, or give results, that can be seen as just according to some reasonable normative criterion. Others, perhaps more cynically, have focused on their potential contribution to stability – whether they produce an acceptable level of social order, which minimizes violence and provides some modicum of predictability. In this essay, we analyze these institutions according to a different criterion. We start with a pragmatist question – whether these institutions are useful in helping us to solve difficult social problems.1

Some of the problems that we face in politics are simple ones (not in the sense that solutions are easy, but in the sense that they are simple to analyze). However, the most vexing problems are usually ones without any very obvious solutions. How do we change legal rules and social norms in order to mitigate the problems of global warming? How do we regulate financial markets so as to minimize the risk of new crises emerging, and limit the harm of those that happen? How do we best encourage the spread of human rights internationally?

These problems are pressing — yet they are difficult to think about systematically, let alone solve. They all share two important features. First, they are all social problems. That is, they are problems which involve the interaction of large numbers of human beings, with different interests, desires, needs and perspectives. Second, as a result, they are complex problems, in the sense that scholars of complexity understand the term. To borrow Scott Page’s (2011, p.25) definition, they involve “diverse entities that interact in a network or contact structure.2 They are a result of behavior that is difficult to predict, so that consequences to changing behavior are extremely hard to map out in advance. Finding solutions is difficult, and even when we find one, it is hard to know whether it is good in comparison to other possible solutions, let alone the best.

We argue that macro-institutions will best be able to tackle these problems if they have two features. First, they should foster a high degree of direct communication between individuals with diverse viewpoints. This kind of intellectual diversity is crucial to identifying good solutions to complex problems. Second, we argue that they should provide relative equality among affected actors in decision-making processes, so as to prevent socially or politically powerful groups from blocking socially beneficial changes to the detriment of their own particular interests.

We base these contentions on two sets of arguments, one from work on collective problem solving, the other from theories of political power. Both are clarified if we think of the possible solutions to a difficult problem as points on a landscape, where we seek the highest point. Difficult problems present many peaks, solutions that are better than the points close to them. Such landscapes are rugged — they have some degree of organization, but are not so structured that simple algorithms can quickly find the best solution. There is no guarantee that any particular peak is globally optimal (i.e. the best solution across the entire landscape) rather than locally optimal (the best solution within a smaller subset of the landscape).

Solving a complex problem involves a search across this landscape for the best visible solutions. Individual agents have limited cognitive abilities, and (usually) limited knowledge of the landscape. Both of these make them likely to get stuck at local optima, which may be much worse than even other local peaks, let alone the global optimum. Less abstractly, people may settle for bad solutions, because they do not know better (they cannot perceive other, better solutions), or because they have difficulty in reaching these solutions (e.g. because of coordination problems, or because of the ability of powerful actors to veto possible changes).

Lu Hong and Scott Page (2004) use mathematical models to argue that diversity of viewpoints helps groups find better solutions (higher peaks on the landscape). The intuition is that different individuals, when confronting a problem, “see” different landscapes — they organize the set of possible solutions in different ways, some of which are useful in identifying good peaks, some of which less so. Very smart individuals (those with many mental tools) have better organized landscapes than less smart individuals, and so are less likely to get trapped at inferior local optima. However, at the group level, diversity of viewpoints matters a lot. Page and Hong find that “diversity trumps ability”. Groups with high diversity of internal viewpoints are better able to identify optima than groups composed of much smarter individuals with more homogenous viewpoints. By putting their diverse views together, the former are able to map out more of the landscape and identify possible solutions that would be invisible to groups of individuals with more similar perspectives.

Page and Hong do not model the social processes through which individuals can bring their diverse points of view together into a common framework. However, their arguments surely suggest that actors’ different points of view need to be exposed directly to each other, in order to identify the benefits and drawbacks of different points of view, the ways in which viewpoints can be combined to better advantage, and so on. These arguments are supported by a plethora of work in sociology and elsewhere (Burt, Rossman etc). As we explain at length below, some degree of clumping is also beneficial, so so that individuals with divergent viewpoints do not converge too quickly.

The second issue for collective problem solving is more obvious. Even when groups are able to identify good solutions (relatively high peaks in the solution landscape), they may not be able to reach them. In particular, actors who benefit from the status quo (or who would prefer less generally-beneficial solutions) may be able to use political and social power to block movement towards such peaks, and instead compel movement towards solutions that have lower social and greater individual benefits. Research on problem solving typically does not talk about differences in actors’ interests, or in actors’ ability successfully to pursue their interests. While different individuals initially perceive different aspects of the landscape, researchers assume that once they are able to communicate with each other, they will all agree on how to rank visible solutions from best to worst. But actors may have diverse interests as well as diverse understandings of the world (and the two may indeed be systematically linked). They may even be working in such different landscapes, in terms of personal advantage, that one actor’s peak is another’s valley, and vice versa. Moreover, actors may differ in their ability to ensure that their interests are prosecuted. Recent work in political theory (Knight 1992, Johnson and Knight 2011), economics (Bowles and Naidu, 2008), political science (Hacker and Pierson 2010) and sociology details how powerful actors may be able to compel weaker ones to accept solutions that are to the advantage of the former, but that have lower overall social benefits.

Here, relative equality of power can have important consequences. Individuals in settings with relatively equal power relations, are, ceteris paribus more likely to converge on solutions with broad social benefits, and less likely to converge on solutions that benefit smaller groups of individuals at the expense of the majority. Furthermore, equal power relations may not only make it easier to converge on “good” solutions when they have been identified, but may stimulate the process of search for such solutions. Participating in the search for solutions and in decision-making demands resources (at a minimum, time), and if those resources are concentrated in a small set of actors, with similar interests and perspectives, the solutions they will find will be fewer and worse than if a wide variety of actors can also search.

With this in mind, we ask whether different macro-institutions are better, or worse at solving the complex problems that confront modern economies and societies. Institutions will tend to do better to the extent that they both (i) bring together people with different perspectives, and (ii) share decision-making power relatively equally. Our arguments are, obviously, quite broad. We do not speak much to the specifics of how macro-institutions work, instead focusing on the broad logics of these different macro-institutions. Furthermore, we do not look at the ways in which our desiderata interact with other reasonable desiderata (such as social stability, justice and so on). Even so, we think that it is worth clarifying the ways in which different institutions can, or cannot, solve complex problems. In recent decades, for example, many scholars and policy makers have devoted time and energy to advocating markets as the way to address social problems that are too complex to be solved by top-down authority. As we show below, markets, to the extent that they imply substantial power inequalities, and increasingly homogenize human relations, are unlikely to possess the virtues attributed to them, though they can have more particular benefits under specific circumstances. Similarly, hierarchy suffers from dramatic informational flaws. This prompts us to reconsider democracy, not for the sake of justice or stability, but as a tool for solving the complex problems faced by modern societies.

Markets and Hierarchies as Ways to Solve Complex Problems

Many scholars and public intellectuals believe that markets or hierarchies provide better ways to solve complex problems than democracy. Advocates of markets usually build on the groundbreaking work of F. A. von Hayek, to argue that market based forms of organization do a better job of eliciting information and putting it to good work than does collective organization. Advocates of hierarchy do not write from any such unified tradition. However, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have recently made a sophisticated case for the benefits of hierarchy. They advocate a combination of top-down mechanism design and institutions designed to guide choices rather than to constrain them – what they call libertarian paternalism – as a way to solve difficult social problems. Hayek’s arguments are not the only case for markets, and Thaler and Sunstein’s are not the only justification for hierarchy. They are, however, among the best such arguments, and hence provide a good initial way to test the respective benefits of markets, hierarchies and democracies in solving complex problems. If there are better arguments, which do not fall victim to the kinds of problems we point to, we are not aware of them (but would be very happy to be told of them).

Hayek’s account of the informational benefits of markets is groundbreaking. Although it builds on the insights of others (particularly Michael Polanyi), it is arguably the first real effort to analyze how social institutions work as information-processors. Hayek reasons as follows. Much of human knowledge (as Polanyi argues) is practical, and cannot be fully articulated (“tacit”). This knowledge is nonetheless crucial to economic life. Hence, if we are to allocate resources well, we must somehow gather this dispersed, fragmentary, informal knowledge, and make it useful.

Hayek is explicit that no one person can know all that is required to allocate resources properly, so there must be a social mechanism for such information processing. Hayek identifies three possible mechanisms: central planning, planning by monopolistic industries, and decentralized planning by individuals. He argues that the first and second of these break down when we take account of the vast amount of tacit knowledge, which cannot be conveyed to any centralized authority. Centralized or semi-centralized planning are especially poor at dealing with the constant flows of major and minor changes through which an economy (or, as Hayek would prefer, a catallaxy) approaches balance. To deal with such changes, we need people to make the necessary decisions on the spot — but we also need some way to convey the appropriate information about changes in the larger economic system to him or her. The virtue of the price system, for Hayek, is to compress diffuse, even tacit, knowledge about specific changes in specific circumstances into a single index, which can guide individuals as to how they ought respond to changes elsewhere. I do not need to grasp the intimate local knowledge of the farmer who sells me tomatoes in order to decide whether to buy their products. The farmer needs to know the price of fertilizer, not how it is made, or what it could be used for other than tomatoes, or the other uses of the fertilizers’ ingredients. (I do not even need to know the price of fertilizer.) The information that we need, to decide whether to buy tomatoes or to buy fertilizer, is conveyed through prices, which may go up or down, depending on the aggregate action of many buyers or suppliers, each working with her own tacit understandings.

This insight is both crucial and beautiful3, yet it has stark limits. It suggests that markets will be best at conveying a particular kind of information about a particular kind of underlying facts, i.e., the relative scarcity of different goods. As Stiglitz (2000) argues, market signals about relative scarcity are always distorted, because prices embed information about many other economically important factors. More importantly, although information about relative scarcity surely helps markets approach some kind of balance, it is little help in solving more complicated social problems, which may depend not on allocating existing stocks of goods in a useful way, given people’s dispersed local knowledge, so much as discovering new goods or new forms of allocation. More generally, Hayek’s well-known detestation for projects with collective goals lead him systematically to discount the ways in which aggregate knowledge might work to solve collective rather than individual problems.

This is unfortunate. To the extent that markets fulfil Hayek’s criteria, and mediate all relevant interactions through the price mechanism, they foreclose other forms of exchange that are more intellectually fruitful. In particular, Hayek’s reliance on arguments about inarticulable tacit knowledge mean that he leaves no place for reasoned discourse or the useful exchange of views. In Hayek’s markets, people communicate only through prices. The advantage of prices, for Hayek, is that they inform individuals about what others want (or don’t want), without requiring anyone to know anything about anyone else’s plans or understandings. But there are many useful forms of knowledge that cannot readily be conveyed in this way.

Individuals may learn something about those understandings as a by-product of market interactions. In John Stuart Mill’s description:

But the economical advantages of commerce are surpassed in importance by those of its effects which are intellectual and moral. It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact.

However, such contact is largely incidental — people engage in market activities to buy or to sell to best advantage, not to learn. As markets become purer, in both the Hayekian and neo-classical senses, they produce ever less of the contact between different modes of life that Mill regards as salutary. The resurgence of globalization; the creation of an Internet where people who will only ever know each other by their account names buy and sell from each other; the replacement of local understandings with global standards; all these provide enormous efficiency gains and allow information about supply and demand to flow more smoothly. Yet each of them undermines the Millian benefits of commerce, by making it less likely that individuals with different points of view will have those perspectives directly exposed to each other. More tentatively, markets may themselves have a homogenizing impact on differences between individuals and across societies, again reducing diversity. As Albert Hirschman shows, there is a rich, if not unambiguous, literature on the global consequences of market society. Sociologists such as John Meyer and his colleagues find evidence of increased cultural and social convergence across different national contexts, as a result of exposure to common market and political forces.

In addition, it is unclear whether markets in general reduce power inequalities or reinforce them in modern democracies. It is almost certainly true that the spread of markets helped undermine some historical forms of hierarchy, such as feudalism (Marx). It is not clear that they continue to do so in modern democracies. On the one hand, free market participation provides individuals with some ability (presuming equal market access, etc.) to break away from abusive relationships. On the other, markets provide greater voice and choice to those with more money; if money talks in politics, it shouts across the agora. Nor are these effects limited to the marketplace. The market facilitates and fosters asymmetries of wealth which in turn may be directly or indirectly translated into asymmetries of political influence (Lindblom). Untrammeled markets are associated with gross income inequalities, which in turn infects politics with a variety of pathologies. This suggests that markets fail in the broader task of exposing individuals’ differing perspectives to each to each other. Furthermore, markets are at best indifferent levelers of unequal power relations.

Does hierarchy do better? In an influential recent book, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein suggest that it does. They argue that “choice architects”, people who have “responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions,” can design institutions so as to spur people to take better choices rather than worse ones. Thaler and Sunstein are self-consciously paternalist, claiming that flawed behavior and thinking consistently stop people from making the choices that are in their best interests. However, they also find direct control of people’s choices morally opprobrious. Libertarian paternalism seeks to guide but not eliminate choice, so that the easiest option is the “best” choice that individuals would make, if they only had sufficient attention and discipline. It provides paternalistic guidance through libertarian means, shaping choice contexts to make it more likely that individuals will make the right choices rather than the wrong ones.

This is, in Thaler and Sunstein’s words, a politics of “nudging” choices rather than dictating them. Although Thaler and Sunstein do not put it this way, it is also a plea for the benefits of hierarchy in organizations and, in particular, in government. Thaler and Sunstein’s “choice architects” are hierarchical superiors, specifically empowered to create broad schemes that will shape the choices of many other individuals. Their power to do this does not flow from, e.g., accountability to those whose choices get shaped. Instead, it flows from positions of authority within firm or government, which allow them to craft pension contribution schemes within firms, environmental policy within the government, and so on.

Thaler and Sunstein’s recommendations have outraged libertarians, who believe that a nudge is merely a well-aimed shove — that individuals’ freedom will be reduced nearly as much by Thaler and Sunstein’s choice architecture, as it would be by direct coercion. We are also unenthusiastic about libertarian paternalism, but for different reasons. While we do not talk, here, about coercion, we have no particular normative objection to it, provided that it is proportionate, directed towards legitimate ends, and constrained by well-functioning democratic controls. Instead, we worry that the kinds of hierarchy that Thaler and Sunstein presume actively inhibit the unconstrained exchange of views that we see as essential to solving complex problems.

Bureaucratic hierarchy is an extraordinary political achievement. States with clear, accountable hierarchies can achieve vast and intricate projects, and businesses use hierarchies to coordinate highly complex chains of production and distribution.4 Even so, there are reasons why bureaucracies have few modern defenders. Hierarchies rely on power asymmetries to work. Inferiors take orders from superiors, in a chain of command leading up to the chief executive officer (in firms) or some appointed or non-appointed political actor (in government). This is good for pushing orders down the chain, but notoriously poor at transmitting useful information up, especially kinds of information superiors did not anticipate wanting. As scholars from Max Weber on have emphasized, bureaucracies systematically encourage a culture of conformity in order to increase predictability and static efficiency.

Thaler and Sunstein presume a hierarchy in which orders are followed and policies are implemented, but ignore what this implies about feedback. They imagine hierarchically-empowered architects shaping the choices of a less well-informed and less rational general population. They discuss ordinary people’s bad choices at length. However, they have remarkably little to say about how it is that the architects housed atop the hierarchy can figure out better choices on these individuals’ behalf, or how the architectures can actually design choice systems that will encourage these choices. Sometimes, Thaler and Sunstein suggest that choice architects can rely on introspection: “Libertarian paternalists would like to set the default by asking what reflective employees in Janet’s position would actually want.” At other times, they imply that choice architects can use experimental techniques. The book’s opening analogy proposes a set of experiments, in which the director of food services for a system “with hundreds of schools” (p. 1), “who likes to think about things in non-traditional ways,” experiments with different arrangements of food in order to discover which displays encourage kids to pick the healthier options. Finally, Thaler and Sunstein sometimes argue that choice architects can use results from the social sciences to find optima.

One mechanism of information gathering that they systematically ignore is active feedback from citizens. Although they argue in passing that feedback from choice architects can help guide consumers, e.g., giving information about the content of food, or by shaping online interactions to ensure that people are exposed to others’ points of view, they have no place for feedback from the individuals whose choices are being manipulated to help guide the choice architects, let alone to constrain them. As Suzanne Mettler (2011) has pointed out, Thaler and Sunstein depict citizens as passive consumers, who need to be guided to the desired outcomes, rather than active participants in democratic decision making.

This also means that Thaler and Sunstein’s proposals don’t take advantage of diversity. Choice architects, located within hierarchies which tend generically to promote conformity, are likely to have a much more limited range of ways of understanding problems than the population whose choices they are seeking to structure. In Scott Page’s terms, these actors are may very “able” — they will have sophisticated and complex heuristics, so that each individual choice architect is better able than each individual member of the population to see a large portion of the landscape of possible choices and outcomes. However, the architects will be very similar to each other in background and training, so that as a group they will see a far more limited set of possibilities than a group of randomly selected members of the population (who are likely to have less sophisticated but far more diverse heuristics). Cultural homogeneity among hierarchical elites helps create policy disasters (the “best and brightest” problem). Direct involvement of a wider selection of actors with more diverse heuristics would alleviate this problem.

However, precisely because choice architects rely on hierarchical power to create their architectures, they will have difficulty in eliciting feedback, even if they want to. Inequalities of power notoriously dampen real exchanges of viewpoints. Hierarchical inferiors within organizations worry about contradicting their bosses. Ordinary members of the public are uncomfortable when asked to contradict experts or officials. Work on group decision making (including, e.g., Sunstein 2003) is full of examples of how perceived power inequalities lead less powerful actors either to remain silent, or merely to affirm the views of more powerful actors, even when they have independently valuable perspectives or knowledge.

In short, libertarian paternalism is flawed, not because it restricts peoples’ choices, but because it makes heroic assumptions about choice architects’ ability to figure out what the actual default choices should be, and blocks their channels for learning better. Choice architects will be likely to share a narrow range of sophisticated heuristics, and to have difficulty in soliciting feedback from others with more diverse heuristics, because of their hierarchical superiority and the unequal power relations that this entails. Libertarian paternalism may still have value in situations of individual choice, where people likely do “want” e.g. to save more or take more exercise, but face commitment problems, or when other actors have an incentive to misinform these people or to structure their choices in perverse ways in the absence of a ‘good’ default choice. However, it will be far less useful, or even actively pernicious, in complex situations, where many actors with different interests make interdependent choices. Indeed, Thaler and Sunstein are far more convincing when they discuss how to encourage people to choose appropriate pension schemes than when they suggest that environmental problems are the “outcome of a global choice architecture system” that could be usefully rejiggered via a variety of voluntaristic mechanisms.

Democracy as a way to solve complex problems

Is democracy better at identifying solutions to complex problems? Many — even on the left — doubt that it is. They point to problems of finding common ground and of partisanship, and despair of finding answers to hard questions. The dominant tradition of American liberalism actually has considerable distaste for the less genteel aspects of democracy. The early 20th century Progressives and their modern heirs deplore partisanship and political rivalry, instead preferring technocracy, moderation and deliberation (Rosenblum 2008). Some liberals (e.g., Thaler and Sunstein) are attracted to Hayekian arguments for markets and libertarian paternalist arguments for hierarchy exactly because they seem better than the partisan rancor of democratic competition.

We believe that they are wrong, and democracy offers a better way of solving complex problems. Since, as we’ve argued, power asymmetries inhibit problem-solving, democracy has a large advantage over both markets and technocratic hierarchy. The fundamental democratic commitment is to equality of power over political decision making. Real democracies do not deliver on this commitment any more than real markets deliver perfect competition, or real hierarchies deliver an abstractly benevolent interpretation of rules. But a commitment to democratic improvements is a commitment to making power relations more equal, just as a commitment to markets is to improving competition, and a commitment to hierarchy (in its positive aspects) is a commitment to greater disinterestedness. This implies that a genuine commitment to democracy is a commitment to political radicalism. We embrace this.

Democracy, then, is committed to equality of power; it is also well-suited to exposing points of view to each other in a way that leads to identifying better solutions. This is because democracy also involves debate. In competitive elections and in more intimate discussions, democratic actors argue over which proposals are better or worse, exposing their different perspectives to each other.

Yet at first glance, this interchange of perspectives looks ugly: it is partisan, rancorous and vexatious, and people seem to never change their minds. This leads some on the left to argue that we need to replace traditional democratic forms with ones that involve genuine deliberation, where people will strive to be open-minded, and to transcend their interests. These aspirations are hopelessly utopian. Such impartiality can only be achieved fleetingly at best, and clashes of interest and perception are intrinsic to democratic politics.

Here, we concur with Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s important recent book (2011), which argues that politics is a response to the problem of diversity. Actors with differing — indeed conflicting — interests and perceptions find that their fates are bound together, and that they must make the best of this. Yet, Knight and Johnson argue, politics is also a matter of seeking to harness diversity so as to generate useful knowledge. They specifically do not argue that democracy requires impartial deliberation. Instead, they claim that partial and self-interested debate can have epistemological benefits. As they describe it, “democratic decision processes make better use of the distributed knowledge that exists in a society than do their rivals” such as market coordination or judicial decision making (p. 151). Knight and Johnson suggest that approaches based on diversity, such as those of Scott Page and Elizabeth Anderson, provide a better foundation for thinking about the epistemic benefits of democracy than the arguments of Condorcet and his intellectual heirs.

We agree. Unlike Hayek’s account of markets, and Thaler and Sunstein’s account of hierarchy, this argument suggests that democracy can both foster communication among individuals with highly diverse viewpoints. This is an argument for cognitive democracy, for democratic arrangements that take best advantage of the cognitive diversity of their population. Like us, Knight and Johnson stress the pragmatic benefits of equality. Harnessing the benefits of diversity means ensuring that actors with a very wide range of viewpoints have the opportunity to express their views and to influence collective choice. Unequal societies will select only over a much smaller range of viewpoints — those of powerful people. Yet Knight and Johnson do not really talk about the mechanisms through which clashes between different actors with different viewpoints result in better decision making. Without such a theory, it could be that conflict between perspectives results in worse rather than better problem solving. To make a good case for democracy, we not only need to bring diverse points of view to the table, but show that the specific ways in which they are exposed to each other have beneficial consequences for problem solving.

There is micro-level work which speaks to this issue. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber (2011) advance a purely ‘argumentative’ account of reasoning, on which reasoning is not intended to reach right answers, but rather to evaluate the weaknesses of others’ arguments and come up with good arguments to support one’s own position. This explains both why confirmation bias and motivated reasoning are rife, and why the quality of argument is significantly better when actors engage in real debates. Experimentally, individual performance when reasoning in non-argumentative settings is ‘abysmal,’ but is ‘good’ in argumentative settings. This, in turn, means that groups are typically better in solving problems than is the best individual within the group . Indeed, where there is diversity of opinion, confirmation bias can have positive consequences in pushing people to evaluate and improve their arguments in a competitive setting.

When one is alone or with people who hold similar views, one’s arguments will not be critically evaluated. This is when the confirmation bias is most likely to lead to poor outcomes. However, when reasoning is used in a more felicitous context, that is, in arguments among people who disagree but have a common interest in the truth, the confirmation bias contributes to an efficient form of division of cognitive labor. When a group has to solve a problem, it is much more efficient if each individual looks mostly for arguments supporting a given solution. They can then present these arguments to the group, to be tested by the other members. This method will work as long as people can be swayed by good arguments, and the results reviewed … show that this is generally the case. This joint dialogic approach is much more efficient than one where each individual on his or her own has to examine all possible solutions carefully (p. 65).

A separate line of research in experimental social psychology (Nemeth et al. (2004), Nemeth and Ormiston (2007), and Nemeth (2012)) indicates that problem-solving groups produce more solutions, which outsiders assess as better and more innovative, when they contain persistent dissenting minorities, and are encouraged to engage in, rather than refrain from, mutual criticism. (Such effects can even be seen in school-children: see Mercer, 2000.) This, of course, makes a great deal of sense from Mercier and Sperber’s perspective.

This provides micro-level evidence that political argument will improve problem solving, even if we are skeptical about human beings’ ability to abstract away from their specific circumstances and interests. Neither a commitment to deliberation, nor even standard rationality is required for argument to help solve problems.[^nemeth] This has clear implications for democracy, which forces actors with very different perspectives to engage with each others’ viewpoints. Even the most homogenous-seeming societies contain great diversity of opinion and of interest (the two are typically related) within them. In a democracy, no single set of interests or perspectives is likely to prevail on its own. Sometimes, political actors have to build coalitions with others holding dissimilar views, a process which requires engagement between these views. Sometimes, they have to publicly contend with others holding opposed perspectives in order to persuade uncommitted others to favor their interpretation, rather than another. Sometimes, as new issues arise, they have to persuade even their old allies of how their shared perspectives should be reinterpreted anew.

More generally, many of the features of democracy that skeptical liberals deplore are actually of considerable benefit. Mercier and Sperber’s work provides microfoundations for arguments about the benefits of political contention, such as John Stuart Mill’s, and of arguments for the benefits of partisanship, such as Nancy Rosenblum’s (2008) sympathetic critique and reconstruction of Mill. Their findings suggest that the confirmation bias that political advocates have are subject to can have crucial benefits, so long as it is tempered by the ability to evaluate good arguments in context.

Other work suggests that the macro-structures of democracies too can have benefits. Lazer and Friedman (2007) find on the basis of simulations that problem solvers connected via linear networks (in which there are few links) will find better solutions over the long run than problem solvers connected via totally connected networks (in which there all nodes are linked to each other). In a totally connected network, actors copy the best immediately visible solution quickly, driving out diversity from the system, while in a linear network, different groups explore the space around different solutions for a much longer period, making it more likely that they will identify better solutions that were not immediately apparent. Here, the macro-level structure of the network does the same kind of work that confirmation bias does in Mercier and Sperber’s work – it preserves diversity and encourages actors to keep exploring solutions that may not have immediate payoffs.5

This work offers a cognitive justification for the macro-level organization of democratic life around political parties. Party politics tends to organize debate into intense clusters of argument among people (partisans for the one or the other party) who agree in broad outline about how to solve problems, but who disagree vigorously about the specifics. Links between these clusters are much rarer than links within them, and are usually mediated by competition. Under a cognitive account, one might see each of these different clusters as engaged in exploring the space of possibilities around a particular solution, maintaining some limited awareness of other searches being performed within other clusters, and sometimes discreetly borrowing from them in order to improve competitiveness, but nonetheless preserving an essential level of diversity (cf. Huckfeldt et al., 2004). Such very general considerations do not justify any specific partisan arrangement, as there may be better (or worse) arrangements available. What it does is highlight how party organization and party competition can have benefits that are hard or impossible to match in a less clustered and more homogenous social setting. Specifically, it shows how partisan arrangements can be better at solving complex problems than non-partisan institutions, because they better preserve and better harness diversity.

This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies. Notably, we do not make heroic claims about people’s ability to deliberate in some context that is free from faction and self-interest. Instead, even under realistic accounts of how people argue, democratic argument will have cognitive benefits, and indeed can transform private vices (confirmation bias) into public virtues (the preservation of cognitive diversity)6. Democratic structures – such as political parties – that are often deplored turn out to have important cognitive advantages.

Democratic experimentalism and the Internet

As we have emphasized several times, we have no reason to think that actually-existing democratic structures are as good as they could be, or even close. If nothing else, designing institutions is, itself, a highly complex problem, where even the most able decision-makers have little ability to foresee the consequences of their actions. Even when an institution works well at one time, the array of other institutions, social and physical conditions in which it must function is constantly changing. Institutional design and reform, then, is unavoidably a matter of more or less ambitious “piecemeal social experiments”, to use the phrase of Popper (1957). As emphasized by Popper, and by independently by Knight and Johnson, one of the strengths of democracy is its ability to make, monitor, and learn from such experiments.7 (Knight and Johnson particularly emphasize the difficulty markets have in this task.) Democracies can, in fact, experiment with their own arrangements.

For several reasons, the rise of the Internet makes this an especially propitious time for experimenting with democratic structures themselves. The means available for communication and information-processing are obviously going to change the possibilities for collective decision-making. (Bureaucracy was not an option in the Old Stone Age, nor representative democracy without something like cheap printing.) We do not yet know the possibilities of Internet-mediated communication for gathering dispersed knowledge, for generating new knowledge, for complex problem-solving, or for collective decision-making, but we really ought to find out.

In fact, we are already starting to find out. People are building systems to accomplish all of these tasks, in narrower or broader domains, for their own reasons. Wikipedia is, of course, a famous example of allowing lots of more-or-less anonymous people to concentrate dispersed information about an immense range of subjects, and to do so both cheaply and reliably8. Crucially, however, it is not unique. News-sharing sites like Digg, Reddit, etc. are ways of focusing collective attention and filtering vast quantities of information. Sites like StackExchange have become a vital part of programming practice, because they encourage the sharing of know-how about programming, with the same system spreading to many other technical domains. The knowledge being aggregated through such systems is not tacit, rather it is articulated and discursive, but it was dispersed and is now shared. Similar systems are even being used to develop new knowledge. One mode of this is open-source software development, but it is also being used in experiments like the Polymath Project for doing original mathematics collaboratively9.

At a more humble level, there are the ubiquitous phenomena of mailing lists, discussion forums, etc., etc., where people with similar interests discuss them, on basically all topics of interest to people with enough resources to get on-line. These are, largely inadvertently, experiments in developing collective understandings, or at least shared and structured disagreements, about these topics.

All such systems have to face tricky problems of coordinating their computational architecture, their social organization, and their cognitive functions (Shalizi, 2007; Farrell and Schwartzberg, 2008). They need ways of of making findings (or claims) accessible, of keeping discussion productive, and so forth and so on. (Often, participants are otherwise strangers to each other, which is at the least suggestive of the problems of trust and motivation which will face efforts to make mass democracy more participative.) This opens up an immense design space, which is still very poorly understood — but almost certainly presents a rugged search landscape, with an immense number of local maxima and no very obvious path to the true peaks. (It is even possible that the landscape, and so the peaks, could vary with the subject under debate.) One of the great aspects of the current moment, for cognitive democracy, is that it has become (comparatively) very cheap and easy for such experiments to be made online, so that this design space can be explored.

There are also online ventures which are failures, and these, too, are informative. They range from poorly-designed sites which never attract (or actively repel) a user base, or produce much of value, to online groupings which are very successful in their own terms, but are, cognitively, full of fail, such as thriving communities dedicated to conspiracy theories. These are not just random, isolated eccentrics, but highly structured communities engaged in sharing and developing ideas, which just so happen to be very bad ideas. (See, for instance, Bell et al. (2006) on the networks of those who share delusions that their minds are being controlled by outside forces.) If we want to understand what makes successful online institutions work, and perhaps even draw lessons for institutional design more generally, it will help tremendously to contrast the successes with such failures.

The other great aspect for learning right now is that all these experiments are leaving incredibly detailed records. People who use these sites or systems leave detailed, machine-accessible traces of their interactions with each other, even ones which tell us about what they were thinking. This is an unprecedented flood of detail about experiments with collective cognition, and indeed with all kinds of institutions, and about how well they served various functions. Not only could we begin to just observe successes and failures, but we can probe the mechanisms behind those outcomes.

This points, we think, to a very clear constructive agenda. To exaggerate a little, it is to see how far the Internet enables modern democracies to make as much use of their citizens’ minds as did Ober’s Athens. We want to learn from existing online ventures in collective cognition and decision-making. We want to treat these ventures are, more or less, spontaneous experiments10, and compare the success and failures (including partial successes and failures) to learn about institutional mechanisms which work well at harnessing the cognitive diversity of large numbers of people who do not know each other well (or at all), and meet under conditions of relative equality, not hierarchy. If this succeeds, what we learn from this will provide the basis for experimenting with the re-design of democratic institutions themselves.

We have, implicitly, been viewing institutions through the lens of information-processing. To be explicit, the human actions and interactions which instantiate an institution also implement abstract computations (Hutchins, 1995). Especially when designing institutions for collective cognition and decision-making, it is important to understand them as computational processes. This brings us to our concluding suggestions about some of the ways social science and computer science can help each other.

Hong and Page’s work provides a particularly clear, if abstract, formalization of the way in which diverse individual perspectives or heuristics can combine for better problem-solving. This observation is highly familiar in machine learning, where the large and rapidly-growing class of “ensemble methods” work, explicitly, by combining multiple imperfect models, which helps only because the models are different (Domingos, 1999) — in some cases it helps exactly to the extent that the models are different (Krogh and Vedelsby, 1995). Different ensemble techniques correspond to different assumptions about the capacities of individual learners, and how to combine or communicate their predictions. The latter are typically extremely simplistic, and understanding the possibilities of non-trivial organizations for learning seems like a crucial question for both machine learning and for social science.

Conclusions: Cognitive Democracy

Democracy, we have argued, has a capacity unmatched among other macro-structures to actually experiment, and to make use of cognitive diversity in solving complex problems. To make the best use of these potentials, democratic structures must themselves be shaped so that social interaction and cognitive function reinforce each other. But the cleverest institutional design in the world will not help unless the resources — material, social, cultural — needed for participation are actually broadly shared. This is not, or not just, about being nice or equitable; cognitive diversity is itself a resource, a source of power, and not something we can afford to waste.

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  1. Two qualifications are in order. First, we don’t think that justice and social order are unimportant. If our arguments imply social institutions that are either profoundly unjust or likely to cause socially devastating instability, they are open to challenge on these alternative normative criteria. Second, our normative arguments about what these institutions are good for should not be taken as an empirical statement about how these institutions have come into being. Making institutions, like making sausages and making laws, is usually an unpleasant process.[return to main text]

  2. Much more could of course be said about the meaning of the term “complexity”. In particular, it may later be useful to look at formal measures of the intrinsic complexity of problems in terms of the resources required to solve them (“computational complexity” theory, see Moore and Mertens), or the degree of behavioral flexibility of systems, such as interacting decision-makers (Badii and Politi; Shalizi, Klinkner and Haslinger). We should also note here that several decades of work in experimental psychology indicates that groups are better at problem-solving than the best individuals within the group (Laughlin, 2011). We do not emphasize this interesting experimental tradition, however, because it is largely concerned with problems which are, in our terms, rather simple, and so suitable to the psychology laboratory.[return to main text]

  3. Imagine trying to discover whether a locally-grown tomato in Pittsburgh is better, from the point of view of greenhouse-gas emission, than one imported from Florida. After working out the differences in emissions from transport, one has to consider the emissions involved in growing the tomatoes in the first place, the emissions-cost of producing different fertilizers, farm machinery, etc., etc. The problem quickly becomes intractable — and this is before a consumer with limited funds must decide how much a ton of emitted carbon dioxide is worth to them. Let there be a price on greenhouse-gas emission, however, and the whole informational problem disappears, or rather gets solved implicitly by ordinary market interactions.[return to main text]

  4. “Thus bridges are built; harbours open’d; ramparts rais’d; canals form’d; fleets equip’d; and armies disciplin’d every where, by the care of government, which, tho’ compos’d of men subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, which is, in some measure, exempted from all these infirmities.” — Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part II, sect. vii.[return to main text]

  5. Broadly similar results have come from experiments on learning and problem-solving in controlled networks of human subjects in the laboratory (Mason et al., 2008; Judd et al., 2010; Mason and Watts, 2012). However, we are not aware of experiments on human subjects which have deliberately varied network structure in a way directly comparable to Lazer and Friedman’s simulations. We also note that using multiple semi-isolated sub-populations (“islands”) is a common trick in evolutionary optimization, precisely to prevent premature convergence on sub-optimal solution (Mitchell, 1996).[return to main text]

  6. This resonates with Karl Popper’s insistence (1957, 1963) that, to the extent science is rational and objective, it is not because individual scientists are disinterested, rational, etc. — he knew perfectly well that individual scientists are often pig-headed and blinkered — but because of the way the social organization of scientific communities channels scientists’ ambition and contentiousness. The reliability of science is an emergent property of scientific institutions, not of scientists.[return to main text]

  7. Bureaucracies can do experiments, such as field trials of new policies, or “A/B” tests of new procedures, now quite common with Internet companies. (See, e.g., the discussion of such experiments in Pfeffer and Sutton.) Power hierarchies, however, are big obstacles to experimenting with options which would upset those power relations, or threaten the interests of those high in the hierarchy. Market-based selection of variants (explored by Nelson and Winter, 1982) also has serious limits (see e.g., Blume and Easley). There are, after all, many reasons why there are no markets in alternative institutions. E.g., even if such a market could get started, it would be a prime candidate efficiency-destroying network externalities, leading at best to monopolistic competition. (Cf.¬ Shapiro and Varian’s advice to businesses about manipulating standards-setting processes.)[return to main text]

  8. Empirically, most of the content of Wikipedia seems to come from a large number of users each of whom makes a substantial contribution or contributions to a very small number of articles. The needed formatting, clean-up, coordination, etc., on the other hand, comes disproportionately from a rather small number of users very dedicated to Wikipedia (see Swartz, 2006). On the role of internal norms and power in the way Wikipedia works, see Farrell and Schwartzberg (2008).[return to main text]

  9. For an enthusiastic and intelligent account of ways in which the Internet might be used to enhance the practice of science, see Nielsen. (We cannot adequately explore, here, how scientific disciplines fit into our account of institutions and democratic processes.)[return to main text]

  10. Obviously, the institutions people volunteer to participate in on-line will depend on their pre-existing characteristics, and it would be naive to ignore this. We cannot here go into strategies for causal inference in the face of such endogenous selection bias, which is pretty much inescapable in social networks (Shalizi and Thomas, 2011). Deliberate experimentation with online institutional arrangements is attractive, if it could be done effectively and ethically (cf. Salganik et al., 2006).[return to main text]



Sherman Dorn (Tampa) 05.23.12 at 7:49 pm

Wow. You’re going to make me read and think this summer, aren’t you? First thought for additional reading: Steve Weber, The Success of Open Source (2004), which talks about open-source development as a method of collective problem-solving.


david 05.23.12 at 8:10 pm

We base these contentions on two sets of arguments, one from work on collective problem solving, the other from theories of political power. Both are clarified if we think of the possible solutions to a difficult problem as points on a landscape, where we seek the highest point. Difficult problems present many peaks, solutions that are better than the points close to them. Such landscapes are rugged—- they have some degree of organization, but are not so structured that simple algorithms can quickly find the best solution. There is no guarantee that any particular peak is globally optimal (i.e. the best solution across the entire landscape) rather than locally optimal (the best solution within a smaller subset of the landscape).

A paragraph like this implies an argument that engages at a similar level of rigorous detail that the peak-finding algorithm of ‘cognitive democracy’ actually finds peaks better than some corresponding stylized algorithm of ‘libertarian paternalism’ or Hayekian revelatory tatonnement.

Then the text moves off in a rather literary, handwavy fashion. Exactly one macro-structure simulation study is cited and microfoundations assumed in this study are never explained. Citations of the nature “these results surely suggest…” are highly unconvincing given that results in the arena of aggregate behavior are notoriously sensitive to assumed microfoundations, so unless a broad literature already exists to suggest that good outcomes are easy to achieve under some behaviors arguably similar to ‘cognitive democracy’, the text itself must provide the argument.

Nothing intrinsically wrong with this – god knows Hayekians love to engage in literary discourse – but if so, why bother to allude to all the peak-finding and rugged landscapes? The text never actually draws upon the formalism it suggests. Unless this is the intro chapter to a future book we’re not told about.


gabrielfgm 05.23.12 at 8:46 pm

A few quick thoughts.

In your critique of the market’s ability to communicate information effectively I thought I would find you bringing up distinctions between real and effective demand. It would seem to fit nicely and to highlight these types of problems e.g. by communicating demand for medication through prices we end up with many cures for ED and not enough for TB.

In your discussion of democratic systems of decision making, I was expecting you to talk more about voting. Most of what you talk about seems to focus on institutions like internet discussion forums or within party debates, where heterodox perspectives can be voiced in an egalitarian manner. But this is only evidence of a democratic problem-solving advantage if the best solution is picked by the majority once its produced in this setting. In other words, we need voting as the decision mechanism that causes the institution to “solve” the complex problem by picking the optimal solution. Does voting do this? As you point out in the paper, in some situations people prefer socially suboptimal but privately optimal solutions. In other words, people will not have uniform preferences on any one issue. In addition, in democratic systems people vote across bundles of issues, where on each issue people will be varyingly for or against the socially optimal proposal. When I vote for Obama, in some sense this sends a signal that I approve of his policy on Guantanamo, although of course I don’t, but because issues are bundled and voting is a binary signal I can’t be more articulate in a democratic system. Obviously I can mouth off on the internet, but is that something intrinsic to democratic systems or intrinsic to egalitarian social networks like the internet? Maybe I’m hopelessly confused, but I feel as though the degree to which the advantageous problem-solving system your describing is democratic needs to be more rigorously defended, or else it feels more like an argument for egalitarian networks of communication than for democracy as such.


Luke 05.23.12 at 8:48 pm

“Mercier and Sperber’s work provides microfoundations for arguments about the benefits of political contention, such as John Stuart Mill’s, and of arguments for the benefits of partisanship, such as Nancy Rosenblum’s (2008) sympathetic critique and reconstruction of Mill. Their findings suggest that the confirmation bias that political advocates have are subject to can have crucial benefits, so long as it is tempered by the ability to evaluate good arguments in context.”

More needs to be said about of what exactly the “ability to evaluate good arguments in context” consists. Perhaps the original articles do so, but it would be nice to have a brief reconstruction here. Without one, it becomes hard to tell what separates a good healthy political party and a cult or conspiracy theory discussion group.

It seems to me that fleshing out this ability might be more difficult than it at first seems, because there is an inherent tension between confirmation bias and the cognitive modesty required to be convinced by a good argument.


david 05.23.12 at 8:57 pm

Also, Shalizi has put his up. It is much easier to read on his site’s formatting, and the footnote links actually work there.


Henry 05.23.12 at 9:11 pm

Footnotes should be fixed – but text will still be easier to read at Cosma’s site (because of his design) or in PDF format than here.


david 05.23.12 at 9:16 pm

Is there some unholy reason why is limited to a fixed width, anyway? Was it cursed to remain so forever back in the forgotten eras of 2003?


ben w 05.23.12 at 9:25 pm

Something trivial: people may call him Josh Ober, but his full name is Josiah, not Joshua.


Henry 05.23.12 at 9:30 pm

Updated with thanks (but not, unfortunately, before emailing him a copy …).



thomas 05.23.12 at 9:47 pm

Vaguely related to David’s comment above, I was dubious about why democracy should be so good (though there’s no problem with it being better than hierarchy or libertarian paternalism).

That is, democracy wasn’t intelligently designed to benefit from human cognitive biases, and these biases didn’t evolve for the purpose of producing good decisions in complex collective problems. If it’s not engineering or evolution, then how come it works so well?

There’s another apparent element of luck, in that we know that there’s no such thing as a uniformly good optimization method — both in the formal (and fairly trivial) sense of the No Free Lunch theorem, and in the practical sense of trying to do optimisation. The role of cognitive biases in providing better global optimisation must be dependent on the problem. In the ‘rugged landscape’ metaphor, cognitive biases ensure that the set of current hypotheses is spread out over the landscape to some extent, but this will only be useful if the spatial scale of the set of hypotheses is roughly right for the spatial scale of the rugged landscape. I can’t see any reason why that should be the case, though it’s nice if it is.

All this suggests that if democracy is really an especially good way to make collective decisions, and if it is really good for the reasons you describe, then we must have been very lucky to come up with it, especially starting from non-democracy. Alternatively, you might expect that among the methods we haven’t tried there are many that are much better than democracy (as well as many more that are much worse).

In other words, is democracy actually good or is it just better than anything else we’ve tried so far?


RowanS 05.23.12 at 10:17 pm

But what if the actors are not trying to solve the same problem? Politician A is trying to reduce global warming and politician B is trying to get reelected, for example. The experiments seem to have clear objectives and methods of validating solutions, and Page’s model assumes that participants can all agree that a particular solution is better than others if they can see it. There must some limit where the discord in the objectives between participants makes hierarchy or markets more effective than democracy, despite the lower diversity of solutions.


Matt 05.23.12 at 10:24 pm

Footnote 7 has a word missing: “E.g., even if such a market could get started, it would be a prime candidate efficiency-destroying network externalities, leading at best to monopolistic competition.”

I think this would greatly benefit from examples. I have seen the sort of informal Internet-mediated debate you mention here deal effectively with smaller problems experts flubbed, i.e. blogs highlighting fraudulent, plagiarized, and/or incoherent results that passed expert review and made it into high-profile scientific journals. I haven’t seen it (demonstrated to) do any better than experts on thorny collective policy problems. I would dearly love to see an example.

I think that finding supporting examples may be difficult. One kind of thorny problem is where good solutions (produced democratically or otherwise) are abundant but vested interests block them: the problems of drawing voting district boundaries and of allowing people to vote freely for representatives without perverse “spoiler effects” on elections are such problems. Another kind is where outcomes are hard to assess and may remain ambiguous after years, such as the effects of various dietary recommendations on obesity. Yet another kind is where solutions are easily verified once they are discovered, and face no entrenched foes, but requires great intellectual work to achieve: solving open problems in mathematics is one example. The Internet may do great things with the last kind of problem, but that kind doesn’t come up much in political decision making. Solving income inequality through politics is not like solving the twin prime conjecture through thinking.


Pete Baker 05.23.12 at 10:41 pm

“In other words, is democracy actually good or is it just better than anything else we’ve tried so far?”

We have an answer to that question from 1947, Churchill natch.

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time

That doesn’t, however, mean that it is consistently good…


straightwood 05.23.12 at 10:46 pm

Something has awakened in academia, but it walks like a zombie. The difficulty is the rejection of radical novelty by actors whose culture is reflexively conservative and who are heavily invested in an inventory of intellectual structure that is likely to be sharply devalued if not rendered moot by a change in human interaction that dwarfs the advent of the printing press.

All of the isms and talking points of pre-Internet politics assume information scarcity and slow information transmission. Thus vast new areas of emerging political structure and theory are to be anticipated in the Internet era, and cumbersome efforts to map old political concepts onto the terra incognita of Internet-based political phenomena are foolish. Academic commentators on the future of politics are gravely mistaken when they consider the Internet as ancillary and their theory inventory as primary. The reality is the reverse.


Alex K. 05.23.12 at 10:52 pm

At the first reading, here are three faults:

1. When it comes to problem solving, the piece suffers from _talk fetishism_. Apparently, all social problems can be solved if we just talk a lot about them.

Meanwhile, in the real world, knowledge is advanced by actual experimentation, with real resources. This means that in a highly complex, nonlinear world, we need distributed resources so that both the genius and the fool can try out their ideas, in the actual social context, with actual resources — sometimes it even proves that the fool was right, and the theoretical emperor had no clothes.

We do have a name for the system with distributed and independently controlled resources, where the results of experimentation are usually available so that the experiment can be imitated or avoided — it’s called the market.

There are hints in the piece about experimentation in democracy, but no clear description of how this would work, who pays for failures, who controls the resources for experimentation etc.

2. Related to the first point, the piece implicitly overrates the solidity of expert knowledge when it comes to social problems. Economists still argue about the causes of the Great Depression, the data is never as good as you want it etc. — we don’t see the emergence of a clear consensus on important issues. Why would a democratic system have better results in finding theoretical truth than academic discussion?

3. You don’t seem to be talking about democracy in the sense of an actual voting mechanism, where neglecting minority views is at the core of the mechanism. I’ll have to read the research about discussions being beneficial even with the presence of biases. In the meantime, a discussion is not a voting procedure, and you need to analyze how large scale voting works before you make comparative claims about different systems. There is little to no such discussion in the piece.


andrew 05.23.12 at 11:13 pm

i like this framing of democracy, as well as of markets and hierarchies, as technologies and tools. I believe that thinking about them merely as ends in themselves or as the “most moral” processes (which is usually how discourse around democracy and free markets – for libertarians of Objectivist bent – are framed) can block thinking. The reason is that there are many different ways in which democracies, markets and hierarchies can be organized (deliberative democracy, participatory democracy; regulated corporatist economy, etc.)

Now, I do think that democracy is a more moral way of organizing a polity, but I think the pragmatic approach of asking how efficient, or more importantly, effective, it is also is an important question.


William Timberman 05.23.12 at 11:41 pm

A true post-industrial politics, one which might be flexible enough to restructure even its most dominant, and most resistant institutions in the face of impending calamity, cannot rely on the benevolence or expertise of a managerial class, be it capitalist, socialist, or teetotalitarian. We must invent new technologies of decentralization, and rediscover the benefits we once understood to be exclusive to democracy — its openness to the contributions of all, and in the collective, its clear-eyed view of the world as it is, unencumbered by the baggage of either privilege or ideology.

I wrote this a couple of years ago, in a fit of romantic despair that seems a bit unbecoming in the present context. I certainly didn’t know it at the time, but it appears that I’ve been waiting all along for folks like you and Cosma to come and help me get my head straight. You’ve certainly done that, as have others here and there — I won’t name names, since a number of them appear in the CT comments threads on a regular basis, and I wouldn’t want to accuse them of being even unwilling partners in my crimes of excess.

To be brief, thank you. It’s interesting, in the midst of our current political squabbles, that the principles you’ve laid out here are equally relevant to all forms of governance — what we think of as management as well as what we think of as government. Maybe we could try them out on the Tea-Partiers and see if they can actually help tame the savage beast.

One last observation: Am I right in thinking that the problem of power gets addressed later? (All good things in time, I know. I just want to see it up on the marquee somewhere.)


bob mcmanus 05.23.12 at 11:42 pm

13,14: Consensus is not knowledge or wisdom, except in academia? Something something Ibsen quote.

But it was a good post, and a lot of fun.


William Timberman 05.24.12 at 12:03 am

Addenda to 17 above;

1) I meant, of course crimes of rhetorical excess. I hardly have the chops for any other kind.

2) People who use administrative convenience as a justification for their decisions should be forced to ride in a tumbril through the streets at least once a year.


tomslee 05.24.12 at 12:38 am

straightwood: All of the isms and talking points of pre-Internet politics assume information scarcity and slow information transmission.

No they don’t.

For someone so keen on innovation you have an amazing ability to return to the same point again and again.


Henry 05.24.12 at 12:44 am

William, bob(?!!?), thanks for the kind words. William – its consonance with a whole lot of conversations on Crooked Timber is no accident. This is, as we acknowledge in the opening bit, _at least_ as much an effort to bring together a bunch of conversations that have been happening, and to discover their places of convergence, as it is to set out our own particular intellectual stall. Obviously, a lot of those conversations have taken place on CT or places nearby. Writing the acknowledgments footnote is going to be a bit of a nightmare, and I’m sure we’ll end up forgetting lots of people who deserve to be thanked.


Henry 05.24.12 at 12:47 am

david – our site does play nice with Readability though – here’s a more readable URL.


Doctor Science 05.24.12 at 12:58 am

I shall make multiple comments as I read. First section:

Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies, because it brings these diverse perceptions into direct contact with each other, allowing forms of learning that are unlikely either through the price mechanism of markets or the hierarchical arrangements of bureaucracy.

I think you mean “than either markets or hierarchies”.

I’m already confused, because first you contrast market & democracy with hierarchy, then you contrast them with bureaucracy.

Hierarchy =/= bureaucracy. The salient feature of “bureaucracy” is organization around a set of rules (regulations, laws). “Hierarchy” is organized around dominance relations. Bureaucracies are usually quite hierarchical, but vice versa is by no means always true. One of the things Fukuyama does quite well is bring out how patrimonial relationships always work against bureaucratic efficiency, even though bureaucracies and patrimonies are both strongly hierarchical.

At this point in the essay I don’t know whether you’re going to be talking about hierarchies or bureaucracies, which is worrying and confusing.


LFC 05.24.12 at 1:12 am

The paper should confront, among other things, the issue of time more directly, ISTM (I caught one mention in a parenthesis). The evidence for the benefits of exchange of diverse views is discussed and for party organization, but what about the point that these activities themselves can come to be dominated by people with the most time to engage in them? (In the intro to his Spheres of Justice, iirc, or perhaps somewhere else in his work, Walzer refers to the committed movement organizer who builds the base etc. and comes to have more influence by virtue of that, even though it conflicts with his (her) ideological commitment to equality.) I suspect most people will engage in democratic deliberation and argument, on the Internet or otherwise, only if “nudged” (sorry) to do so or if they perceive very concrete, immediate benefits to them or if it’s a highly local, NIMBY-type issue. It’s the Wilde “socialism would take too many evenings” problem (alluded to by HF on another thread, I believe). Also, I didn’t see a reference (perhaps I missed it) to the fact that Internet access is itself still distributed somewhat unequally as between income groups etc., even if the focus is limited to ‘developed’ democracies.

A less important point:
News-sharing sites like Digg, Reddit, etc. are ways of focusing collective attention and filtering vast quantities of information.
Nothing guarantees that what someone links on these sites is esp. worth collective attention, so you are thrown back on the argument about diversity I suppose. Except that it takes extra time to flag something on Reddit and not everyone necessarily has the time. (It’s somewhat frustrating to me that the one blog post I’ve written that has been read the most was linked on Reddit by a pseudonymous person, unknown to me. I suppose I myself could have linked some of my other, more worthy (in my view) posts on Reddit, but I couldn’t be bothered to join, etc.) The issue of time, again, albeit in a rather more trivial form.


straightwood 05.24.12 at 1:14 am

For someone so keen on innovation you have an amazing ability to return to the same point again and again.

In case you weren’t paying attention, the Internet is the news that stays new.


LFC 05.24.12 at 1:15 am

p.s. On the positive side, I thought the critique of Hayek and esp. of Thaler/Sunstein very good (not having read either).


Henry Farrell 05.24.12 at 1:27 am

bq. For someone so keen on innovation you have an amazing ability to return to the same point again and again.

I’m re-reading Felix Gilman’s _The Half-Made World_, so that I can fully appreciate his forthcoming _The Rise of Ransom City_ (yay!), and this bit on a victim of one of the Line’s mind-fragmenting noisebombs seems apropos.

bq. She returns again and again to those songs. Based on my observations to date, this is typical of the victims of the bombs. Most of them have one or two fragments of conversation or knowledge remaining, quite arbitrarily; rather like the way in which (so the _Child’s History_ tells me) when the Line bombards an ancient city with explosive rockets, whole districts may be flattened, but sometimes a single fine old church wil be left standing.

I think we have a hypothesis …

On more serious comments – again thanks – this is all very helpful – I will try to write some proper responses tomorrow.


straightwood 05.24.12 at 1:51 am

I think we have a hypothesis …

Of course, only severe brain damage could prevent one from appreciating the brilliance demonstrated by repeatedly deploying the words democracy and markets with such boldness and sweep as to escape any practical meaning. The democracy that sentenced Socrates to death has certainly demonstrated its superior problem solving skills, while the markets that have granted us unparalleled prosperity, security, and the promise of infinite growth can certainly be trusted to allocate resources properly. Once the Internet is employed to strengthen these two great pillars of civilization, society will approach perfection.


shah8 05.24.12 at 1:51 am

Okay, my thoughts…

First and foremost. Metis is hard won. The good stuff? Hard won, with injuries, embarrassment, social isolation, the works. Not everyone really wants to do that, perhaps not even the majority. In a sense, the human history since the Paleolithic Revolution is dominated by a drive to embed coercion that forces *other people* to obtain metis, and use it for the state.


Democracy, in my opinion, is not truly possible without a plenipotentiary and authoritarian substrate. Hopefully constrained. The main reason is that people do not have an unlimited capacity to see others as equals. What’s more, at the beginning of every democratic process is an argument about standing (as any study of African conflicts could attest to). Out of a state of anarchy, democracy works because the participants are self-selecting and who only decided to participate and allow others to participate because extenuating circumstances had dictated that they *must*. Embedded in an overall society, outside constraints, what participants in a democracy generally wishes to do is vote other people off the island, so as to enjoy the benefits of those people’s labor, and admire their own, higher, status.

It’s very hard to stop things like that from happening, within a democratic context because, first and foremost, democracy is labor. The more people in the decision process, the more diverse people in that decision process, the harder it is to come to mutual agreements, and the smaller the rewards are for that labor. What’s more, the slowness of this decision process is vulnerable to smaller, faster voting organs, and subgroups can hijack the overall process. If there are a plentiful supply of morons, authoritarians can hijack the process as well. What’s more, issue salience about standing (say, in regular meetings of G.R.O.S.S.) tend to matter more than anything else in a democratic process, and ignoring that means that some smaller, crazier, minority will go to the mattresses and terrorize everyone else until they are eliminated or co-opted. If those people could be eliminated or contained by their adversaries, then they participate only to make bargains with one of the big groups in which the bigger group allows hostile laws and administrative policies against the deemed out group in exchange for factional support for the large alliance’s policies.

I think that in the end, we will develop some other consensus based politics as a ruling guide rather than democracies. Those are only good while embedded in authoritarian structures, like corps or mafias, where there is someone who stomps down on silliness and forces democratic organs to focus on solving problems rather than creating more of them.


One other thing. In one type of problem, where goods are sorted by preference match, both democracy and markets underperform authoritarian-type expert activities. Charles Stross was talking about this, obliquely, in terms of the publishing market, where market leaders with good taste are necessary for proper market/democratic functions. It’s also a big part of why armies (or any other large coordination quotient group) are authoritarian. The range of choices are too Andes-dense, and dissipation of effort (choosing aims and means) is a real issue.


Bruce Wilder 05.24.12 at 2:11 am

You might profit by turning around a bit, in the spirit of the glass half-full is half-empty, and ask how well your macro-institutions cope with failing to solve complex problems. It is in the long non-solving part of the process of solving complex problems, where democracy may have its decisive edge, because it copes better with the non-solving, resisting the strategic attempts of participants to resolve the persistent conflict of non-solution . . . prematurely.

The emergence of democracy in a monarchy-cum-oligarchy had to invent the legitimacy of loyal opposition for a reason: hierarchy, by itself, simply doesn’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance well enough, and will always insist on dogmas in place of knowledge, faith in place of reason. Markets, curiously, are even less tolerant: the money-back guarantee and criminal law crowd out frauds insufficiently solved problems.

As another commenter pointed out hierarchy ≠ bureaucracy. The latter, like constitutional monarchy, is a child of democracy, the consequence of democracy sorting out which problems are solveable enough, that they can be handed off to bureacracies of experts or private enterprises competing and cooperating in markets. Democracy may have the decisive feature that, because it can tolerate non-solutions longer and more productively, it becomes the residual reservoir for the unsolved, and, also, helps to sort out the more solveable problems, as they are identified as such in the process of solving them, to other macro-institutional venues.


William Timberman 05.24.12 at 2:27 am

Stomping down on silliness sounds like a better idea than it actually is. No, absolutely we can’t dance at the committee meeting — in our benighted age, we seem to have been born knowing this — but maybe if we could….


Stephen Frug 05.24.12 at 2:45 am

Fabulous stuff. Personally I’d like to see more about how this connects to classical pragmatism, especially Dewey, (the main connection I saw in your paper is references to Knight & Johnson), but that would basically be off-topic here and just *my* interests. Overall, this is utterly terrific, not least in its pointing to interesting-sounding work I hadn’t yet read.

One small whine, and and big and unformed question.

Whine: given that the piece *does* point to so much interesting-sounding stuff, could you beef up the works cited a bit? I mean, yeah, googling “Nancy Rosenblum 2008” got me to that result, but there are a lot of ones you discuss, even at length, but don’t include. I know, I know, life is short, bibliographies long, all that. I ought to be grateful you didn’t put them all in anagrams just to make it challenging. Still. If you could. I’d be grateful.

Question: I think I basically agree, generally, with your point of view here. But I am struggling with reconciling it with the U.S. in 2012. Obviously there are a lot of ways you could do this (argue about how we’re not that much of a democracy these days, argue about how things could be worse, point out that you say that there are still ways these systems can mess up and we’re living one out, etc.). Still, I’d like to see something about this — and I suspect you’ll want to add something, if only a paragraph waving it away, since a lot of readers will presumably bring it up.

Again, this isn’t very well formed. But I have something in my head like: If democracy is so bloody cognitively great, what’s the benefit of having to fight about whether global warming is even happening or not while it prepares to roast us all alive — aren’t the interests here so strong that they’re messing up the debate? (Maybe this is a failure of the market buying democracy, and therefore just a market failure…). Which is to say, I appreciate democratic debate in a lot of contexts, including within (say) the sane half of the US political spectrum, but it’s hard to reconcile that with my visceral feelings about how things are so fracked up right now.

Maybe what I’m asking is some attention to the (quite real, pressing and dire) situation that makes people on the left (emotionally if not intellectually) wary of democracy, particularly for those who think (intellectually) that you’re right and democracy is the answer, and then get kind of stuck reading the daily news.

(This is perhaps related to the commentator above who wanted you to mention voting and how ignoring minorities is part of democracy. Also related: you might want to clarify what you do mean by democracy — something more all-encompassing than just voting. Perhaps (to return to my own obsession) a nice quote from Dewey would help here…)

Fabulous stuff. Please post more drafts as you do ’em.


Jed Harris 05.24.12 at 3:07 am

Lots of interesting stuff to reply to in both the essay and the comments, but one big point stands out: Your argument doesn’t argue for democracy in any normal use of the word, but for social formations that don’t use power relations or exchange as primary constitutive elements.

Happily there are such formations and you give examples. Sometimes democracy (in the normal sense of the term) facilitates them, sometimes it is a captive of power relations and/or exchange relations and facilitates those much more.

I agree with the basic points and I’ll restate some that I think are central and add a few observations.

Exchange relations don’t encourage the integration of diverse perspectives nearly as well as some other types of relations (like the arguments on Wikipedia or in a really open open-source project, or one hopes, the comment section of a fertile blog).

You mention that as markets become more efficient in exchange terms, less integration of perspective occurs because (you don’t quite explicitly say) interaction becomes as thin as possible, since thickness generates overhead. You don’t mention that extending exchange relationships to “intellectual property” actually generates strong incentives to avoid integration of perspectives in many cases.

An interesting sort of “market democracy” is generated by institutions that aggregate reviews, which used to exist even in the pre-internet days, but are now pervasive. Are these examples of exchange relations or (your sense of) democracy? Yes. But the ways they deviate from both are important to your thesis.

How does “information processing” by market entities fit into your picture? Newspapers used to be organs of democracy, perhaps we’d want to argue that some other for-profits are now. Also while market interaction between purchasers and producers may be driven to become thinner, interaction between businesses often involves integration of perspectives.

Another of your central points: The power relations that make a bureaucracy or hierarchy work (I agree with some commentors they are not the same animal) also inhibit integration of perspectives, especially from “further down”. This is not specific to hierarchies or bureaucracies, but can arise in any system with a relatively stable monopoly on power in a given domain, for whatever reason. Academic disciplines from time to time ossify in just this way without any clear centralized authority or explicit rules.

Summary: I agree with all the major strokes of your argument, and am happy with most of the supporting evidence. But I think you should free your three alternatives from the somewhat stereotyped definitions you’ve chosen, and focus on their essential structural characteristics — the attributes that generate the dynamics you describe.


shah8 05.24.12 at 3:32 am

*William Timberman* have you ever been on any admin board that governs petty stuff, like, oh, a home-owner’s association? Much of the time, institutional knowledge and forced functioning generally *has* been left to people with enough social power to repress idiots who want to push forward with their own, irrelevant ideas. The democratic function of the board as a whole does tend to be left to some key individual to keep the juices going.


Tom T. 05.24.12 at 4:02 am

It seems to me that a limitation of the argument that democracy is “on average” the best form of decision-making is that that doesn’t provide a guide to which problems are best suited for democratic decision-making and which are better served by markets or hierarchy. In the context of your discussion of the internet, for instance, you mention the achievements of collective and open-source projects, but it’s also the case that Google and Facebook, creatures of the market that crushed their competitors, have set forth solutions to problems of informational organization and communication that have been of great value to society. How do those achievements fit into this discussion? Or, rather, how do we satisfy ourselves that Google and Facebook are “good enough” and that there is no need to pursue a collectively-developed search engine or social network?

As for hierarchy, consider education. Certainly, the problem of how best to educate children and adults is complex and of great societal importance. But is it really the case that education would benefit from more democratic decision-making and a smaller role for “choice architects”? And if not, then on what basis do we recognize it as an exception?


LFC 05.24.12 at 4:11 am

Second thoughts:
I think I probably overstated my point @24 above about the reluctance of people to participate/deliberate/etc. And I would not want to frame this issue in terms of free riding (cf. Tuck’s critique of Olson). But the time question still matters, imo.

shah8 @29: not sure what you have in mind with a ‘plenipotentiary substrate’.


LFC 05.24.12 at 4:26 am

it’s also the case that Google and Facebook, creatures of the market that crushed their competitors, have set forth solutions to problems of informational organization and communication that have been of great value to society.

Speaking of overstatements, I think this is one. Google’s “solution” to the problem of “informational organization” is a search engine of some usefulness but also one that contains quirks, oddities, bizarre tics and various annoying features and that vests a lot of power in algorithm-writers accountable to no one or nothing in particular except their own company’s bottom line. I’ve never used Facebook so I can’t comment on it with much knowledge, but to say it’s been of “great value to society” strikes me as a bit of a stretch. I did see a recent piece in the Atlantic, a bit exaggerated perhaps, criticizing FB, claiming it helps contribute (or at least doesn’t diminish) social atomization, etc. The piece has apparently generated a lot of pushback. (Anyway, it’s OT.)


Omega Centauri 05.24.12 at 4:57 am

I think the key related issues, are insuring that debate participants are good faith seekers after truth (or more optimal solutions). Similar to that, the process needs to somehow cultivate better cognitive methods -i.e. ones that suppress -or at least recognize common cognitive biases. I think this either requires a culture which strongly values good epistemology, or failing that, a hierarchical structure that weeds out bad actors.

As, we have become painfully aware, the American political landscape is seriously lacking in either of those epitestemological control features, and we’ve seen the quality of political debate plummet as a result. Partly the problem stems from too many participants viewing the system as tribal warfare, rather than as a structure for problem solving/truth seeking. As long as the “war” mentality prevails the temptation to use any sort of rhetorical weapon -especially those that are obviously poor epistemologically is too great.


William Timberman 05.24.12 at 5:40 am

shah 8 @ 34

Many, many. (I’m impossibly old.) Nothing you say is untrue, and yes, what you describe is invariably what takes place when the pool of committee participants available is a) small, and b) drawn from a society already impoverished by our present regrettable circumstances. We’re very short on imagination these days, and even shorter on the sense that we don’t need anyone’s permission to engage all our faculties.

Some of us refuse to see these circumstances as permanent. You need to keep an eye on us.


wolfgang 05.24.12 at 6:38 am

You mentioned Wikipedia and open-source projects.
The real history of both confirm a more general statement imho:
Problems are solved (and most work is done) by a small number of dedicated individuals.
(Democratic) systems work well if they bring those 1% who do the actual work (on Linux, Wikipedia etc.) together and ensure that the other 99% do no harm.


shah8 05.24.12 at 7:17 am

Edit War!

It’s smells like>>>big breath intake<<<Cheetos…


Alex 05.24.12 at 10:01 am

This is rather good. To answer one of the criticisms, I think part of the point here is that consensus isn’t a principle of democracy. In fact, Henry and the Cos take issue with the notion that democracy is about consensus, quite specifically.

Disagreement is a principle of democracy. It is important that people are willing to have a good row, but then accept the verdict and walk away from the forum to the pub without stabbing each other. If I understand the post aright, this is part of their point about egalitarianism – at least relative equality of power is necessary for this to work.


Andrew Fisher 05.24.12 at 10:13 am

Jed Harris@33 seems to capture the key point most clearly: this isn’t an argument for democracy as actually practiced anywhere, but for a form of anarchism.

I also have a concern which I am struggling to put into words effectively: in the currently-existing world say a firm’s decision-making process about its strategy and many parts of its operation will often be fairly ‘democratic’ in the sense implied here a (admittedly select) group of the firm’s employees will come together in a context of relative equality to discuss options and reach consensus. Certainly this process is as ‘democratic’ in your sense (in most firms) as any actual political process in any actual democracy I can think of. Power inequalities have one big effect (which employees are invited to the table) and many subtle effects, of course.

Then a hierarchical/bureaucratic process is used to implement the strategy or operations. In the course of this, there will again be many meetings where groups of relative equals discuss and compromise.

Then the firm competes in the market place against other firms. But the firm will do everything it can to avoid ‘faceless’ market competition and to form ongoing relationships with clients.

So the issue of which of these approaches is ‘better’ seems less relevant than the ways in which they interact unless you are seeking to make the case (which I don’t think you are, given that you defend political parties and are explicitly critical of utopianism) that markets and bureaucracies should be entirely replaced by direct democracy.


Tom T. 05.24.12 at 10:48 am

More directly within a political arena, it’s not uncommon for some issues to be removed from democratic decision-making. In the US, for instance, reproductive rights and same-sex marriage are products of hierarchy (courts) in direct contravention to democratic enactments. If we are to think that those results are just, by what principle do we exempt those issues?


William Timberman 05.24.12 at 11:13 am

Andrew, it’s precisely the conflict between good management principles, and the bad consequences which often flow from them — from the point of view of those outside the circle of management, anyway — that’s at issue here. We’ve long suspected that the disconnect between the two is threatening to become unbridgeable, and the last four years have provided all the evidence anyone should need that our suspicions have some basis in fact.

This speaks to shah8’s point as well: Imagine the President, the National Security Advisor, the Joint Chiefs, the Director of the CIA, etc. sitting around a White House conference table discussing what to do about Iran. If someone were to say, Hey, why don’t we just stop threatening them, and talk to them as equals about our true concerns, one would expect that someone to be sent out to fetch a briefing paper, and to find the door locked when he returned. Perhaps the next day, the President’s Chief of Staff would ask him to consider spending a little more time with his family, beginning ASAP.

In shah8’s terms, his outburst in the context of an NSC meeting would be silliness, and his getting stomped would be perfectly appropriate. In the broader context, especially when the electorate is asked only in very indirect terms if it approves of the decisions taken in the meeting, and in fact has no way of knowing what exactly it’s being asked to approve, this might very well lead to disaster for everybody.

It isn’t the competence of the people involved that we need to question, or their sincerity, it’s the forms which they express, the narrowing of the context which those forms impose upon them. The management principles involved are unimpeachable, but the outcome sucks.

Everyone hates the jerk who stands up in a PTA meeting and rambles on forever about some irrelevant drama in which he fancies himself to be the star, but if his opinion is irrelevant in the context of the meeting, it isn’t necessarily irrelevant to the process as a whole, or to the best outcome for everyone. As things stand, we might do better to value order a little less, and confusion a little more, and alter the design our institutions accordingly.


Cranky Observer 05.24.12 at 11:17 am

= = =
I also have a concern which I am struggling to put into words effectively: in the currently-existing world say a firm’s decision-making process about its strategy and many parts of its operation will often be fairly ‘democratic’ in the sense implied here a (admittedly select) group of the firm’s employees will come together in a context of relative equality to discuss options and reach consensus. Certainly this process is as ‘democratic’ in your sense (in most firms) as any actual political process in any actual democracy I can think of. Power inequalities have one big effect (which employees are invited to the table) and many subtle effects, of course.

Then a hierarchical/bureaucratic process is used to implement the strategy or operations. In the course of this, there will again be many meetings where groups of relative equals discuss and compromise.
= = =

I think one also has to take into account the realms of architecture [fn1] and design however. Very seldom does one encounter a really well-designed product or system that was the work of a committee; the best design work [fn2] is generally the product of a gifted architect with a singular vision who maintains control over the design and build process with effect ranging from benevolent dictatorship to iron-fisted obsession. When that person leaves (retirement, death, cash out, runs out of ideas) and is replaced by a committee the quality of the product almost always deteriorates. This is very noticeable with large software systems where one can often tell the exact quarter the original design left the company, but I’ve seen it happen in several engineering, manufacturing, and consumer products organizations as well. I’m not sure how that fits into a model of endless committee meetings and Internet discussions producing the most-nearly-optimal results.


[fn1] Here I use “architecture” in its broad sense as the larger organizing principle that proceeds detailed design work (particularly detailed design work on subsystems), not the more restricted sense of the design of buildings and spaces.

[fn2] Admitted some of the worst work has been produced this way too (no, I did not bring up Helmut Jahn).


Alex K. 05.24.12 at 11:20 am

However, [communicative] contact is largely incidental—- people engage in market activities to buy or to sell to best advantage, not to learn. As markets become purer, in both the Hayekian and neo-classical senses, they produce ever less of the contact between different modes of life that Mill regards as salutary.

This is very weak. It fails the “just look outside the window” test.

Market actors need to learn technology, need to learn what the customer wants, need to communicate with their business partners, need to learn best known practices etc. If they develop a new technology as a product, they have every interest to make people learn and use that technology.

The appeal to “pure” neo-classical or Hayekian models is misguided: the market is under no obligation to follow the textbook — it’s the other way around.


Chris Bertram 05.24.12 at 12:06 pm

Wish I had the time to comment at greater length, but it seems to me that you do need to say more about questions of boundaries, standing and democratic exclusion/inclusion.

I liked when you wrote:

“Specifically, we argue that democracy has unique benefits as a form of collective problem solving in that it potentially allows people with highly diverse perspectives to come together in order collectively to solve problems.”

Shades of Kant’s people “living unavoidably side-by-side” there and some of Jeremy Waldron’s recent work…

The trouble is that the demos can be circumscribed in such a way that (a) the people with diverse perspective don’t get brought together and (b) the problems get addressed only by the included subset of the people who face them.


* the demos being defined by the ethnos as in Michael Mann’s _The Dark Side of Democracy_.

* Israel/Palestine. Some democracy there, but one that excludes many of the most affected people. Hence, among other things, all the 1-state/2-state arguments. Which democracy?

* Global warming: a democracy consisting of citizens of the the United States and excluding Bangladeshi peasants isn’t going to home in on the optimal solution.

* Immigration: democracy only takes account of the interests of insiders and not of would-be migrants.

Those are cases where people who ought to be included aren’t, but it works the other way too. I guess many of Ostrom’s examples of commons management are democratic in your sense: but they wouldn’t be improved by including all the members of the wider polity. Rather the contrary.


Trader Joe 05.24.12 at 12:13 pm

A thoughtful article.

Please consider some thoughts from a person who has spent a life in capital markets rather than academia.

The great investor Benjamin Graham comments that in the short run markets are voting machines, in the long run they are weighing machines. Your argument focuses on its role as a voting machine – i.e. the price of tomatos, the cost of fertilizer etc. indeed in this role, markets do a poor job at societal tasks.

As a weighing machine, over time (as another commentator noted), markets deliver societal benefits that are hard to directly quantify, but easy to observe. To give an easily understood example – it was a long-term pattern of markets “voting” in favor of fiber optic that replaced copper wires and then voting for wireless over fibre optic and then voting for cloud computing over desk top computing that advanced telecomunications to where it is today – democracy and hirearchy had little to do with this revolutionary advance in communications and indeed, to the extent it played a role probably hindered more than helped…global communication infrastructure is undoubtedly a valuable societal benefit, facilitated by markets – as a weighing machine, not a voting machine.

The second thing I would note is that the interactions between markets/hirearchies and democracy can very valuable tools in creating desired societal outcomes. A hirearcy regulating outcomes would only succeed in raising the cost of power for everyone, a democracy might impose laws that favor a ‘green’ or ‘pro-business’ view, but which creates winners/losers and unevenly shared costs. A market alone, wouldn’t regulate itself and would simply pollute until told not to…..the interaction of regulation, trading the ‘right’ to pollute and the democratic view of cost/benefit of cheap power vs. environmental hazard produces the most equitable outcome…..wise men can debate where the lines get drawn, but the collective power of these structures moves society towards the lines.

Thanks for a thoughtful piece.


Adrian Kelleher 05.24.12 at 12:46 pm

Inventions extend human capabilities beyond the limits of our physical or mental capacity. We’re accustomed to thinking of them almost as being called forth by nature itself. Motor transportation and refrigeration are examples, created in response physical obstacles. Such devices typically apply to a given task techniques constrained to a limited range by considerations of technical feasibility.

Committees, a time-honoured and unglamorous means of producing democratic cognition, are likewise an invention but of a different kind: a pure invention without any inspiration in nature. Their composition and procedures might take almost any form.

Another pure invention is the spreadsheet. It has neither the mathematical foundations of computer languages nor the physical foundations of a machine but is nonetheless a creation of immense importance.

If a lost continent were to exist somewhere cut off from the rest of civilisation its inhabitants would in the end surely invent motor transportation, refrigeration and so on but it’s to be doubted whether they would create spreadsheets in precisely the same form as we have because the spreadsheet is nothing more than a convention. Its value lies in its very conventionality: it has caused the skills of a large numbers of people to converge at what would otherwise be an arbitrary point instead of dispersing in pursuit of individual solutions to their tasks.

There can be few inventions having such broad applicability whose creators don’t even have a Wikipedia page, but the spreadsheet is one. This is because even though it was a brilliant invention its brilliance was unobvious without nature or mathematics cheering it on.

Unfortunately any number of innovations that might aid democratic cognition suffer from the same handicap. No general theory is possible. Methods may need frequent re-invention as, without physical law acting as a unifying constraint, inventors’ efforts will tend to diffuse.

The terminology and theory can be relied upon to bifurcate without limit and in the absence of definite means of assessing merit self-promotion and balkanisation will be difficult to restrain. In short, whatever solutions are arrived at are sure to be different from those used on the lost continent, as will be the concepts and vocabulary used to describe them.

All this detracts from the ease of promotion of such methods rather than the merits of the undertaking itself. The power to create new conventions will be pivotal. Once in existence, even protocols known to be imperfect may be difficult to alter.

Also important is the power to determine the methods applied to a specific application — unless it’s thought necessary to crowdsource the approach to crowdsourcing. Art, football and chess are examples where crowdsourcing will not be successful. Art is too individual, football too quick, and committee chess introduces more information exchange problems than it resolves because the merit of a given move is determined by its advancement of a strategic plan yet in unforeseen circumstances the strategic plan may itself need alteration.

Nonetheless if a given committee has the power to seize control of a given artistic endeavour, say, then it will most likely do so; this is why TV is so bland.

In many circumstances individual flair might orchestrate cooperative enquiries to advantage. People surely exist who are both humble enough to understand that they don’t possess the whole truth about complex issues and expert enough to coordinate activities. On the other hand, this is sadly also a world where Sarah Palin could look in the mirror and decide she deserved to be president of the United States of America.


Tim Wilkinson 05.24.12 at 1:17 pm

Footnote 3 looks very much like ‘I, pencil’ rhetoric. As if in a planned economy, every move had to be worked out from first principles. Which bits of the information that go into setting prices (the relevant info that is, not all the extra stuff involved in capitalist organisation, such as adversarial games with suppliers, competitors, consumers etc) would be less available to the central planner?

I think the key idea would have to lie not in market prices but in market incentives: aligning self-interest with accurate information-gathering, or at least removing the motivation for false reporting. How good this type of anti-planning argument really is, I’m not sure – AFAICT, it hasn’t received a great deal of attention.


Henry 05.24.12 at 3:18 pm

Thanks all for feedback – responding as best as I can to the many points.

(1) Our use of the term hierarchy. This is a standard use in some of the literatures that we are talking to – in particular the literature on organizations and economics (which frequently draws a contrast between markets and hierarchies). In the next draft, we can certainly clarify what we mean by the term, and will do so.

(2) Wikipedia – teh awesome not so much. We talk about this, at least indirectly, and cite to Aaron Swartz’s work on this. We also cite to a paper by Melissa Schwartzberg and I which talks to the politics and contention underlying many Wikipedia articles. What we _could_ do more, building on the very nice arguments about time set out by LFC, is talk a bit more (perhaps in a broader version of this project) about the relationship between time and bargaining power. In many open access environments, time and patience is key to winning disputes – the person who is willing to stay around the longest, and keep on insisting on his or her way of thinking about things, is the person who wins. Hence, some of the more problematic Wikipedia pages, where individuals, or groups with very strong views on topic _x_ may partly prevail over others through sheer persistence. There are institutional fixes for this (some of which Wikipedia tries to employ; e.g. the rules on reverts), but none at all perfect.

Thomas’s why the rugged landscapes, and why assume the benefits of democracy question. Here’s one answer. We don’t know the topography of the underlying solution landscape, nor _ex ante_, which viewpoints are best able to capture the characteristics of the landscape. But we do have a pretty strong sense, thanks to Page and Hong, that the best ways in general to find good solutions on this landscape will be to harness the benefits of diversity. Hence, the emphasis on finding ways to harness diversity, which flows directly from Page and Hong’s mathematical treatment. There is, of course, no _ex ante_ reason to presume that one or the other macro-institution is best equipped to harness diversity, which is why we engage in the kind of investigation that we do (which also paves the way towards a sweeping empirical research agenda, of the kind described in the final section).

On what we are talking about when we are talking about democracy. Yes – we clearly need to define democracy, markets, hierarchy more clearly, and we will try to do this next time around. But we don’t mean to suggest that endless talking is the only, or the best way to instantiate democracy. Some form of communication, which involves the ability to exchange viewpoints, is clearly necessary. But there may be arguments in favor e.g. of combining voting with argument, in contexts where, for example, people have differing levels of patience, and/or rhetorical training, but differing interests and perspectives. More generally – and this is a substantial weakness of our argument at the moment – we are all about democracy as a process of _discovery_, but have very little to say about it as a process of _decision making._ This needs to be beefed up, and will (probably not in this piece itself, but in its offspring).

On Chris’s point. The copout answer is that this is an endemic problem for democratic theory, and in particular for problem-focused versions thereof. The contortions that Dewey goes through in _The Public and Its Problems_, arguing sometimes that national publics automagically constitute themselves around problem boundaries, and sometimes that the UN Will Maybe Save Us All, are emblematic. But there may be a more sophisticated answer. I _think_ (and this is a first approximation) that our arguments might lead one to adopt a kind of cockeyed cosmopolitanism, which would try to preserve the differences (where valuable) between different societies’ ways of thinking about things, while creating weak forms of democratic interchange between those societies. What this would look like in practice, I don’t know (first guess: the EU – but that may not be a particularly compelling example right at the moment).

On whether markets can do this all – they really can’t. Alex K is right to say that we don’t pay enough attention to the kinds of conversations that canny market participants can foster – there is a line of reasoning here from people like Eric von Hippel, and Amar Bhide’s Venturesome Economy book, which is really a very nice book indeed. But these kinds of conversations are _not_ really about complex collective problems facing society as a whole – they are about ‘how can I, as a company, innovate so as to sell you things that you want?’ Cosma’s piece in the forthcoming _Red Plenty_ seminar is apropos here. Short version as I read it – computational problems mean that we have no plausible alternatives to markets as means of figuring out individual wants and needs. But this also implies egalitarianism (unequal resources skew markets in unfortunate directions) and does not tell us how to solve _complex collective problems_, which are a different class of a fish altogether. Alex is wrong to think that the market is a great place for fostering experiments – we will likely develop this in further work.

On whether global warming lunacy says that democracy is a bad thing. Again – one of the weak points of our paper is that we say virtually nothing about the intersection between democracy and expertise. This is in part because my thoughts are not very well organized, although I recognize it is a problem we absolutely have to tackle (Cosma is smarter than me, and may have better things to say off the cuff). One observation though, in lieu of an answer, is that we actually know _next to nothing_ about how either true or false beliefs spread through the population, and that the kind of research project that we spell out in the final section might be one way to get proper research into the epidemiology of beliefs going.

As Alex says, we are not arguing that democracy involves consensus, ever. It involves societies that are faced with irresolvable diversity. One of the claims we specifically disagree with is that we can, or should, try to aspire to something like Habermasian deliberation in politics – not happening. Hence, we should think about harnessing diversity, at least in the search phase.

Power – yes. Our argument is all about power, and this is why we say that our conception of democracy is a radical one – it is largely insofar as democracy actually minimizes power asymmetries that it is likely to have cognitive benefits. We need to bring this out more, obviously, and can do so.

Markets and hierarchies useful in many contexts: yes. There is a lot of work to be done still distinguishing these different forms – market, democracy, hierarchy as _forms of discovery_ and as _forms of implementation._ Even if we think that democracy has advantages at the former, at least in certain areas (the complex problems we refer to), it is obviously _not_ the best way to implement everything in society. I don’t need to take a vote of all present every time that I want to buy milk. Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s ideas about the value of democracy as a second-order form of decision making are relevant and useful here.

Works cited not being adequate – sorry. We were rushing to get this finished in semi-readable shape for a workshop. Next time will be better, and in the meantime, if you can’t run down any references that sound interesting, ask, and I will endeavor to supply.

I’m sure that there’s lots I’m not addressing here, but that’s all for this go. Again, thanks, all.


Scott Martens 05.24.12 at 3:44 pm

I substantially agree with everything you’re saying, and I think it’s important to say that before getting to the parts that bother me.

My biggest issue is this: What do you mean by “democracy”? Really, that seems to me to be the key issue that ought to sit front and centre here. Most people see democracy in very vague and ill-defined terms. At its most restrictive, it’s a system of voting from time to time. You cannot mean what you say without meaning something much larger, and the lack of clarity on that point bothers me. We could define democracy as “anything that keeps institutions responding stably to feedback”, which strikes me as a very good definition but makes your claims rather tautological. So you must mean something else, but I can’t quite see what it is.

That brings me to a second point: Some of these ideas have appeared before under the label “cybernetics”, but I’m pretty sure you both know that. Stafford Beer, IIRC, somewhere points out that price mechanisms simply can’t provide enough bandwidth for stable control of economic machinery. The same analysis could be made for democracy, in a “ha-ha, only serious” kind of way. The US Federal government has an election every two years. One of two parties always does better than the other. Therefore, the total information content of American Federal democracy as a feedback mechanism is one bit every two years, or 0.000000016 bps. This is clearly inadequate as a feedback mechanism even for the smallest drownable-in-a-bathtub government. The main semi-respectable anti-government of the last few decades fits exactly into that outlook: Government cannot possibly know what to do, so it should do nothing. That argument is not made in cybernetic terms because, well, information theory is hard and cybernetics is all, like, communist. But it’s still a coherent argument.

The counter-argument – that 0.000000016 bps is infinitely more than 0 bps – is still the right retort. A significant share of the evil of dictatorship and oligarchy is not the ill-will of the dictator or the cravenness of the oligarchy, but the lack of feedback and the lack of institutions to force the powerful to respond to feedback.

But you *must* mean some larger notion of democracy than regular elections to make this credible, and even without some kind of detailed ten-point manifesto, something more than generally waving towards new media and the value of agent diversity is needed here. Calling things “cognitive” is like calling things “cyber” – trendy enough, but not meaningful enough by itself to make any points. You need some suggestion of democratic institutions that really can provide enough feedback to manage action.


philofra 05.24.12 at 3:52 pm

You say “Democracy can do this better than either markets or ….”

As I understand it markets are democracy an integral part of it. They exchange openly like ‘democracy’ does. (I think you have a distorted view of markets. You are thinking of the baddies who try to manipulate them. But, conversely, there is always somebody who is trying to manipulate the democratic process.)

Markets – economic democracy, parallel political democracy. It’s like if political democracy can’t achieve its aims economic democracy will. It’s like a one/two punch. In many places one has economic freedom before they have political freedom.

As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it “Democracy is impossible without private ownership because private property – resources beyond the arbitrary reach of the state – provide the only secure basis for political opposition and intellectual freedom.”

Private property can not be sustained without markets.


DrJim 05.24.12 at 3:53 pm

Alex K. @15 “We do have a name for the system with distributed and independently controlled resources, where the results of experimentation are usually available so that the experiment can be imitated or avoided—it’s called the market.”

Competitive markets work well that way but non-competitive ones produce consistently poor results.


philofra 05.24.12 at 4:21 pm

I am thinking about the complex problem of ecological sustainability. Is ‘democracy’ better at addressing it than the ‘markets’?

I am thinking that the markets are better at addressing it. The markets, more so than democracy, develops the technology that make sustainability possible.


geo 05.24.12 at 4:48 pm

philofra @54: As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it “Democracy is impossible without private ownership because private property – resources beyond the arbitrary reach of the state – provide the only secure basis for political opposition and intellectual freedom. … Private property can not be sustained without markets.”

This is a standard and apparently plausible formulation. But it’s not the last word. In any large economy, individual private property — resources of subsistence, and therefore the basis of resistance — cannot be sustained beyond the reach of those who control the means of production. This is what Marx meant by proletarianization: that more and more of us — nearly all, eventually — become wage-slaves over time. This form of unfreedom is not only compatible with markets — ie, capital markets; markets in goods and services are no problem — it is arguably a necessary consequence of such markets. (If you think that wage workers are just as free, and just as able to influence the state, as owners of the means of production, then I don’t know what to say to you. Alas, the current Supreme Court agrees with you.)

The solution is to vest control of the means of production in society as a whole –that is, in a robust and responsive democratic state, which will guarantee (constitutionally) economic independence and therefore the basis of political resistance to all citizens. The standard libertarian answer to this is: what the state can give, the state can take away. But the only way a state can arise that’s strong enough to victimize one class of citizens is through another class owning the means of production and making use of the state for its own ends — precisely the situation in every capitalist society, including the state-capitalist, Party-owned, Soviet-style societies.

In any society and economy beyond a certain size and level of complexity, the only alternatives are oligarchy (perhaps with a democratic facade, as at present in the US) or substantive democracy.


Nexcerpt 05.24.12 at 6:18 pm

I appreciated the draft, though I haven’t time to read all the comments.

I must point out that “Cognitive Democracy” is a solution in search of a system that actually implements decisions. A democracy frequently arrives at specific, constructive conclusions — which political leaders then ignore completely.

I’ve observed this many times at the local level, where it’s far easier (and quicker) to catch the most devious figures in the act. It goes something like this:

1. A volunteer planning body holds many public hearings to inform land use goals.
2. Members of the public agree (predictably) on commonly held priorities and values.
3. Those (clean water, open space, quiet streets, wildlife areas) are drafted as zoning.
4. At final hearing, a few powerful (and/or selfish) people claim this will stifle growth.
5. To satisfy the selfish few, elected officials refuse to adopt the ordinance as written.

Regardless of political persuasion, we’ve all seen the same perversion at the State and Federal level. Sometimes it’s the general public being ignored; sometimes all the experts in a field; sometimes indisputable facts of science or mathematics.

Unless implementations are made consistent with democratic decisions, learning to make better decisions seems largely pointless.

Now… back to your actual discussion ;-)


wolfgang 05.24.12 at 6:38 pm

So far the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has outlived most other organizations and I assume that e.g. the crude oil markets will not be replaced with some form of direct democracy any time soon.

So I think it would be interesting to see (historical) examples of market vs. democracy or hierarchy vs. democracy
as concrete case studies of democracy being better than the alternatives.


temp 05.24.12 at 6:53 pm

Science, as an institution, has many of the features you describe: diversity, a high degree of direct communication, and relative equality among its actors (at least compared to many other institutions). But it’s not a democracy, because it has a strong selection component as well. Science would not be enriched by having climate change denialists speak at climatology conferences. Similarly, the CT comment section works well because it combines a high diversity of viewpoints with relatively strict moderation. And wikipedia only works at all because it disempowers those who do not contribute to its goals.

Many of our most successful institutions combine democratic elements with a strong selection component, which systematically empowers those who provide benefit by their contribution and disempowers those who bring harm. Diversity trumps ability to the extent that 10 scientists in debate will come to a better solution than the smartest one alone, but adding an additional 10 creationists doesn’t get you anywhere, in either the discovery or decision-making phase. Unbanning abb1 will do nothing to improve the quality of CT discussion threads.

I think adding a selection or feedback component will almost always improve on a system of absolute equality. It needs to be weak enough to maintain diversity, but strong enough to get rid of the trolls.


Ron Watts 05.24.12 at 7:00 pm

This is an interesting concept but, too late. We are already in a post-democratic age except for Iceland, Equador, and a few others that hardly count except as examples. The structure of the courts is the tipping point. Of course gov’ts are highly political, but since the courts have left the law behind to join the ranks of the politicians, and the pols welcome this, democracy is a sham.. Greece almost took a run at returning to democracy, but the referendum planned to deal with the current financial problems was cancelled by the banks via the politicians. The referendum would have at least offered the Greeks a made in Greece policy and that sounds just like democracy. If real democracy is unacceptable to the sham democracies, we have our priorities wrong.


Emily 05.24.12 at 7:03 pm

Not sure of US or other non- Westminster structures’ government details. But in Oz representative democracy is hierarchical in theory and practice.

Briefly: Electors from a seat vote for nominees in general or by elections; the winner/s take a seat under oath in the lower or upper houses in the parliament; offices in parliament are elected by members of either house and taken under oath (Speakers, Ministers, Secretaries, Prime Minister, President, High Chancellor among others); the houses of Parliament are overseen by the Vice-Regal Governor/Governor-General who takes office under oath; the Vice-Roy is overseen by the Sovereign – Queen Elizabeth II who is coronated or crowned under oath.


Stephen 05.24.12 at 8:11 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 30

Minor point not affecting main argument: you say “bureaucracy … like constitutional monarchy, is a child of democracy.”

There may be a reasonable interpretation of history that says bureaucracy is at latest a child of 17th century monarchies (Pepys, Colbert et al) Hard to interpret these as democracies.

Likewise constitutional monarchy has in some ways roots in middle ages, and developed (in Britain at least) in late 17th and in 18th centuries: surely oligarchies not democracies.


Stephen 05.24.12 at 8:27 pm

Slightly less minor points on original post: you say “The fundamental democratic commitment is to equality of power over political decision making.” Are you sure that is so? Some would argue that the fundamental democratic commitment is to having governments which, if enough of the people they govern are dissatisfied with them, can be removed from office swiftly and bloodlessly. Actually making the decisions is left to the government, until they are removed. (Geography may cause a different perspective: in the US, serious enemies have always been far distant, in the UK the Channel is only 21 miles at its narrowest.)

I see that your definition does lead to your conclusion that ” a genuine commitment to democracy is a commitment to political radicalism.” Trouble is, there are many who have looked at political radicalism (frequently more rampant in Europe than in the US) and its actual effects, decided they want none of it, but still believe themselves to be committed to democracy. It also follows from your conclusion that most US citizens are not genuinely committed to democracy. I find that saddening.

Lastly, you have been eloquent on the undoubted limitations of the markets and of hierarchical liberalism. It would be interesting to know your opinions on the limitations of democracy, if any, when committed to political liberalism. I suspect you may discover a few.


Jonathan Murphy 05.24.12 at 8:54 pm

I recommend re-reading Fareed Zakaria’s, The Future of Freedom, since it does a nice job working with the notion of illiberal democracy. This richer understanding of democracy is missing from your text. Though I might quibble with minor aspects of your premise, I am willing to accept your characterizations of market solutions and libertarian paternalist solutions. However, as many of the other comments have pointed out, your notion of democracy, and the mechanisms by which it is able to come up with better solutions than either the market or hierarchy, is incredibly vague. I think this is why many of the comments have had a hard time coming up with a clear response, even though intuitively they disagree. Some things to consider,

1. Experts – your notion that more viewpoint diversity produces better solutions is sub-optimal. The process of excluding viewpoints, for the sake of adding more weight to expert viewpoints (I’m unclear on an argument against experts), would require an entirely other democratic process on how to best exclude viewpoints, which itself requires more experts. Your entire system of democratizing solutions leads to a recursive nesting of “how best to solve the problem of determining how best to solve this problem.”
2. Freeloader – I recommend taking a look the Valve company handbook, as it it actually a really good model for your diverse viewpoint ideal.
One takeaway though is the inability for the system to support freeloading. I don’t mean freeloading in the “mooch of the system monetarily” sense, I mean lack of political engagement. A major problem for a well functioning democracy is that it requires engagement to solve complex problems. In your linear node model for having groups of diverse viewpoints cluster around solutions, you are assuming that each group is putting an equal amount of effort into the problem. Part of the appeal of libertarian paternalism is that it is very freeloader tolerant.

Non-rationality – I am confused on how your system deals with non-rational acting. The prevalence of non-rational actors is part of what gave way to behavioral economics, which in turn is the foundation of libertarian paternalism. I direct you to Neal Stephenson’s, amazing essay on the development of rocket technology.

Novel ideas – The history of innovate solutions is littered with inventions or developments that in their time were deemed, “useless,” or a “waste of time.” It is not clear to me how your model for democratic approaches would produce as much novel research.


jameson quinn 05.24.12 at 9:26 pm

This seems to take “democracy” as being a single, clear locus, rather than being a largely-unexplored continent. Especially so when you accuse democratic reformers as being hopelessly utopian. That passage appears to conflate things like policy juries/deliberative polling or approval voting with can’t-we-all-just-get-along Broderist centrism. I realize that examining different democratic mechanisms is out of scope for this article, but you could at least acknowledge that such lines of thinking could relate productively to your argument, rather than just needing to be argued out of the way so that your thesis can triumph.

I could say this at greater length, and may yet do so here.


Emily 05.24.12 at 9:33 pm

Stephen @63 Britain may not have been considered a constitutional monarchy til then, but aspects of the unwritten constitution date back to time immemorial and the days of other courts, and then the Magna Carter etc.
The Kings and Queens of England then Britain were never absolute monarchs, to my knowledge – it’s my understanding that the Law Lords are the ones who have the authority to deliberate and proclaim whether something is constitutional?.
Intrigue and corruption is another matter altogether however.
I’m still reading the post at the moment…


Patrick 05.24.12 at 9:56 pm

Your criterion for a good system for solving social problems seems to follow from an analogy to hill climbing algorithms. The argument is then that democracy represents a sort of parallel processing solution, where each individual can only see a small amount of the landscape but a collection of individuals can survey the whole landscape.(and therefore find the tallest hill)

If we extend the analogy, however, we would want to consider stochastic hill-climbing, the common solution to this problem. That is, instability is deliberately introduced into the system so that we’re forced out of local optima, and hopefully find our way into more global optima.(or even the optimum)

In this respect, however, markets might have an advantage over democracies. When we add a time dimension to our landscapes problems may arise. I would suggest that democracies might be good at finding optimal solutions for a particular time, but then have a tendency to stick in that solution, until time changes the landscape such that the selected solution is no longer optimal. On the other markets, due to their tendency to crash, necessarily have the temporal instability(ie they’re stochastic) which makes for a good hill climbing algorithm.


Patrick 05.24.12 at 9:58 pm


Henry 05.24.12 at 10:10 pm

Patrick – there’s good discussion of the relationship between error-tolerant heuristics and diversity in the Page and Hong work we cite to; more generally, I’d have to be convinced that there’s good reason to think that democratic debate is less plausibly like simulated annealing etc than is market behavior. Again though, to think this out we would have to look not only at search but at the mechanisms underlying stickiness.


Patrick 05.24.12 at 10:37 pm

I think we can take as given that markets are inherently stochastic. For example look at the EMH discussions, where the argument is largely between people who think that stock prices are truly random and others who think that they’re just impossible to predict.

But the process you describe for democracies is one of argumentative reasoning. These strike me as rational, logical and deterministic. Which is pretty much the opposite of a stochastic process. In references like Page and Hong, they’re looking at people coming together to solve a new problem, but not really at the adaptability of the group. In fact, their model explicitly excludes learning. Are groups more effective at recognizing that the solution they selected previously is ineffective and select a new one?

There may be an “annealing” process that occurs initially in cognitive democracy. But I think that the analogy falls apart when the solution needs to change after the system has annealed In an annealing simulation, the temperature variable of the simulation would be increased and the system would find its way to the new solution. In a market, there would be an inevitable crash and the system would have to anneal again. Where does impetus to knock the system out of the existing solution and into a new one come in a cognitive democracy?

Agreed that for a highly plastic democratic system, it would not matter. When circumstances change, our solutions would change. But if changing solutions didn’t have costs, the selection of system would be a non-issue, we could just try all solutions and see what works best.


Patrick 05.24.12 at 10:56 pm

p.s. I don’t really see this as a theoretical problem. It seems like a many of the most serious problems plaguing modern democracies are ones where they know that their current solution has problems but they can’t find the motivation to change to a better one.

It seems like democracies might have a tendency to get stuck with solutions that are just better than some threshold(for comfort or some other metric), but are objectively far worse than other known solutions.


geo 05.25.12 at 12:14 am

Jonathan Murphy @65: I’m not sure about the notion of “illiberal democracy.” The idea would seem to be that there are some rights that majorities must not, but sometimes do, violate. But why do those rights, or any rights, deserve to be respected in any particular community? Because you or I or Thomas Jefferson consider them essential to human flourishing? Because there is some foundational way to decide whether they are or are not rights, from the universe’s point of view, apart from the say-so of a democratic majority? This seems to be the assumption underlying the word “liberal.” But the universe does not have a point of view. Rights are rights in any community because a majority of that community has committed itself to them, as the American community has committed itself to the Bill of Rights. If the First Amendment were repealed, with all due constitutional process, then free political speech would no longer be a right in the United States. If one wanted to argue then that the country was less democratic because free political speech is a practical requirement of democracy, then fine; I’d agree. If this is all that “illiberal democracy” means, then I suppose it’s a harmless expression, even if a useless one. I suspect, though, that Zakaria and others who employ it have a less innocent purpose: ie, to disparage populist challenges to elite control of political and other institutions.


Sid Itchybum 05.25.12 at 12:53 am

gubbish, gubbish.


geo 05.25.12 at 1:15 am

Shakespeare is a better representative of democracy than Shaw.

I’m at a loss to understand this. Shakespeare simply took the political ideas of his day as he found them: basically, the divine right of kings. He had no more idea of democracy than Henry VIII or Elizabeth I.

Our previous go-round here at CT on the subject of Shaw and Shakespeare had nothing to do, by the way, with democracy or political morality. I simply quoted Shaw to the effect that Bunyan had a far deeper and truer idea of heroism than Shakespeare, while acknowledging Shakespeare’s superior dramaturgy and prosody.

Something’s eating you, Oswald. Out with it.


Henry 05.25.12 at 1:32 am

Patrick – thanks – will think this through. In other work, Cosma and I are applying evolutionary dynamics to questions of institutional change, and trying to think through what it says about the relative pace of different forms of institutional change.


Alex K. 05.25.12 at 1:55 am

But these [business] conversations are not really about complex collective problems facing society as a whole – they are about ‘how can I, as a company, innovate so as to sell you things that you want?’

I would say that coordinating millions of people in order to produce and distribute all the goods desired by millions of people is a pretty complex collective problem. In fact, it is probably _the_ most complex social problem there is.
Those business discussions are about solving some local aspect of that problem (more than just discussion goes into solving it of course) .

So I think this is another weakness of the paper: you don’t define clearly what you mean by “complex collective problem.” When you say:

First, they are all social problems. That is, they are problems which involve the interaction of large numbers of human beings, with different interests, desires, needs and perspectives. Second, as a result, they are complex problems, in the sense that scholars of complexity understand the term. To borrow Scott Page’s (2011, p.25) definition, they involve “diverse entities that interact in a network or contact structure.“2 They are a result of behavior that is difficult to predict, so that consequences to changing behavior are extremely hard to map out in advance.

The above does not exclude production and distribution of goods — yet you seem to want to exclude them in your answers to criticisms. Whatever second-order decisions mean, you need to define them better.


Alex K. 05.25.12 at 2:10 am

Alex is wrong to think that the market is a great place for fostering experiments

It depends on what you’re talking about. If you mean that it’s not a place for experimenting with product development, then that’s just false in a blatant manner. It is precisely because it is a place fostering experiments where failures become private costs and successes become public benefits that markets are so successful. (This as a general rule — when failures become public costs, like big bank failures, markets are not that successful.)

Markets foster experiments even when the “product” is some mechanism for social communication of knowledge. We know that stockoverflow dot com found a good formula for extracting programming knowledge (it involves giving reputation for good answers and subtracting reputation for down-voting answers) while Yahoo Answers is an abject failure. That a pretty clear case of market experimentation.

If you mean that there is no market for answering questions like “How do we best encourage the spread of human rights internationally?” — then yes, of course there is no such market, why would you be so silly as to presume there is?


Henry Farrell 05.25.12 at 2:53 am

bq. I would say that coordinating millions of people in order to produce and distribute all the goods desired by millions of people is a pretty complex collective problem.

Definitely complex, but not actually collective, in the sense that we mean it. See Hayek, _passim._ Also, Cosma’s piece on _Red Plenty_, due next week.


Sid Itchybum 05.25.12 at 3:04 am

gubbish, gubbish gubbish! Watch out for the gubbisher!


geo 05.25.12 at 3:11 am

Henry @52: One of the claims we specifically disagree with is that we can, or should, try to aspire to something like Habermasian deliberation in politics – not happening.

“Not happening” isn’t an argument, it’s a putdown. Viz.: 1840: “Abolitionism? Not happening.” 1880: “Votes for women? Not happening.” 1950: “Homosexual marriage? Not happening.” Is Habermasian deliberation hopelessly impractical? If so, why?

By the way, what is Habermasian deliberation? If it just means a societal commitment to continuous discussion — not, obviously, everyone talking politics during every waking hour, but everyone having easy access to discussions about most live political issues, discussions whose results can be widely communicated to interested others and which can be aggregated to put pressure on political representatives — then it seems like a no-brainer. What else is democracy?


Henry 05.25.12 at 3:14 am

No – it means discussions where people leave their interests at the door. I don’t think that this is a plausible – or even particularly attractive – account of what democratic debate ought to involve. Partisanship, in both the broader and narrower sense is inescapable, and that is probably no bad thing imo.

About to head on a family holiday for a few days, so if I don’t respond to further responses for a little while, that’s why.


Peter T 05.25.12 at 4:05 am

As an exercise in ideal types this is good. But ideal types never (or very rarely) exist in the real world. Markets are dominated by bureaucratic, hierarchical (sometimes patronal) corporations on the larger scales, or by all sorts of gift or other non-price dominated behaviour at smaller scales. Bureaucracies incorporate a good deal of collective discussion and dissensus and so on. Whether they are good or bad at solving problems depends very much on whether they get the mix right.

So it might be helpful to spend some time on what sort of problems democracy is better at, and on what scales in time and breadth. There’s a good deal of historical evidence that open discussion is good at getting to and enforcing reasonable solutions to complex small scale environmental or social problems (juries, vestries, panchayats, town hall meetings and so on – on environmental issues one good book is Joachim Radkau – Nature and Power). Markets are good at large-scale single issues, but tend to over-ride local complexities (jed harris’ point about interaction becoming as thin as possible), and large-scale hierarchies are often too inflexible on large scales.

Global warming is a case in point. The small-scale democracy of climate scientists has dealt with the issue very well. The large scale democracies have not – and it is hard to conceive of any global democratic organisation that could – the requirements of action on that scale defeat democratic processes.


Tim Wilkinson 05.25.12 at 4:14 am

Minor proofing issue, re: Mercier & Sperber (2011) quote.

In This method will work as long as people can be swayed by good arguments, and the results reviewed … show that this is generally the case I stumbled, because I initially read “and the results reviewed” as “and as long as the results (of the method, or the swaying) can be reviewed”, then when I hit ‘show that..’, had to re-evaluate the sentence.

I’d suggest “and the results…show that this is” or even “and…this is”.


geo 05.25.12 at 4:28 am

Henry @83: No – it means discussions where people leave their interests at the door. I don’t think that this is a plausible – or even particularly attractive – account of what democratic debate ought to involve. Partisanship, in both the broader and narrower sense is inescapable, and that is probably no bad thing imo.

Sorry, Henry, I think this is a bit glib. Obviously people ought to stand up for their own interests, and equally obviously people ought at the same time to take proper account of other people’s interests. I don’t see how your formulation goes beyond these truisms, nor do I see how Habermas’s ideal falls foul of them. Simply recommending that one try to see other people’s point of view is hardly the same as urging that one forget one’s own interests or identity, even if that were possible.

As I understand Habermas on communicative ethics, he is making the urgently important point that, to the extent democracy involves discussion, those who don’t know where the discussion is being held, or don’t have any way to get to it, or can’t afford the materials which are being discussed, or are inhibited by artificially-induced feelings of social inferiority from speaking their piece, or for any other reason, social or economic, are unable to participate in the discussion as fully as they would like to, are not being accorded their full democratic rights. This seems to me a supremely relevant and practical observation for a society that professes to be a democracy but makes virtually no collective effort to sponsor the continuing collective communication in which democracy essentially consists.


George J. Georganas 05.25.12 at 6:34 am

“… the cleverest institutional design in the world will not help unless the resources—- material, social, cultural—- needed for participation are actually broadly shared. …”
Surely reads like the authors are assuming in the first place exactly what they want to conclude with.
One should have experienced the ferocity and pettiness of academic politics or, worse, the politics of volunteer groups, especially the ones spawned by the internet, to see how much one needs to assume by way of material, social and cultural resources. It all comes down to assuming “a few good people”. If one were able to gather those few good people, one would have no need for any “clever institutional design” whatsoever. Trying to get even twelve good people together was too much for Jesus. Just imagine how hard it would be for mere mortals


Andrew McDowell 05.25.12 at 11:16 am

A dictatorship could attempt to acquire the cognitive power of a democracy by sampling the opinions and views of its population. Statistical sampling theory suggests that a large dictatorship could get a pretty accurate idea of what a democracy might come up with by checking only a few thousand opinions, at a negligible fraction of its social science research budget, let alone its internal security intelligence budget. Every now and again I here stories that China is putting money into various sorts of social science research, and that they are strongly motivated to not let the Chinese Communist party go the way of its Soviet comrades.

In the long term dictatorships seem to have a succession problem amongst the elite. In a generation or two, the number of people who have become sufficiently connected by marriage or descent to claim consideration for preferred treatment/corrupt favours increases the obvious cost to the country of the elite. Simultaneously, regression to the mean – and perhaps cynicism – means that this generation is neither so talented or perhaps so ruthless as the original elite. Rags to riches in three generations means that capitalist democracies (or even oligarchies) don’t have this problem.


jameson quinn 05.25.12 at 1:13 pm

This article would be more convincing if you talked a little bit about the flaws in real-world democracies under this paradigm. As it is, anybody who thinks that real democracies have systemic problems (myself included) is basically forced to disagree with you.

For instance, specifically: democratic systems which gravitate towards two-party dominance (plurality voting, single-member districts) leave the parties in a zero-sum game where, even if solutions to problems are known, their incentives are to sabotage their opponents’ implementations of those solutions.

(That example is my personal hobby-horse, but one could come up at least a half a dozen other examples to demonstrate that you’re not just a democracy fanboy.)


Alex Fradera 05.25.12 at 2:16 pm

A really great piece Henry. NB Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber (2011) seems to be missing from your reference list?


Alex Fradera 05.25.12 at 2:17 pm

Ah, I just say the “partial” in the bibliography, so you’re probably aware of this, and the Nemeth papers too. Avidly squirrelling stuff into my note corners…


Omega Centauri 05.25.12 at 3:46 pm

Patrick, I would argue that there is plenty on intrinsic stocasticity in democratic methods. Debates are never carried out on a totally level playing field, often a single charismatic individual can carry his side to victory regardless of whether his side has the better solution. Humans are not very good arbitrators individually or collectively, and significant and largely stocastic events do influence perceptions to a surprising degree. These perturbing events can be both internal -or external.


ezra abrams 05.25.12 at 4:25 pm

“normative” – I now this word is std in the social sicences, but I would make a plea to not use it – is just sounds so cacophonous and wrong.
In regard to Hayek, there is a problem here: we don’t see the in efficiency and erros of the private sector. Only rarely – as in HPs recent decision to can it’s table -do we see how the private sector wastes.
This asymmetry of information is most commonoly articulated as “govt waste”: due to our legal system, the media can, and do , report on gov’t waste, but the can’t, and rarely, report on private waste.
So, Hayek’s argument that only the market can efficiently allocate resources suffers from an asymmetry- we don’t really know how much better gov’t , or some central command, does compared to free markets.
We do know that in many cases (Vet health care, awarding of arts grants,) gov’t has less overhead and administrative costs then private industry.
Hayek has another problem: he assumes purchases = desires or wants. Without getting paternalistic, most (in amodern society) of our “wants” and purchases are not things we *want* but things that advertisers tell us we want; how on earth can anyone possibly *want* to spend 400$ on shoes ??
so, this so called hayek allocation system is very in efficient.
The end point, so to speak, is people getting surgery to keep from dying on the food thrust on them by the profit system (I hope that my kids will regard dunkin donuts the same way we regard R J Reynolds today; its a long road, but we are starting on it)


Henry 05.25.12 at 4:33 pm

geo – quick reply as packing – all of this is fine, but Habermas in addition to these praiseworthy ideas, which we endorse in our claims about equality, sees ideal speech as involving putting one’s interests to one side. This seems to me not to be at all realistic – people who argue over politics are invariably going to come from various perspectives which are tied to their interests in all sorts of complicated ways. But, as J.S. Mill etc argue, such partial argument can still have enormous heuristic benefits. There is a place for disinterested argument, but, a la Weber’s distinction in the two famous essays, it is in scholarship rather than politics (politics _demands_ a fervent embrace of interest). What’s nice about the Mercier and Sperber results (nearly said Mercier and Camier results …) is that they show how a variety of cognitive vices associated with partiality, confirmation bias etc, can lead to public benefits on the micro level. Alex Fradera – sorry for incompleteness of biblio – it is easily locatable on the internets, on Sperber’s web page …


paul 05.25.12 at 4:45 pm

I’m not entirely sure I’m down with the “cognitive” part here. As one would expect from academicians who spend a lot of time on the internet, this is mostly about argument and reasoning (and — to an extent — convincing others) but as with money or corporate authority or government position, them as has, gets. (Where the thing to have is either facility in argument or the time to argue your opponents into the ground.) Henry makes some reference in comments to figuring out ways around that particular inequality, but how in practice would you do that?


Stephen 05.25.12 at 5:21 pm

Quoting John Dunn as relayed by Paul Sagar:

“Against the morality of those for whom changing the world is such a pressing necessity that the consequences of attempts to change it, however forlorn the efforts or ghastly their results, become wholly trivial, there must be set the morality of those whose moral interpretation of the world is restricted by an accurate sense of the limited possibilities for changing it. The exploration of the moral potentialities of authentically possible social change cannot be assimilated to the reactionary claim that social improvement is impossible. What matters is whether the change commended is derived from the exploration in fantasy of what is desirable but only logically possible or the investigation of what is desirable and sociologically possible.”

To which of the two is this thread (or indeed CT in general) directed?


Tim Wilkinson 05.25.12 at 5:34 pm

Please would you consider adding a modifying adjective such as ‘bizarre’, ‘far-fetched’, ‘fantastical’ or something to thriving communities dedicated to [here] conspiracy theories.

I won’t go into long-winded detail (again) about the reasons for this request (unless prompted to do s0, of course). Suffice to say I’ve just this minute heard David Cameron reported as saying there was ‘no great conspiracy’ in case of Murdoch’s Sky bid. Opponents of his view that everything was proper and above board (who are indeed, on a straightforward compositional sense of ‘conspiracy’ + ‘theory’, conspiracy theorists) are thus subtly – but very powerfully – associated with the stereotypical crazy shit about Jewish supremacists, aliens, mystic rituals, etc etc. When you get your ear in for this kind of thing, it is amazing how frequently it’s done. IMO this is an intentional, and effective rhetorical strategy, dependent on the conflation of ‘theories positing a conspiracy’ with ‘confabulation about esoterica’.


geo 05.25.12 at 6:08 pm

Stephen @95: You don’t think Dunn rhetorically stacks the deck ever so slightly in that passage?


geo 05.25.12 at 6:13 pm

Henry @93: people who argue over politics are invariably going to come from various perspectives which are tied to their interests in all sorts of complicated ways

Obviously. But if this is a sufficient answer to Habermas, is it really worth bothering to answer him?


philofra 05.25.12 at 7:10 pm

As I read this paper I think, these people are just a bunch of academics that haven’t got their hands dirty. Democracy is a dirty business but they are making it out to be just a cognitive exercise. There is a naiveté about this paper.

What I have observed and found is that democracy has emerged, and is maintained, through perverse means. However, the writers of this paper think that democracy comes about through rational and logical means, by just sitting at a table and discussing it. Nothing could be further from the truth. If that is the case democracy should have been easy to establish in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Again I emphasis that the ‘market’ is one aspect of the democratic process and not opposed to it. The market has given individuals freedoms that no amount of cognitive democracy can or has. It shows individuals, as consumers and property owners, instant recognition and respect, unlike cognitive democracy. As an example, take communism, where economic markets didn’t exist and hence neither did democracy.

I am surprised this paper didn’t bring up the Arab Spring in relationship to cognitive democracy. It is a good example of cognitive and deliberative democracy at work. It is a good start. But for it to continue and materialize into lasting democracy people have to be given something tangible, like the rights and freedom to determine their own economic lives. After all, most of the sociopolitical upheaval that has occurred there is about the lack such economic rights and freedom. In a way cognitive democracy is more a handmaiden, about helping get and entrenching those rights and freedom.

Litigation is what creates civilization and lasting democracy. But you have to have something tangible to litigate in order to develop civility. The market place and the consumerism and property rights it cultivated affords us that tangibility. It is difficult or impossible to litigate abstractions like cognitive democracy.

There is probably no human construct more complex that the ‘market’. It has developed into globalization. Internationally the markets have spread democracy in material ways rather than in the idealistic ways cognitive democracy has tried. (In a sense cognitive democracy reinforces the democracy that materialism introduces.) There is no better example of democracy’s taking hold materially than countries like Taiwan and South Korea. Their modernity stated with authoritarian regimes. But as people grew more affluent and knowledgeable they demanded representation and more say in the running of their communities, hence the development of democracy.


tomslee 05.25.12 at 7:29 pm

philofra #99: “these people are just a bunch of academics that haven’t got their hands dirty.” It doesn’t have to be one or the other and I don’t think you should assume it is: a person can write theoretical papers and “get their hands dirty” from time to time too.


Stephen 05.25.12 at 7:48 pm


Is Dunn stacking the deck ever so slightly? Quite possibly. Most people writing on anything to do with politics often tend to do so: even the esteemed Henry in the original and very interesting post. (I’m still waiting for his reply to the question whether, there being faults in markets and hierarchies as he so eloquently stated, there might be faults in his concept of democracy also. So is Jameson Quinn @88.)

But as for Dunn’s basic distinction between policies that are desirable but only logically possible, and those that are both desirable and sociologically possible, I think that would come out of any reasonably random deck. There is of course a temptation to argue that desirable policies ought to be sociologically possible, if only we could transform society; which moves us into the realm of meta-possibilities where I do not feel at home.


geo 05.25.12 at 7:59 pm

Stephen: could we get more concrete? I doubt anyone would advocate making “forlorn efforts” and achieving “ghastly results” for the sake of a goal that is “desirable but only logically possible.” This is what I meant by his perhaps having stacked the deck a little.


Patrick Ryan 05.25.12 at 8:02 pm

Starting with “shoulds” without explaining the foundation of why things “should be” always make me caustic. So I will focus exclusively on the foundation.

Social stability is a relative term and can only be measured via the point of reference of instability, which is to say that stability, as presented here, is only the lack of instability, and not the other way around.

This is an important distinction because if instability is the lack of stability, then one promotes stability directly (Policies that promote uptime and QoS), whereas if stability is the lack of instability, then one tries to prevent instability. (Policies that deny access or monitor gateways)

These factors can affect each other, but they are totally different concepts.

Promoting stability requires a keen understanding of human nature. (Total technical audit to measure capabilities. Expensive. Hard.)

Preventing instability requires a keen understanding of butterfly effects cased by policy. (How firewall rules affect APIs. Easy to tweak and roll back.)

This is where most people stop. However, things get complicated later on, as conspirators see the benefits of mandates being applied to the general welfare in the name of stability. (That new network policy has centralized all the data I’m interested in!)

So they then work to intrinsically bind to the general welfare to their own agenda. Once bound, social stability no longer exists in accordance to the initial analysis BUT because the IMAGE of general welfare is what most people believe social stability to be, as long as the conspirators play within the SYNTAX of the IMAGE, the general public will never complain. (Similar to how DNS poisoning works.)

Once the context of stability is monopolized to the conspirators, the toolsets that provide social stability work against it, as promoting justice, efficiency, and other mandates creates hostility as it becomes obvious these actions are really manifestations of favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism. (Why did my ISP block port 25 and not tell me?)

Eventually, the only stable way to prevent instability once stability has been monopolized is to preemptively destroy potential challenges before they manifest. After all, the SYNTAX of the IMAGE of the general welfare automatically implies certain demographics are the cause of all problems to the general welfare. (We must stop the cyber terrorists for our own benefit!)

All of the aforementioned is part of human nature, which is a requirement to understand social stability, which is a requirement to implementing social stability, and thus, why social stability is actually a paradox and a poor foundation to base network diagnostics off of because system stability, when viewed this way, is completely susceptible to a man-in-the-middle attack.


tomslee 05.25.12 at 8:05 pm

My main reaction is that it’s great to see attempts like this to get beyond the market/state price/hierarchy dichotomies as ways to think about institutions for managing economies and societies, and to push democracy to the front of the stage rather than leaving it as a way of selecting a (command and control) “state”.

I do agree with those who say it would be helpful to spell out what you mean by democracy. For example, temp (#60) points out that democracy doesn’t have an obvious “selection” component, but one bright spot in democratic development over the last few decades is the abilities of some governments at a city or municipal level to experiment and for successful experiments to be imitated elsewhere: congestion charges and bike rental programs being two high profile ones. So democratic initiatives at that level do have an evolutionary nature that makes them promising (socialism in one city!) but is this the same as the democracy you are talking about?

If you want to popularize this program as well as push it academically, I think (with apologies to Tim W at 51) that you need a story or two. An “I, Pencil” or a wisdom-of-crowds fairground “guess the weight of the bull” story or, heaven forbid, a taxi driver or two that provides some images that we can carry with us through the abstract theorizing.

Finally, I wonder if it might not be so much “which is the best problem solving method?” as “which problems is method X best at solving?” Some problems really are just problems of coordination, while others are disputatious problems where some people stand to win and some stand to lose. Perhaps the whole fascination with markets has led governments to put aside some of those disputatious problems as unsolvable (climate change for example, or rights problems like abortion/gay marriage which have been addressed primarily by the courts in Canada because parliament didn’t want to go near them). A better appreciation of the abilities of democracy to solve such problems (or better developments of the democratic process) may may help us re-address them in better ways.

Sometimes leaving things undefined can make for interesting reading though, as the postmodernists know very well, and it did for me in this case.


Stephen 05.25.12 at 8:16 pm

In the US, I wouldn’t know for certain. You need to distinguish between desirable, in the sense that I think the goal is desirable, and desirable in the sense that the people pursuing it thought it was desirable. Weathermen? Confederates?

Elsewhere: the Irish troubles, gli anni di piombi, Algeria (from most points of view), the Angry Brigade, the USSR …

Dunn did write, you may remember, quite a complex book on revolutions.


geo 05.25.12 at 8:34 pm

Stephen: Well, what exactly are you asking Henry and the rest of us? Is your question: “Are you willing to impose ghastly results on lots of innocent people for the sake of some impracticable utopian fantasies?” I’m pretty sure the answer will be “No.”


MQ 05.25.12 at 10:06 pm

This is a great post but at this point feels more like a really intriguing conversation than a completed thesis. To me the biggest element that’s missing is a consideration of voting and aggregation methods as the core institutions of ‘democracy’. The paper seems to be about egalitarian communal deliberation or conversation — a somewhat idealized take on the civil society dimension of democracy — rather than democracy as a formal process that requires picking a particular voting or decisionmaking procedure. Small differences in those procedures have big impacts on democratic outcomes and success in ‘problem-solving’ however defined. A couple of comments above (Shah8@29, Jed@33, Jameson Quinn@88 and probably more) get at this point and related ones perhaps better than I have.


Fr. 05.25.12 at 10:26 pm

Two short comments:

The nation-state is virtually absent of the proposed conception of democracy, which (i) is rather original in my view, though (ii) it kinda hurts my Continental European eyes.

Ellen Immergut’s “Democratic Theory and Policy Analysis: Four Models of ‘Policy, Politics and Choice’” seems relevant to the discussion in many respects.


Brooks Gracie 05.25.12 at 11:23 pm

Excellent article. But I think you are forgetting our biggest two problems. With Citizens United still the law of the land, we at least are very far from a true democracy. Secondly, a working democracy requires an educated, or at least literate populace. We are failing in both places. Furthermore, look at who votes and who doesn’t. So called “pro-life” people never miss a vote. Religious zealots rarely miss voting either.

The problem is “how to get sensible people organized to vote?” The only ray of hope I have seen lately is the OWS crowd, but they are still missing the “organized” part of the equation. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney served their full 8 year terms. That killed my enthusiasm for the institution. I’d prefer to have something like a Parliamentarian System, with multiple parties. Or even a benign dictatorship, so long as Elizabeth Warren, Paul Krugman or Brad DeLong were in charge. Joking of course, but a dictatorship with strong voting removal powers may be better than the Citizens United controlled system we have now.


Brooks Gracie 05.25.12 at 11:42 pm

Don’t want to over-post here, but the first couple of paragraphs show a vast misunderstanding of the USA mindset. Are you kidding me with the sentence

“Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies, because it brings these diverse perceptions into direct contact with each other, allowing forms of learning that are unlikely either through the price mechanism of markets or the hierarchical arrangements of bureaucracy.”

Diverse opinions? What we have is a polarized society. In a lot of ways, the most interesting things are why Democrats and Republicans are so easily swayed to adopt ALL Republican views or Democratic views. What does abortion have to do with inequality, or union rights, or so many of the other issues. But people naturally choose a side rather than issue-by-issue decisions. It has been hard even for me, someone who thinks about these things, to ever agree with a Republican. But after some serious consideration, I actually do generally agree with them on defense issues if nothing else (of course Paul Krugman was famous partially for saying that if the government paid employees to dig holes and bury gold, and the private sector then paid people to find and dig up the gold, it would improve our economy). So yes, I understand that the military may be serving as the equivalent of the WPA today—and I heartily approve of that concept.

If the private sector won’t spend enough to employ our people, and we run a huge “GDP potential” deficit each year, the public sector must fill the gap. Otherwise, we end up with vast numbers of simply idle people who are not even gaining training much less wages. But my original point, is that the majority choose sides—and then vote those sides on every issue even if they have nothing to do with each other (e.g. abortion and unionism). Groupthink is ruling, and it is not working especially when Fox News and Rush Limbaugh polarize so many people—basically short-circuiting their thinking for themselves.


Cranky Observer 05.26.12 at 12:10 am

= = = MQ 05.25.12 at 10:06 pm
This is a great post but at this point feels more like a really intriguing conversation than a completed thesis. To me the biggest element that’s missing is a consideration of voting and aggregation methods as the core institutions of ‘democracy’. The paper seems to be about egalitarian communal deliberation or conversation—a somewhat idealized take on the civil society dimension of democracy—rather than democracy as a formal process that requires picking a particular voting or decisionmaking procedure. = = =

Interesting. To me the fundamental question is whether group decisionmaking is actually better, in some definable or measurable sense, than capable individual or small group decisionmaking. I’ll have to apologize in advance as I haven’t had time to track down and read the Nemeth and Ormiston papers referenced above; if they aren’t too expensive I’ll try to get some of them this weekend. But just off the top of my head I can think of three people who as near-dictatorial chief architects achieved more and did more to set the direction of their industries and even the course of history than hundreds of thousands of ordinary contributors in their fields: Kelly Johnson of Lockheed Corporation, Seymour Cray of CDC and Cray Research, and Robert Moses of the NYC Planning Authority. 100,000 brainstorming sessions would never accomplish what those three did in their lifetimes (since it feels as if I have sat through 100,000 such sessions myself I feel qualified to state that). And that’s just three counterexamples.

Yes, I understand that having 100,000 people guess the weight of steer works better than asking 2 or 3 steer-buying experts. I haven’t seen any evidence though that method would work better for, say, the design of Melbourne than having one set of Mr. & Mrs. Griffen work it out as a coherent whole [1].


[1] Noting that when it comes to the lifecycle of ordinary cities I strongly adhere to Jane Jacobs and Stewart Brand. In the case of Melbourne though the task was to build it from scratch in a reasonable amount of time, make it nice, and make it work. Brasilia shows how badly that effort can go wrong when the planning is bad. Maybe Australia and the Griffiths were lucky. However, maybe the Griffiths were good.


Cranky Observer 05.26.12 at 12:13 am

= = =
philofra 05.24.12 at 4:21 pm

I am thinking about the complex problem of ecological sustainability. Is ‘democracy’ better at addressing it than the ‘markets’?

I am thinking that the markets are better at addressing it. The markets, more so than democracy, develops the technology that make sustainability possible.
= = =

Do you think the price of gasoline in the United States as set by the market is optimal for US society (even leaving out the rest of the world)? With a time horizon of 1 year? 10 years? 100 years?


PS Sorry about the problems with quoting; CT’s display engine really doesn’t like my traditional quoting styles and I’m trying to figure out one it will accept.


Cranky Observer 05.26.12 at 12:17 am

= = = Cranky Observer upthread:
… he design of Melbourne …
= = =
Sorry, that should be Canberra not Melbourne. Brain fade on my part.



Sherman Dorn (Tampa) 05.26.12 at 12:20 am

Let me follow up on Paul @94: the article focuses on argument at the point of a decision. What is missing is the long-term question of knowledge and capacity for reasoning. There are two ways in which this draft MS slides over these questions:

1) If we should let an unrestrained democratic, messy argument prevail for every decision, we would be reinventing the wheel through Henry and Cosma’s equivalent of Reddit (redditocracy?). But that’s not what happens — there is always a filtering process for what problems are important enough at the moment to warrant debate, in any context — that’s Hilgartner & Bosk’s definition of social problems. For the rest, we either leave those issues for another day or accept past practice or some vaguely institutionalized knowledge (a social “we already know that” or “we tried that before”). So the first question I have for the redditocracy is the determination of problems we spend our precious cognitive energies on. Obviously, a la Clay Shirky, LOLcat generation is the most important problem of this generation. Unlike Shirky, I don’t think of this as “cognitive surplus,” precisely: where is the definition of problems important enough to spend argument time on?

2) The whole question of socially-generated and -accepted knowledge is omitted from this MS, but it’s crucial. You don’t have to be a Lippmannite to accept that there is something called expertise — the expertise may understood by a few, or it may be fairly broad, but institutionalized/socially-spread knowledge is a problem at least as much as the decision-making Henry and Cosma focus on. That’s one way we avoid reinventing the wheel — everyone (or almost everyone) just accepts that the earth is not the center of the universe, and so we don’t have those debates any more. If we do a GREAT job of education, the next generation accepts as common knowledge what was arcane expertise in the past. But what happens if the creation of that knowledge happens best through a tool that isn’t as democratic as described here … a la, in Jennifer Hochschild’s book _The New American Dilemma_ where she argued the best implementation of desegregation happened with as little of the traditions of pluralism as possible? I’m not committed to that view, necessarily, but by missing education more broadly, Henry and Cosma are omitting part of the social infrastructure of decision-making.


mtraven 05.26.12 at 1:13 am

The paragraph on conspiracy theories made me pause a bit. The problem with conspiracy theories is that some of them are true. It’s easy enough to tell that some simply lunatics, but others are exactly the kind of alternative theories of what is going on that are needed to make up the cognitive diversity that you are calling for, and the boundary between these two categories is hard to define.

Or in other words, it’s pretty hard, perhaps impossible, to get exactly the level of cognitive diversity that you want, which I guess means inclusive of all valuable and rational points of view and exclusive of the lunatic (and of the poisionously hateful, I suppose). Because who makes the determination? There is no objective place to stand, and if you have filtering institutions you risk losing your diversity.

I guess one answer is that multiple parties provide instiutional support for a diversity of views, but also moderate against insanity (by being respectable parts of society’s cognitive machinery). Well, I would say that if not for the example of the current Republican party, which is a wonderful case study of a formerly-respectible political organ being rapidly falling into a black hole of suck, or Weimar Germany, which of course had numerous ideological parties, but did not quite manage to cognitively integrate them into an optimal solution, to put it mildly.


mtraven 05.26.12 at 2:01 am

This paper made me think of Valdis Krebs’ “It’s the Conversations, Stupid” (pdf), which is also about the relation of social networks and decision making in a democracy. He was more focused on what motivates individual voting decisions, rather than the optimality of the outcome, but it seems like an interesting counterpart to the line of thinking you are developing.


Poor Richard 05.26.12 at 7:38 am

Cognitive democracy requires cognitive hygiene. This is how I propose to accomplish both: xTopia


William Timberman 05.26.12 at 1:25 pm

Sherman Dorm (Tampa) @ 111

Yes, there’s always a filtering process, but it seems to me that once your Lippmanites establish themselves as custodians of that filter in all matters great and small, laziness/arbitrariness sets in, and power, not reason, becomes the actual engine which drives all decision making. Everyone accepts a priori that the earth goes round the sun, but not everyone accepts the fact that Israel has the right to bomb Gaza whenever it feels like. This doesn’t matter — as far as policy is concerned, the two are equivalent — and eternal — truths. Frankly, I see this as a helluva problem.


philofra 05.26.12 at 1:33 pm

This is the kind of article that keeps me awake, wondering what it means and what I can add to it. I have been studying democracy for twenty years and it’s a complex subject, contingent on many, many things.

Cognitive democracy is knowledge based democracy. What other kind is there? But for it to work and be successful there has to be a sufficient number of people sharing the same knowledge and thinking the same way. It has to transcend the great obstacles of culture and ethnic differences for it to be effective. But I don’t think education is enough. One has to go out there and experience things before one acquires the knowledge that makes the difference. Interaction between people gains and solidifies the most knowledge. That is why the ‘market’ should not be thought of as opposing cognitive democracy but as being a contingent, necessary factor of it.

I am thinking of Larry Diamond who teaches democracy at Stanford. He was anxious to get to Iraq and help establish democracy there in the early years of of the American occupation. He soon realized it would be a futile endeavor. He learned something there, that without a stable society democracy is impossible. Iraq was very unstable and any attempts at democratization soon unravelled. He went home disappointed.

I thought that if anything was going to change Africa for the better it would be AIDS. How perverse. AIDS has brought a knowledge to Africa like nothing else. It has transcended and been a bases for commonality. The networking it has established in medicine in order to treat and contain its spread offers a great source of knowledge and the kind of platform on which democracy is built. The networking and cooperation that has occurred in medicine in order to fight AIDS has led to other means of networking, in politics and finance.

Networking is essential to democracy. The more networking the better. One of the best sources of networking is the market.


LFC 05.26.12 at 1:36 pm

Stephen @101
What is “sociologically possible” will itself often be a question on which people (reasonably) disagree.


William Timberman 05.26.12 at 1:49 pm

mtraven @ 112

This is the heart of the matter, I think. If, for reasons of administrative convenience, you conceal the sources of your information, and the mechanisms of your decision-making from all those who haven’t the need to know, you create a pervasive paranoia which replaces reasoning with more congenial, if less accurate conspiracy theories. I don’t think that the government planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, but clearly it lied about a lot of inconvenient facts surrounding that attack — such as the toxic contents of the air around ground zero. This gives even sweetly reasonable people every incentive to mistrust anything said by officialdom about the event.

Trustworthy feedback mechanisms, which respect the people, could have prevented most of this. Once people have no compelling reason to trust anything you have to say, just how effective is your expertise anyway? (Without tear gas, billy clubs, preventive detention, etc.)


Stephen 05.26.12 at 2:06 pm


No, that isn’t at all the question I’m asking, and I don’t think your interpretation follows from anything I wrote. But I’ll try again.

Dunn makes a distinction between policies that are desirable but only logically possible, and those that are both desirable and sociologically possible. (Not an original distinction, of course, but neatly expressed.) Some people have attempted to achieve the first come what may, with deplorable results: you asked for examples, and you don’t seem to disagree with the ones I gave.

But of course it does not follow that everyone who makes proposals that are sociologically impossible will in fact try to achieve them come what may. Like you, I do not at all suppose that the estimable Henry would ever “impose ghastly results on lots of innocent people” for the sake of his belief that “a genuine commitment to democracy is a commitment to political radicalism”; though others, believing themselves committed to political radicalism of one sort or another, have unfortunately done just that.

My question is, rather, into which of Dunn’s two classes does Henry’s proposal fit? LFC@116 is of course quite right in saying that the boundary between them is often a matter of opinion; my own tentative opinion is that Henry’s proposal is perhaps desirable if things were very different from what they are in a large number of societies, and remains only logically possible until those societies change.


William Timberman 05.26.12 at 2:07 pm

I should add that while it may be unreasonable to expect that everyone affected will be consulted/involved before a decision is taken, it is certainly not unreasonable to expect the deciding parties to consider seriously, and honestly, whether or not their decision is likely to be ratified afterwards by those it affects. Both are elements of responsible governance.

Power relationships are unavoidable, but abuse of them will, over time, destabilize any system of governance.


Cranky Observer 05.26.12 at 2:45 pm

= = = Stephen 05.26.12 at 2:06 pm: “My question is, rather, into which of Dunn’s two classes does Henry’s proposal fit? ” = = =

From whence comes the assumption that there are only two classes, and that “sociologically possible” is not only a variable but a variable whose controlling knob can be physically repositioned? Acceptance of gay marriage is an excellent example: it took 60 years of hard work to get the dial installed and calibrated to the point where ‘society’ was even willing to start discussing where it should be set. If no one had taken on that preliminary work for fear of imposing ghastly results on innocents by attempting the impossible then it would never have become possible.



Cranky Observer 05.26.12 at 2:52 pm

Decision making by inclusion of all affected perspectives & stakeholders:



William Timberman 05.26.12 at 2:59 pm

Cranky, clever as that video is, it doesn’t make Steve Jobs a philosopher king. A sense of proportion here, as everywhere, is essential. Maybe that’s exactly what’s missing in our current sense of what everyone is due as a citizen.


philofra 05.26.12 at 3:42 pm

@ 117 : “I don’t think that the government planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, but clearly it lied about a lot of inconvenient facts surrounding that attack—such as the toxic contents of the air around ground zero. This gives even sweetly reasonable people every incentive to mistrust anything said by officialdom about the event.”

I think this is taking a narrow view. Eventually the truth came out about the toxic content of the air at ground zero, and not that long after. And this speaks to the systematics that the authors of this paper are talking about, where a cognitive system exists in which the truth will emerge and thus democracy prevails. Under an authoritarian regime the truth would have taken decades to come out.

Today, because of the numerous communication methods, it is extremely difficult to cover things as once was the case. Nevertheless, there are those who will always try.


novakant 05.26.12 at 3:43 pm

# 121

Decision making by a deluded billionaire a##hole:

No Blu-ray on the Mac
Glossy Screens


Cranky Observer 05.26.12 at 3:51 pm

William Timberman 05.26.12 at 2:59 pm: ” Cranky, clever as that video is, it doesn’t make Steve Jobs a philosopher king. ” = = =

I agree – it was meant as a more lighthearted version of my 05.26.12 at 12:10 am for a Saturday morning (here in UTC-5). And I very much agree with philofra

philofra 05.26.12 at 1:33 pm: ” This is the kind of article that keeps me awake, wondering what it means and what I can add to it. I have been studying democracy for twenty years and it’s a complex subject, contingent on many, many things.” = = =

in that earlier this week I was thinking that there had been some fun threads here on CT recently but I sorta wished for more of the deeper academic analysis and discussion posts that my path in life has taken me away from.

Generally I try to hold myself back from commenting in those academic threads as my input is not up the standard of scholarship and citation that this post of Henry’s, for example, deserves. And the plural of anecdote is not data, etc. Yet at the same time there seems to a great reluctance to accept input from the world of implementation (“anecdata”) as counterexample sufficient to at least cast serious doubt on the validity or universality of a theory.

As an semi-OT example I’ve studied formalized microeconomics through the graduate level including a fair amount of pricing in the firm [1] and those theories are interesting, useful, and occasionally valuable. At the same time I’ve also worked for three actual firms large/influential enough to have pricing power in their markets (two North American, one global) and I can report that the theories laid down in Micro 501 had very little to do with how price-setting occurs. I’ve also been responsible for providing the data used in pricing decisions at several firms and I can tell you with 100% certainty that the data that would be needed as input to Micro-style pricing decisions is of uncertain quality at best and often simply does not exist at all within a firm (you’d be shocked…). Yet such reports from the field [2] are generally not seen as meaningful counterexamples to a theory.

Hence my somewhat irreverent attempts to point out that there are other viewpoints and some serious questions about the wisdom-of-crowds theories, as well as some substantial examples where driven and brilliant individuals have effected change that thousands of brainstorming meetings would never have accomplished. Steve Jobs was not a philosopher-king (thank Gaia, at least on the ‘king’ part) but IMHO the iPhone has changed global society in substantial ways which neither competition nor design-by-committee managed to accomplish – and they were trying. But if the iPhone example is unpersuasive there is still that of Robert Moses [3].


[1] At least, as it stood what we’ll call a “few” years ago.

[2] Which admittedly are very hard to document unless one is a HBS case study development team, as those of us in industry have generally signed confidentiality agreements and in any case like to keep our jobs and the roofs over our heads (hence my anonymity). And even there I have watched a highly capable academic team attempt to document the culture and processes of an area within a cohesive corporation with the full blessing of the CEO and been totally buffaloed by the ground troops from the day they walked in the front door. So academics may be right to disregard such anecdata, especially from anonymous contributors.

[3] On net a negative force for NYC and city design as a whole, in my opinion, but his actions and whatever guiding principles were behind them irrevocably changed the US urban fabric and ultimately enabled the creation of today’s exurban megalopolis.


Cranky Observer 05.26.12 at 3:54 pm

= = = William Timberman 05.26.12 at 2:59 pm: ” Cranky, clever as that video is, it doesn’t make Steve Jobs a philosopher king.” = = =

I now have a long comment in moderation (either due to length or to my changing e-mail addresses) which may not see the light day until Tuesday, so let me just say I don’t disagree with your comment here! The nuances take a bit longer.



geo 05.26.12 at 4:08 pm

Thank you, Stephen @118, for the explanation. I still think it would be helpful if you got a bit more specific and said what it is about Henry’s conception of democracy you found impracticable and/or why you thought it might lead to unfortunate consequences. Just intoning the phrase “political radicalism,” and giving a few examples that don’t seem to have much to do with anything Henry is proposing, doesn’t quite clear it up for me.


William Timberman 05.26.12 at 4:25 pm

philophra @ 123

Well, that’s the hope, anyway. However, consider how much of the alternate universe of the military industrial complex remains hidden from us despite the best efforts of a myriad of excellent skeptics and investigators. One suspects that a good deal of it remains hidden even from the people who are ostensibly in charge of it.

Transparency, flexibility, malleable power centers rather than ossified ones, that’s the spirit of democracy in the sense that Henry and Cosma, geo, Bruce Wilder, et al., are aiming at, I think, if not actually the letter according to narrower and more traditional definitions. Cognitive democracy is the first part, but only the first part of what’s needed.


William Timberman 05.26.12 at 4:42 pm

Cranky Observer @ 125

I look forward to it.


Brian Donnelly 05.26.12 at 4:47 pm

I can’t believe people are taking this paper seriously. I’ve never read such a psuedo-intellectual bunch of nonsense. The author takes little care in his use of the English language. What is a “cognitive approach to democracy?” Does that mean thinking about democracy? “However, the most vexing problems are usually ones without any very obvious solutions.” You’ve got to be kidding me. This paper is littered with this stuff. First piece of advice to the author, make sure the words you use communicate something useful. Make sure the words mean something, and don’t just make you sound smart.

That criticism aside, the premise of the argument above demonstrates, in my humble opinion, a complete lack of understanding of human nature. When groups come together, diversity is never emphasized. That’s why they call it “group think” or “heard mentality” or “the mob”, and the antidote, “thinking outside the box”. While free markets are self-interested, they are far more efficient at accomplishing objectives than any other model. Perhaps you’d like the plain folks to take control of Apple and have it run as a democracy?

As someone who’s worked for the “people” (at the U.S. Senate, and for a government contractor), who’s been a lobbyist, and who now owns a global trading company, I can say from experience, the average Joe is in no way qualified to pick the people to spend the $3-4 trillion of hard-earned taxpayer dollars. I have never seen such waste and incompetence as I did following the leaders picked by the voters. …nor have I seen such accountability and competence as in a competitive business.

That all being said, democracy is in fact the least of all evils. But I put no more faith in it than I put on letting my plumber run my trading business. At least the plumber feels empowered, and he might not do that much damage.

“Democracy is the pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” -HL Mencken


tomslee 05.26.12 at 4:54 pm

If anyone here runs out of things to do while waiting for Henry to return from his holiday, I strongly recommend reading geo at The New Inquiry on How Bad Is It?


Brian Donnelly 05.26.12 at 5:46 pm

My original comment i still awaiting moderation, perhaps because I wrote without fear of moderation. So here’s the tamer response.

Democracy simply has no history of demonstrating any sort of collective wisdom, nor does democracy have a track record of solving complex problems. The reason Steve Jobs was in charge of Apple, and why it’s beaten the pants off its rivals is because he was better at it than everyone else. No other system than free markets so ruthlessly punishes incompetence. If the role of CEO of Apple was chosen by democracy, Apple is out of business. …and I would add, I don’t trust the rabble to hire the person responsible for spending $3-4trillion in taxpayer money. It’s the marriage of free speech and free markets that solves the complex problems. Democracy’s contribution is no greater than that of religion, zero to negative.


mtraven 05.26.12 at 6:59 pm

Shorter of tomslee’s link: democracy would be great if it wasn’t for all those stupid people.

Hard to disagree with that, except it goes against the democratic hopes of the present paper, and is more in line with the libertarian Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, company which I’m sure nobody wants to find themselves in (my comments). The thesis of that book was that democracy was bad because voters are ill-informed and irrational. It viewed voting as a purely individual act, and ignored the social network effects and conversations that underlie a functioning democracy.

So are citizens stupid, atomized sheep, existing only to be manipulated by mass media, or are they engaged actors in a cognitive network? Mostly the former, but it may be that the small fraction who are in the latter category are enough.


Ron Watts 05.26.12 at 7:21 pm

Sid Itchybum makes an interesting point, fortunately repeatedly. As well a close look at capitalism shows it to be in stark contrast and both anti and undemocratic. Democracy would see a level playing field that leads to equality among citizens whereas capitalism is a quest for supremacy leaving all behind financially. The superrich of course acquire super influence with government and the one person, one vote becomes meaningless. Religion, capitalism and all sorts of other trashy concepts can be allowed in a democracy as long as they don’t challenge. To prevent challenges, all except democracy itself should be regulated until unable to present challenges. Religous influence and financial greed keep chewing up the social reforms democracy is able to create. Equality, (it is the journey, not the destination, people are different) roughly results from democracy.


Brian Donnelly 05.26.12 at 8:06 pm

This is my third comment (first two censored), so I’ll blithely respond to mtraven to say the evidence for the small fraction of the latter category making a difference is non-existent. America has been saddled with mediocre leaders since its founding. The truth is the common man is not able to evaluate the qualities of a good leader, and the truth known to a potentially good leader, when shared with the masses, makes him un-electable. It’s why so many of us, who have the means and abilities, lack the motivation to try. As evidence, >50% of Americans claim they would never vote for a non-believer. …that the non-believer would have some moral deficit. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite. Anyway, I would say anyone who thinks democracy has much to contribute to solving complex problems needs only look at the fact that just about every industrialized democracy has run up unsustainable levels of debt, that will immorally pass on to future generations, and that have left the global economy at a level of distress that few can imagine today.

“Politics, under a democracy, reduces itself to a mere struggle for office by flatterers of the proletariat; even when a superior man prevails at that disgusting game he must prevail at the cost of his self-respect. Not many superior men make the attempt. The average great captain of the rabble, when he is not simply a weeper over irremediable wrongs, is a hypocrite so far gone that he is unconscious of his own hypocrisy—a slimy fellow, offensive to the nose.”

“The theory behind representative government is that superior men—or at all events, men not inferior to the average in ability and integrity—are chosen to manage the public business, and that they carry on this work with reasonable intelligence and honesty. There is little support for that theory in the known facts.”

“Who are A’s betters? They are all persons whom he envies, and with whom he would willingly change places. The essence of the superior man is that he is free of such envy. Conscious of his capacity to survive and prosper within his own field, he has no desire to change places with anyone else, and hence he is incapable of envying anyone else. Thus he is inevitably a bad democrat, for democracy as a practical matter is based mainly and perhaps almost wholly on envy.” -HL Mencken


bianca steele 05.26.12 at 8:43 pm

Interesting discussion about what democracy is. Up to a certian point in certan cases it is possible to get really good results by distributing accountability widely even in the absence of decision making responsibility or authority or even knowledge, but nobody thinks it should be thought of as democracy.


Chris Bertram 05.26.12 at 9:58 pm

[Just a note to a person currently languishing in the moderation queue: the software autodetects if you’ve never posted here before and we approve your post manually. Thereafter, your comments should be approved automatically unless they are enormously long or contain hotlinks or certain keywords. But if you start by conduction yourself in an assholish manner and then screaming “censorship” because of something the software did, you’re comments are unlikely to see the light of day.]


Jim Rose 05.27.12 at 12:15 am

do you realise hoq boring most people find politics to be.

Dick Morris made hs name as a pollster by polling at malls. his theory was politics was a distraction for most. at malls, when people were rushing to or from, you catch that mood.


chris 05.27.12 at 12:43 am

The thesis of that book was that democracy was bad because voters are ill-informed and irrational.

Bad compared to what? Philosopher-kings? Voters may be ill-informed and irrational, but at least it’s hard for them to have interests divergent from the rest of society (unless of course you have a disenfranchised permanent underclass, which some nominally democratic countries do in fact have). Most of the historical alternatives have pretty quickly fallen into “these policies are good for the people who matter, and the rest don’t matter” equilibria.

On the other hand, I think it is a valid criticism of democracy that it relies in some sense on the majority of people being able to tell truth from lies; if you can fool 51% of the people once every few years, then democracy becomes pseudocracy — rule by the most convincing liars. What, if anything, can be done about this?

Democracy and markets are both often lauded for creating a sort of competition of ideas (for votes and dollars respectively) that is supposed to weed out useless, impractical or just plain wrong ideas and allow the most effective to rise to the top. (Sagan analogized democracy to science on this basis.) But as long as human beings are refereeing the arena of ideas, ideas and their backers can cheat, either with deliberate fraud or with appeals to human emotional and cognitive biases. (Just repeating something over and over again is enough to convince some people. And if you don’t believe that, I’ll keep saying it until you do.) The best idea doesn’t always, or even usually, win in many areas of market or democratic competition. (I’ll leave the history of science equivalent to another thread, but suffice it to say, Newton also nods.)

Modern markets are often regulated to (attempt to) keep out the lemons, quacks and Ponzis that the history of less-regulated markets demonstrated consumers are often unable to spot and reject for themselves; but who can do the same for the ballot, and how?


Jim Rose 05.27.12 at 3:55 am

chris, most of what governments do is done because it is popular with the voters.

Special interests get a look in but the main game is the whims of the voters.

The argument against the manufacture of consent and the power of persuasive advertising is that it is easier to find out what the voter wants and give it to them, than to change their minds.

There is a very good book about somewhere that defends negative campaigning:
– Positive political advertising is mostly self-serving puffery
– Negative ads bring both the differences between candidate and past performance into sharper focus

Parties that do not connect with the media voter do not get re-elected.


Data Tutashkhia 05.27.12 at 8:21 am

chris, most of what governments do is done because it is popular with the voters.

I can’t talk about all governments, but according to my observations, in the US this is not true at all. What is or isn’t popular with the voters is irrelevant. Or, rather, it’s either an advantage to use, or an obstacle to overcome.

Parties that do not connect with the media[n?] voter do not get re-elected.

This is correct, but, in an environment where the voters are atomized individuals who spend the bulk of their time watching TV, connecting with voters requires nothing more than a media campaign. And media campaigns are expensive. Therefore: parties that don’t have money do not get re-elected. Parties that don’t have rich sponsors do not get re-elected. Rich people and businesses don’t need media campaigns to know what’s good for them. Therefore: parties that don’t look after the interests of their rich backers, in a real, no bullshit way, don’t get re-elected.

Consider the ’93-94 health care reform story. At the beginning, IIRC, about 70% of the voters favored a universal healthcare system. Then, insurance companies ran TV ads, the infamous ‘Harry and Louise’ ads (, and the support for universal healthcare dropped below 50%. It’s that simple.


bobsnodgrass 05.27.12 at 3:15 pm

Adjustments recommended:
1. Democracy is a dimension; its extent varies within and between governments.
2. Review the differences between group reasoning and individual reasoning
a. groups are inherently unequal; humans differ in mental capacity, energy, social skills and wealth. Many great leaders of the past were much bigger than average: George Washington, Sam Houston, Lyndon Johnson, etc. People usually respect a big man more than a small woman.
b. 2nd graders may appear to share equally when supervised by adults. Junior high and high school reveal the hierarchical nature of human society (this is one of the reasons that humans and dogs generally get on well). We resist admitting how hierarchical human society is, even when wealth is not an issue, we won’t see it even though it stands out in PTAs, church groups, etc.
c. Most individual decisions are based on intuition (Kahneman’s system 1, see Thinking Fast and Slow) or group pressures. Schools ignore analytical thinking when they teach to the test, emphasize patriotism, etc. Considering deeds rather than words, those in power, now or 5000 years ago, dislike analytical thinking.
d. Rousseau or Rawls may postulate a state of nature, but in the last ten thousand years, humans have been born into societies with unequal distribution of property and privileges- communist, capitalist or Islamic states all include hierarchies of privilege. We begin both genetically and materially unequal, that’s one reason that we seek equality.
e. We consistently underestimate the importance of narrative, of a life story that “makes sense” and of memes or Jung’s collective unconscious to actions and decisions. Advertisers and priests know this. That narrative may be resistance to a group or idea, as in white supremacy.

2. Group decision making is surely better with people of disparate background, but that need not imply democracy. Do we have disparate decision makers in our political culture? Deliberative democracy is a meme; it has rarely existed and becomes less likely as the size of governmental units increase.

Do governments exist to solve problems? I think not. Their main goal to enable a group of people to help themselves and their friends. That’s why the US was founded. Although theorists carry on about social justice, justice is over-rated. Humans generally tolerate extremely repressive and unjust governments until a sudden snap or tipping point. Our media-soaked culture is perhaps less stable and more readily brought to a tipping point, but I don’t know to prove that. Homogeneity is also important. Japan is less likely to snap apart than the US or Brazil.

History is written by the victors, governments operate for the benefit of those in power. Marx was simplistic because he ignored the tremendous role of non-economic factors, persuasion, memes, etc (although he called religion the opiate of the masses). The free market is a meme or rhetorical device. Prices can be decision makers, but they are not the only decision makers. Hayek considered a brief period in human history; he assumed that the wealthy deserved their status and would not take advantage of others.

You give too much attention to the global warming problem and the mathematical model of hill climbing and optimization. Models of numerical optimization are nice, but the biggest problem for societies is not to identify solutions or optima, it is “selling the solution”. I have spoken with many US politicians. Eighty percent agreed that increased gasoline taxes and a single payer healthcare system separate from any profit motive would be good for the country, but they immediately said “that’s a pipe dream, not politically possible”. They can’t see a way to sell the solution. Self-aggrandizing special interests are not limited to capitalist societies, consider Mao’s cultural revolution. The problem for governments is not ignorance of science, it’s that they limit their planning horizon to the short term and are sponsored by/captured by powerful elites.

Democracy is an ideal that is only approached; more democratic societies do much better with succession problems than others, hence their greater longevity. The more complex the society, the greater its difficulty in overcoming an unprecedented problem.


Stephen 05.27.12 at 5:41 pm

If I had introduced the phrase “political radicalism” as a bugbear of my own, and gone on about it with no relevance to the main topic, you would be quite right to complain.

But actually it was introduced by Henry himself, in a sentence which I find saddening in its implications. “A genuine commitment to democracy”, he wrote,” is a commitment to political radicalism”.

Surely one has the right to comment on declarations by the original poster?

As for why I find it saddening: as well as the other objections made against Henry’s (very well argued, very interesting) post by other readers, I would advance this. If Henry is right in his definition of a genuine commitment to democracy, we must conclude that the great majority of the electorate in the US, and most other countries, who are not in fact committed to political radicalism to judge by the way they freely vote, have no genuine commitment to democracy. I find that patronising, to say the least. But if that is so, the chances of Henry’s proposed actions being sociologically possible are not good.


geo 05.27.12 at 5:52 pm

Fair enough, Stephen. I’ll leave it to Henry to defend his formulation, if he cares to.


Stephen 05.27.12 at 6:44 pm

Fair enough, geo. Henry is I hope enjoying his holiday.


Metatone 05.27.12 at 9:50 pm

Possibly too late, but I think it’s worth noting that one potential problem with democracy when faced with something like global warming is that it’s a global problem and not only is there not a single global democracy, there isn’t even a collection of national democracies, rather a mix of democracies and others…


David King 05.28.12 at 3:49 am

This is a thought provoking post, for which I am thankful.

It seems to me that a comparison of democracy to “market economy” to hierarchy, is comparing apples to oranges to grapes.

For a global audience it is not helpful to assume that democracy has only one form (the one a particular reader is familiar with) or that it is made manifest in a (particular) State. But, for the purpose of the paper, one needs an understanding of what is meant by democracy. I like what Paul Woodruff teased out in his classic “First Democracy”. With him, I would understand democracy to be a goal constrained by values boundaries: that we might live without tyranny and without being a tyrant, that we might live in harmony, enjoying the rule of law, and that, in order for this to happen, citizen wisdom has to be employed so that there might be wisdom without knowledge applied to future (uncertain circumstances), for which public education is imperative. Whether Canada or the U.S. or any other country has attained the goal, there might be widespread agreement about the goal and perhaps even widespread agreement about the value boundaries.

As well, a democracy is a body politic, not a body corporate, and this has profound impact on the deliberative, decision-making, and implementing process of a democracy, setting it quite apart from a body corporate. Particularly, ‘the public’ is inherent in a democracy. A democracy has no being independent of its citizens. A corporation is a ‘person’ independent of its shareholders and its employees: it has a life of its own, and it has a right (and obligation) to defend its own life against contentious shareholders or employees. We who are democrats (citizens or governments) don’t accord the Government of Syria the right to defend its own life against the citizens of Syria (although the Assad family is making a mighty effort.)

A hierarchy, being an organizational model, but not a resource allocation model or a political representation of ‘the public’ may be the preferred way in which a democracy or a market chooses to organize its deliberative process, or its decision-making process, or its implementation process.

For the sake of (perhaps) enriching the dialogue, I would suggest that “market economy” is not a goal and does not contain value boundaries. The market economy is simply one resource allocation process. As such it is (1) a sub-system of any society — democratic or otherwise, and (2) impossible to compare to a democracy.

There is, I believe, an additional problem. The market economy has evolved to throw off a shoot that has become so large as to threaten the original trunk. There is no doubt that Adam Smith’s original “market” was one of face-to-face and recurring human contact. It was relational and, at the time of Adam Smith, essentially not corporate. It was value laden because the law had not yet given corporations ‘natural person powers’ and had not yet mandated that corporations should operate without “a soul to be seared or a body to be imprisoned’. Smith’ relational market economy continues to exist, more or less, on main street in the U.S. and in many other nations. But the capitalist market economy that is now so dominant is not at all the same thing as the market economy described by Smith. The capitalist economy is a-relational and its meeting place is the casino (or the server farm), not the agora. Plumbers and flower store owners are fooling themselves if they believe they must defend J.P. Morgan because the bank is on the front lines of the plumbers’ economy.

And then, it appears to me that hierarchy is an organizational model that is independent of the resource allocation model and independent again of the citizenry and the constituent assembly.

To start from another point, good collective problem-solving depends not only on diversity but also — more important — on trust, which results from on-going peer-to-peer (in the democratic sense) relationships. The dominant and trending market (the capital market) is not relational. It is deliberately a-relational. Hierarchies are not peer-based.

The social test (not the resource allocation test) of a deliberative and decision-making process is three-fold. (1) Does it provide freedom from tyranny and lead toward justice? (2) Is it useful in helping us solve complex (wicked) problems, characterized by contention about values? and, (3) Does it tend to preserve social cohesion through stressful circumstances (such as the war against Syracuse or the Viet Nam war)?

The long-term stability of large organizations, depends upon morale and that, in turn, depends upon participants having a sense of being producers of something, not always consumers. Both in the capitalized ‘market’ and in the lower reaches of the hierarchy, the majority of people are consumers, not producers. In the model of the organization (the mirror in which they see themselves) they are parasites, not symbiots.

Market based forms of organization do a poor job of organizing information about future prospects (such as environmental degradation) for many reasons (treating knowledge as proprietary and confidential; collecting information exclusively rather than inclusively, etc.). This may explain why very bright people got the Facebook IPO wrong, or why JP Morgan lost $2 – 5 billion on recent trades.

Libertarian paternalism is a happier label for the Roman Catholic concept of subsidiarity. Yes, “decisions should be made as close as possible to the people who will live with the consequences, but the man at the very top should make the decisions about where all the decisions should be made, and the man at the top can move the decision from one level to another whenever he chooses, without explanation.”

Power is a critical concept. Both the market and hierarchies operate with a zero sum game power formulation. Democracy operates with a positive sum game formulation of power.

My thanks again, to the authors. They have given me miles to go before I sleep.


Rick Searle 05.29.12 at 1:48 am

I should start out by saying that I find the project you are working noble and your paper fascinating. That said, you asked readers for critical feedback in the spirit of your thesis, and hopefully I am not too late to the party to add my own.
To start, I believe it is somewhat dangerous to base the argument for democracy on any utilitarian criteria such as better decision making. Democracy is about the freedom to contribute to collective decisions –period. Even if a good argument could be made that it was THE WORST way to make decisions or promoting happiness or any other criteria we would probably all, upon reflection, still choose to be small “d” democrats.
A home-spun example might best show what I mean. Suppose a genie came to you and said that from now on he was going to make all of your decisions for you; he would tell you what to eat, who to marry, how to live. Suppose this genie could also guarantee that based on his decisions you would be happier and more successful than you had ever been in your life. Would you surrender control to the genie?

The fact that we even pause when considering this question seems to indicate that something beyond mere effectiveness or happiness is at stake when we talk about the ability to make decisions, something about being an adult. And that is what democracy does- it forces us to act like adults.

That said I think there are also questions as to your model of collective decision making that need to be addressed. Your model seems to assume that there is a “wisdom of crowds” when the latest research appears to point in the opposite direction.
Take the famous case of a crowd betting on the weight of a cow. Their collective wisdom seems to miraculously discover the correct weight. But there is one major caveat. The wisdom of crowds disappears once people START TALKING TO ONE ANOTHER. Once people start telling each other what they think it results in changed estimates based on the input of the group:

I am not sure how your thesis can assimilate a finding like that.

Your paper also seems to assume people naturally play the pluralist game, LISTEN to one another and change their opinions based on feedback. I do not think anything like this will occur unless a forum based upon these pluralist assumptions is provided in advance, and like other people who have commented on your paper, I do not believe that American democracy as currently constituted provides such a forum.

Your thesis also seems to believe that more information gives rise to consensus when the opposite seems to be the case. The more we know the more information we have to defend our position and the less likely we are to listen to the other guy. abstract_id=1871503&

There are also dangers to collective decision making outside of politics that suggest our passion for the group is suffocating individuals who need room to breathe- to think creatively.

What I think should be done is that rather than, as the liberal paternalists propose, use recent advances in cognitive science to build a better plutocracy, we should use it instead to build a better democracy that would somehow balance out the flaws in human nature while at the same time extending its deliberative aspects to create a new and freer form of government- efficient or not.

I think this is the path you have begun to travel on with your thought provoking paper.


Martin Bento 05.29.12 at 6:04 am

While I agree with most everything in the paper, it seems to me that a discussion of the cognitive potential of these kinds of network structures should include the characteristics of the network structures themselves, particularly if you invoke a von Misesian account of the market, which is concerned with knowledge that emerges from the structure itself, not just from the exchange of data, i.e., there are things the system can discover that no individual participant knows or could (otherwise) know because of the relationships among the parts.

Consider the simplest possible form of representative democracy. An electorate selects a governor, who governs until the next election. This is a network with a spoke structure. There are lines of control running in both directions, which is good for information flow, but as a structure to generate cognition: very unpromising. The structure does not require any of the voters to evaluate or respond to information from any others, so it does not lead to information being processed. Voters will so respond, of course, to the extent and in the manner they are inclined, but the structure itself does not impose nor particularly encourage it. Although this model is very simple, our elections do have something of this character. Obama and Romney appeal to voters, who then vote for Romney or Obama (leaving aside the undemocratic aberration of the electoral college). Parliamentary systems are more indirect, but, even so, there is a sense in which Margaret Thatcher asked the populace to vote for her and most who voted did. As one might expect from such a structure, the current election like most others looks to be mind-numbingly stupid, turning largely on trivial, vapid, and/or dishonest rhetoric and superficial impressions. This despite the fact that the stakes are very high, and very capable people are involved in the process.

The simplest form of hierarchy is worse. One dictator, more than one subject: also, a spoke structure, but with the lines of control in only one direction, inhibiting information flow. The dictator version is even less scalable than the democratic one. A society of several hundred people might do alright with the simple democracy above, but in any dictatorship larger than, say, the Manson Family, there will need to be lieutenants. Domination is expensive.

But hierarchy has this advantage: it can recurse – to arbitrary levels of nesting and without losing the advantages of hierarchy, such as simplified decision-making. Hierarchy of hierarchies of hierarchies is the ordinary form of large organizations worldwide. Information flows up and down, though more efficiently down. It flows through nodes, each of which processes it. It is filtered and summarized as it moves up the tree, and expounded as it moves down. Every node in the hierarchy has to react to information from above, and should also to information from below, as “below” is the source of your power and a likely source of threats to that power (at a minimum, you must decide whether to ignore a particular piece of information from subordinates). Hence, each item of information is touched by many minds.

Still, there are problems. If the hierarchy is strict, there is only one path upwards or downwards to a given destination for information, and, if there is interference in that path, the information will not reach there. The unequal power relations create conflict among the nodes, not determined by and often destructive to the function of the structure. Hierarchies are famous for palace intrigue, military coups, office politics. Sequestering information, or, better, information sources, is frequently a good power strategy, so people have to bargain with you for the information. This inhibits information-flow in the organization. Finally, the structure is stiff. Because reconfigurations affect power and status, they are contested and fraught, and because people must generally have only one boss, many possible connections are arbitrarily ruled out. Impairment at making new connections is a serious cognitive limitation.

Finally, the market. Buyers find new sellers and vice versa all the time, so the fluidity of connection that hierarchies lack is present and is the primary generator of competition. But, as Coase argued, the fact that hierarchies – firms – exist within markets must mean that some of the economic functions of production, distribution, etc, are more efficiently handled by authority than by bargaining (I think that a soft “must”, but the conclusion correct nonetheless). He famously attributed this to the transaction costs associated with bargaining, but that is not the whole story. The market is like the world’s most eloquent Magic 8 Ball: it will respond to anything, but can only say a few things. In the OP example, a price on carbon can abstract out tremendous detailed knowledge of production and distribution if you simply want to quantify carbon load, but the people actually involved in the production and distribution need the detailed knowledge, at least their slice of it. Price signals don’t have the bandwidth for all the information needed to produce things.

So we have democracy, where players generally have an incentive to promote information, because securing broad agreement is the way to be effective, but where the structure requires no responsiveness to others, other than by candidates to the majority. In a pure form, the connections are fairly fluid because one can switch candidates every election, and there are no other necessary connections. We have hierarchy, where players have an incentive to be selective with information, but where they must react to their neighbors in the network, and where the structure will cause information to be evaluated by multiple parties as it traverses the network. Reconfiguration of connections is costly because it is almost always contrary to the interests of someone, and the entire structure is conflict-ridden by nature. We have the market, where there is rich signaling through price, which eliminates great amounts of information, but also eliminates the need for it for some purposes, those being the purposes for which the market is suited. Reconfiguration is usually easy, and when it is not – because of monopoly or lock-in, for example – the efficiency of the market is compromised. In markets, too, players frequently have an incentive to sequester information. Thus, cognitively, each structure has advantages and disadvantages.

An important advantage of hierarchy is recursion. Can democracy recurse? Well, it does. Voters vote for a party, who selects MPs, who select a PM. The problem is that, while recursion does not make hierarchies less hierarchical, it does make democracies less democratic, at least as practiced. The advantage of democracy is accountability to the broad electorate, which, among other things, helps ensure that all ideas are at least considered. Layers of indirection undermine this, in favor of some of the advantage of hierarchy, which is that ideas are processed and synthesized, rather than just selected among.

As for democracy and markets, in a sense a vote is even lower bandwidth than a price, as a vote is binary (you get it or you don’t), whereas a price is scalar. But votes are secured with information, and are meant to transmit complex information, while prices are informationally self-sufficient. All you need to know about the seller (assuming a basic level of trust) is the price, whereas a candidate has to at least know why she got the votes she did, and is best off understanding this as well as possible.

Is there a form of democracy that could have some of the cognitive advantages of hierarchy and markets without losing its own advantages? I have some ideas along this line, but before I go on further, I’ll see if anyone is still listening.


Lee Drutman 05.29.12 at 2:30 pm

I’ve posted some thoughts on your excellent essay here:

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

From a historical perspective, Both Athenian and American democracy began at a scale at which “cognitive democracy” was possible. The polis was small enough that individual citizens could engage with each other and meaningfully exchange knowledge, and power was widely enough dispersed to facilitate optimal problem-solving. But diversity was lacking. This was largely democracy for rich white males.

Over the years, diversity has obviously increased, but so has scale, in a way that has impeded the ebb and flow of exchange and debate. Government has become increasingly distant and abstract for most individuals, and politics has (perhaps by necessity) become more performative and less interactive. Money has become far more important, and the growth of professional lobbying alongside it has undermined the equality of power. So the modern era has not exactly been a golden time for the problem-solving potential of democracy. No wonder that the allure of markets and hierarchies to solve complex social problems has grown, and that the “government is the problem” meme has caught on.

But, as Farrell and Shalizi explore, technology has the power to change that.

New technology facilitates collaborative decision-making in a way that has not been possible before in a modern-scale democracy, through wikis and other knowledge aggregation possibilities.

We at Sunlight have advocated for public markups and started our own website to do this. I’ve also personally argued (in a Brookings paper) that all lobbying (both professional and constituent) should be done through an online clearinghouse in which everybody can productively engaged with everybody else in an open and transparent way.

If Farrell and Shalizi are correct in their assertion that institutions that maximize relative equality and diversity viewpoint are best able to solve problems (And my guess is that they are), the potential for an Internet-enabled democracy is tremendous. This begs the question of how we can get there. We think that more transparency and more public data would be a good start.


Henry 05.29.12 at 4:59 pm

A round-up of responses.

Peter T – yes, we should try to be more specific, but given our priors, it is hard to be specific _in advance._ On global warming – it is not clear to me that this is a problem of democracy _per se_, as opposed to being a problem of a world of states working in a global system which is (a) not democratic, and (b) tends to exaggerate differences.

George – the issue here, as I see it, is that there is a long line of deliberation arguments which latch onto the rather bloodless ideals of Habermas, and transpose them onto a goo-goo early 20th century progressive dislike of partisan politics to construct a wafty and etherial understanding of politics, in which deliberative pixie dust magically makes clashes of interest and of perspective vanish. I don’t think that this is at all realistic – and I think that one can save the ideal of democratic _argument_ without relying on this kind of aspiration. Here, the Mercier and Sperber paper is very helpful and interesting indeed. Habermas is less a direct target than e.g. James Fishkin.

Stephen – our paper is not only an aspirational one, but a defense of the messiness of actually-existing democracy. Democracy has flaws, certainly, which is why we think that learning from Internet-led experimentalism (n.b. _not_ the same thing as Internet-utopianism – there are lessons about what not to do too) is a good way forward.

Tom – many thanks – we do indeed need a couple of killer-app anecdotes if this is ever to be a massive popular hit. The conditions for learning and experimentalism are key. Cosma, I know, is planning a paper on diffusion which is possibly going to be relevant (there is an interesting literature developing on the circumstances under which policies diffuse, when this is as a result of actual learning, etc). A bit of vagueness is perhaps strategically valuable – a frequently repeated slur about Mark Granovetter is that he has never defined the word ’embeddedness’ very specifically, because its very looseness is what has made it so popular. But this is not, of course, to say that we _intend_ to remain vague – later iterations will strive for greater specificity.

MQ – yes, absolutely. We have started to think about this, because voting is _important_ – while we stress the conversational aspect of democracy, voting allows people who might otherwise feel uncomfortable to engage in argument to have their say in some sense. Of course, this then falls victim to the usual problems of preference aggregation – but we aren’t arguing for first-best schemes of allocation, simply for better (while still imperfect) methods of discovery. There will be more on this in later extensions, not fully satisfying, I fear, but still better than the absence that you notice.

Fr. – Ellen commented on one of the distant ancestors of this paper – wouldn’t hold her responsible for what we have done since though …

Brooks Gracie and others – yes – this is all still very theoretical. We _think_ that there are practical applications in the US and other actually-existing democracies, and hope to write a sort-of-trying-to-be-a-popular-book on this at some point, if we can develop our ideas well enough to land a contract. We don’t think that polarization (within broad limits) is itself a problem, as long as there is some sense of partisan responsibility, and appropriate institutions to challenge it. The extremeness of current US polarization on the right (although the crazy may actually have _diminished_ among the true believers since the 1960s – I am re-reading Perlstein’s _Before the Storm_), and institutions designed around consensus result in the clusterfuck that we see today.

cranky observer – Moses wasn’t as dominant as you might think – see Bob Fitch’s book – and we (or at least, I – this response comment has not been cleared by Cosma) are more on Jane Jacob’s side. The question is whether we expect _in general_ that Jacobs type solutions will trump Moses type solutions – and, given appropriate small-d democratic institutions, I think our bet would be yes. Starting a paragraph with bq. should indent it nicely btw.

Sherman – yes. There are a set of implicit arguments about the generation and dissemination of social knowledge which we rest on, but don’t bring out (we only have 8,000 words for this piece). More broadly, we know _very little_ about how this knowledge gets generated. Russell Hardin’s _How Do We Know_ talks about this, but is a little disappointing. Dan Sperber’s work on culture provides a nice theory, that could be applied more broadly, but hasn’t been yet, I don’t think.

Tim Wilkinson – can do in next draft.

mtraven – yes. We don’t have any good _ex ante_ filter for the ‘good’ conspiracy theories as opposed to the bad ones, apart from exposing them to blistering rebuttal and hoping that this will at least limit their spread. NB that other forms of social organization suffer the same problem though. Markets by no means necessarily eliminate incorrect beliefs – see e.g. the theoretical work of Benabou and others on herding. And hierarchy – in which asymmetries of knowledge are institutionalized, are breeding grounds for the unhelpful kinds of conspiracy theory.

CrankyObserver@129 – it’s a working assumption of the paper that non-academics _should_ be able to comment on this kind of proposal as equal participants – and to the extent that they feel uncomfortable in so doing, this is our fault, not theirs. This said, our notions of good democratic debate does not preclude robust responses to arseholes …

Which brings us to Brian Donnelly, about whom all I propose to say is that when people who say that they are making “humble suggestions,” are in my experience invariably disingenuous, since they are neither humble, nor view their Devastating Critiques as being suggestions …

Jim Rose – in the spirit of democratic experimentalism, I am going to follow John Quiggin, and limit you to one comment a day on my posts. Should this experiment fail, we will return to the question.

Stephen@147 – yes, we think that properly functioning democracy is unashamedly radical, in that it requires something approximating _equal access to argument_ for different perspectives to produce its best results. Obviously, actually-existing democracy will never get to this happy state, because e.g. of differences in capacities to argue which are near impossible to rectify. But successively better approximations can get us reasonably good close. It would be a nice start e.g. to see the US reverse a series of obviously wrongheaded Supreme Court decisions on the nexus between money and free speech. In one sense, this is both impracticable and radical, because of the current constellation of US politics. In another, it is no less impracticable or radical than the aspirations e.g. of Hayek and of Friedman for radical liberalism during the long period of quasi-Keynesianism and political consensus. Which is to say that it is an uphill battle, but one that is in principal winnable. So yes, radical, but not impossible, surely.

David King – thanks – too many things in there to respond to in a comment.

Rick – we do not deny that there are other justifications for democracy, which may indeed be more valid. But what we are trying to do here is to say that even if you _don’t_ have an ethical commitment to social justice, there are sound pragmatic reasons why you should prefer democracy. This is not a complete theory of why we should care about democracy, nor does it try to be. On the question of whether ‘wisdom of crowds’ disproves us – nope. We think that this is a weakness of the literature – to quote my co-author, back in 2007:

bq. It might be thought that the theoretical explanation is rather simple, and goes (currently) under the name of the wisdom of crowds” (Surowiecki 2004): individuals make noisy guesses, which on average are unbiased and uncorrelated, so simple averaging leads to convergence on the appropriate answer. Taken seriously, this explanation implies that our economy, our sciences and our polities manage to work _despite_ their social organization, that science (for example) would progress much
faster if scientists did not collaborate, did not read each others’ papers, etc. While every scientist feels this way occasionally, it is hard to take seriously. Clearly, there has to be an explanation for the success of social information processing _other than_ averaging uncorrelated guesses, something which can handle, and perhaps even exploit, statistical dependence between decision makers.

Martin Bento – yes. Simulations is the obvious way to think about the consequences of network structures. And we (for values of ‘we’ that are limited to ‘my co-author, Cosma Shalizi’) are on the case. Don’t want to say more until we see how the actual simulations play out. But read Josiah Ober’s very interesting book on cognition in Classical Athens for some good informal counter-arguments.

Lee – thanks – had seen and enjoyed your comment. Hope to have more to say on this soon in a seminar on open access (which yr colleague Tom Lee is hoping to contribute to) that we’ll be posting in a couple of weeks.

And I think that’s all I can do in reply for the moment … Again, thanks all


Brian Donnelly 05.29.12 at 5:32 pm

Can someone here please define cognitive democracy? Folks, the emperor has no clothes.

As an aside, this debate is a non-starter for me. The premise of the original paper is ridiculous. Democracy simply has no history of solving complex problems. That America has had success is in no way attributable to democracy. It is attributable to freedom. Government doesn’t solve problems. We have mountains of evidence supporting this truth.

I run a derivative trading company. I am socially very liberal. I retired from investment banking at 38 years old, and started this company with the explicit purpose of using my skills to make money to give back to the community, 100% of my earnings (better than Angelina Jolie’s 33%). I give money to the Acumen Fund, and I am starting a not-for-profit options exchange this year, with hopes of providing to the public a central marketplace for securities that is FAIR to customers (with a matching model that kills the “speed game”, high frequency trading, of which my company is currently one of the winners). Why, because I want to do something positive for society.

The biggest obstacle I face is the SEC, WHO HAS NO IDEA HOW FINANCIAL MARKETS WORK! In my trading business, I am continually harassed by the SEC (two FINRA audits in the last year). They are planning to fine us this time because we take a more conservative approach to the short sale rule (long story, but needless to say, everyone reading would agree, we’re doing nothing wrong). These people are just dumb. I also mentioned having worked for the government, a government contractor, and a lobbyist in the past. I’ve had far more experience than I need to tell everyone, at the top of my lungs, that not only is government broken, but it can’t do anything well.

I would add that in my opinion, it is the unimpeded flow of information that has made the situation worse. You would think with access to unlimited information, the huddled masses would educate themselves on the issues, would gain an education. However, the information flow has been hijacked by fear mongers. The huddled masses don’t want liberty, they want security. …and nothing controls the vote of an idiot more than fear. They will run to their gods, their guns, their race, their nationalism, etc. for refuge from it.

Our leaders are either cognitive of this fact, or stumbled into its effective usage out of poor character. Regardless, it works, and as such we’re prisoner to the fearful idiots in our majority. …destined to follow our inferiors into history. I hate to invoke Mencken again, but he always seemed to say things best:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” -HL Mencken


Jameson Quinn 05.29.12 at 5:43 pm

“Of course, this then falls victim to the usual problems of preference aggregation – but we aren’t arguing for first-best schemes of allocation, simply for better (while still imperfect) methods of discovery.” … I’d be happy with that if you actually spent any time at all arguing for anything better. As it is, your jaded invocation of the “usual problems” makes me think you’ve made the usual mistake: thinking that, since Arrow proved there’s no perfect voting method, it doesn’t really matter if most of the world is using the worst one known.


Brian Donnelly 05.29.12 at 5:55 pm

“Which brings us to Brian Donnelly, about whom all I propose to say is that when people who say that they are making “humble suggestions,” are in my experience invariably disingenuous, since they are neither humble, nor view their Devastating Critiques as being suggestions …”

Is that the only feedback? You think I’m disingenuous and not humble? Okay, my opinions are strong, mainly because I’m disappointed in the credence given to the premise of your paper. I strongly disagree with it. That the critiques are devastating can only mean there was some truth in them. If so, they should be embraced, far more than those of the flatterers. I don’t mean anything personal, and I apologize for not toning it down a bit, which would have certainly made my feedback more credible and effective. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond on your blog.


Stephen 05.29.12 at 6:17 pm

Henry: many thanks for your manifold and lucid series of replies, much appreciated.

Since you brought the Supreme Court into it, I started wondering if your theory of improved democracy was really restricted to the legislative, but not the judicial and executive, branches of government. When you say you want to “see the US reverse a series of obviously wrongheaded Supreme Court decisions”, well, is that through a series of democratic, hierarchical or market actions?

If democratic, I can see any worthwhile SC (or junior court) ruling that democracy does not involve the right for Henry or anyone else to decide that some or any of our judicial decisions are obviously wrongheaded. “A law inflexible to praise or blame, to bribe or threat …”

If hierarchical, surely the SC would state that yes, there damn well is a judicial hierarchy, the law cannot function without one, and who do you think is by rights at the top of that hierarchy?

If the market: well yes, money can buy a great deal in courts, in some benighted states it can probably buy the whole Supreme Court or equivalent, but I didn’t think that was your ideal for the US.

As for the civil service, police, armed forces and what not: they’re part of the government, they should be responsive to the legislature, there are obvious disadvantages in having them directly controlled by a miscellaneously-informed and motivated populace. There are of course greater disadvantages in not having them controlled at all, but who argues for that?


piglet 05.29.12 at 6:45 pm

“Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies”

Democracy as it is practiced as a political system is by no means incompatible with hierarchy. All real existing democracies are in fact structured hierarchically. Perhaps the only moment in political life when hierarchy is formally suspended is the general election, when supposedly every voter’s vote counts the same. The rest of the time, decisions are made by hierarchically structured bodies. So what does it mean to say that democracy is better at solving complex problems than hierarchy? Is it referring to an idealized egalitarian democracy that would hypothetically be preferable to what we have, or is it an attempt at decomposing the political system into its democratic and hierarchical components (thought of as orthogonal) and arguing that the democratic component is the one that’s better at solving problems? In either case, it will be hard to provide empirical evidence. How do we know whether this success or that failure of a given democracy is due to either its democratic or hierarchical component?


geo 05.29.12 at 7:20 pm

I disagree with most of what Brian Donnelly says, but I would defend to the death the right of anyone to say such things with extreme attitude who is at the same giving 100 percent of the profits from a derivatives trading company to public causes. Only the super-rich can save us!


Henry 05.29.12 at 9:46 pm

Brian -if you come in and say ‘this is stuff and nonsense, because my experience and H.L. Mencken say so,’ then you’re not going to get much of a hearing. Mencken was a very talented satirist – but there is a reason why the Political Thought of H.L. Mencken is not, to my knowledge, the topic of much serious research. If you come in with very strong opinions that this is stuff and nonsense, and provide strong intellectual arguments as to _why_ it’s stuff and nonsense,’ that’s a whole different story. NB by ‘strong intellectual arguments,’ I don’t mean ‘academic arguments’ – common sense arguments are fine, if they are thought through carefully to make sure that their arguments match up with their prior assumptions, possible ambiguities are acknowledged and so on.


Henry 05.29.12 at 9:52 pm

Stephen – I would think of this in terms of Jack Balkin style ‘the court’s understanding of the constitution is cast along the lines of political bargains’ reasoning – shift the general public understanding of which actions are considered acceptable, and which outside the pale, and you’ve gone a long way towards a constitutional revolution. More generally – and this is something that we don’t talk about and should – we are not advocating democracy all the way down. Sometimes, democracy is not appropriate – I don’t want to have to get consensus from all present, every time I want to buy myself a pound of coffee in the marketplace. But – as Knight and Johnson argue – we can think of it as the preferred second order form of decision making. If we think of our application of market-based forms of governance in this area, and hierarchical forms in that as experiments, contingent on good results, we want some kind of meta-institutional setting where we can evaluate how well the experiments are working out. Democracy (again a la Knight and Johnson) provides us with the best way of doing that.


Rick Searle 05.30.12 at 1:46 am


You’ve got to be exhausted with all of this, and thank you for your response. I do not have access to Cosma’s paper, so I am kind of guessing here, but I wonder if science is not the best comparison to make with cognitive democracy. Science has clearly defined standards for proving who is right and wrong. Most of our political questions and debates are not this type of argument, and so there does not appear to be a naturally stopping/agreement point or mutually agreed standards regarding who is “right” on some issue.

Our economic system, which certainly has the feedback quality you describe works until it goes horribly wrong. The kinds of boom and bust cycles of economics are based on feedback going haywire, and your article does not seem to address whether or not this might be an issue for cognitive democracy.

It might be that current political intermediaries, parties, the courts, the media work as a sort of low pass filter system and do not so much communicate information from the grass roots up, as structure communication to benefit a particular subset of the public.
Whenever a real surge of information comes from the public at large- usually only in a time of crisis- these intermediaries then act as brakes rather than as facilitators of that information. I hope that makes sense. None of this is to say that we should not try to build elements of cognitive democracy into the current system, but that our understanding needs to be made more robust, and the differences and problems associated with social information processing in the sciences and economics dealt with in terms of cognitive democracy.


Henry 05.30.12 at 2:00 am

Rick – you should have access to arXiv – it is a completely open system (click on the PDF option). There is an argument along the lines that you are making – Michael Nielsen has a very interesting recent book, _Reinventing Discovery_ which makes this case about the difference between science and politics – I really need to write a review post soon, setting out what I agree with, what I disagree with, and why …


Martin Bento 05.30.12 at 6:17 am

Henry, well, it will be interesting to see how “you” model it. I suspect a lot will turn on y0ur assumptions about things like the likelihood of people being convinced by better arguments, how much people will retransmit arguments or improve them, etc. Like I said above, I think this does work better in hierarchy in some respects because voters can ignore one another but members of a hierarchy must at least respond to their neighbors. And I think this is a real and problematic political phenomenon. Voters who sincerely disbelieve in AGW are just not paying attention to the other side, and nothing in the democratic structure compels them to. If my boss asked me seriously whether AGW was real, I would have a few options:

1) Assume he must want my honest opinion if he asked, so give it to him.
2) Assume he wants the best answer I can produce, so get to work, probably breaking the problem up for parallel processing by my subordinates, so that “Is AGW real?” becomes “These are the things we must determine to say whether AGW is real, Teresa, you take item A, Jerry, you take B” etc.
3) Tell the boss what I think he wants to hear. There must be more to it, though. He doesn’t need to ask me for his own opinion, so I have to decide why he is asking the question. He might be seeking data and arguments to buttress that position. This becomes a parallel processing problem like 2, but with my team acting like lawyers, rather than scientists, and letting the desired conclusion pull the argument, rather than letting the argument push to its own conclusion.

Comparison of 3 and 1 is tricky, as 1 is an off the top response, and therefore little cognitive work is happening. 3 is producing a lot of work, but that work is corrupted by irrelevant considerations.


Rick Searle 05.31.12 at 3:07 am

Henry and company:

I came across this newly published article in the journal Studies in Emergent Order on
Hayek and Science that might be of particular relevance to this discussion. If it has been mentioned prior, my apologies.


Jameson Quinn 05.31.12 at 3:19 pm

@martin bento: I’m listening, and I hope that Henry is too (though since I myself haven’t merited a response yet, I might be wrong.)


Brian Donnelly 05.31.12 at 6:49 pm

Thanks for the feedback Henry. Is your contention that HL Mencken is not the subject of much “serious” research? Perhaps you should check that again. …and who is the definer of an “intellectual” argument? Is an intuitive perspective held by an individual perfectly capable of communicating his reality simply, lacking in intellectual rigor? …by who’s definition?

Yes, my communication is simple. For I too believe if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough (Einstein). My truth is quite simple. There is little evidence in history for the contention that democracy solves simple problems let alone complex ones. Would my truth be more believable if I could point to all of the complex problems it hasn’t solved? Just turn on the news. And where are its victories? When fear was the motivator, as in a great war, society galvanizes behind a cause, and democracy becomes irrelevant. Was Hitler less effective because Germany wasn’t a democracy?

The fact that I continually reference Mencken is because he was an artist with the English language, and it would take me months to communicate my ideas as effectively as he did. As you can surmise, I happen to agree with him.

“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” -HL Mencken (July 26, 1920)

Had he said this in 2009, when George Bush was leaving office, there would have been a lot of head nodding.


Substance McGravitas 05.31.12 at 7:28 pm

Thanks for the feedback Henry. Is your contention that HL Mencken is not the subject of much “serious” research? Perhaps you should check that again.

If you provide a link to “much serious research” on the political thought of Mencken you might make your case.


Brian Donnelly 05.31.12 at 10:56 pm

“If you provide a link to “much serious research” on the political thought of Mencken you might make your case.”

It’s funny a group of academics can have a debate on democracy and not have read “Notes On Democracy”. No, we need someone “intelligent” to do research on Mencken for there to be credibility. Of course, academics were notoriously hostile to him.

In any case, if you could qualify “serious” it would be helpful. I have no idea who this group would respect. …great thinkers or published professors? Alistair Cooke? While scholarships to Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale didn’t yield a PhD to establish his credibility, he qualifies as a great thinker in my estimation. His research and writings on Mencken are well documented:

How about historian, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers:

…or Terry Teachout:

…or check-out Charles A. Fecher’s, “HL Mencken, Prejudices”

The list goes on. Almost as much scholarly work was written about Mencken as the prolific writer wrote himself.


piglet 06.01.12 at 3:58 pm

Maybe my objection in 160 was already made and answered earlier. I haven’t read all the comments. If not, I do think it needs an answer.


Martin Bento 06.01.12 at 4:25 pm


thanks for the interest. It would be a another long, complex comment, which I don’t have time for at the moment and may not get to before the thread closes. I expect this thread to close any time, so, even if I made the comment, there would not be much time for discussion of it.


In 153, I did an analysis of the structural features for cognitive purposes of hierarchies, democracies, and markets in their pure form. Perhaps that would interest you. In 166, I gave an example of how hierarchy vs. democracy might play out in the real world analysis of a problem. Henry didn’t respond to the specifics of these, but hinted that the further development of this research project would address the sort of things I brought up.

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