Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Let's put democracy out of its misery


Democracy ain’t all that. 

That must be what Reince Priebus has been thinking this year.  The possibility has been on the mind also of author and professor Jason Brennan, of Georgetown University.  Brennan is touring New England this week to talk about his new book, Against Democracy.  I knew of Brennan from one of his earlier works touting my faith, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know.  This week I had the good fortune to meet him in Providence, thanks to the Rhode Island Federalist Society.  On my commute this morning, I heard that he’ll be on WGBH’s excellent Innovation Hub this week. 

Brennan’s thesis in short is that when we talk about how best to select our leaders in human society, democracy might not be the endpoint and high point of human achievement.  He offered a simple thought experiment:  Imagine a professor instructs students that instead of grading exams on the usual A-F merit system, each person in the class will get the same grade, an average of everyone’s performance.  No surprise, students don’t study and perform poorly.  The incentive for each individual to do well is diminished along with the risk that poor preparation will be reflected in any one person’s grade.

Brennan explains that the same dynamic is at work in democracy.  If any one person’s vote is vastly unlikely to have an impact on the general election, then the individual has only weak, and largely symbolic or emotional, incentives to become informed and vote intelligently.  Surveys of how well informed voters are sadly support this thesis, with voters performing only about as well as chance would predict in answering simple multiple choice questions about politics.

What’s better than democracy?  Brennan isn’t shilling for any model, but provided a compelling and fair tour of the possibilities.  He pointed out for one example that simple gambling—imagine betting on the next President of the United States, if the model could be translated into politics—is a rather good predictor of outcome.  The gambler has skin in the game the way a voter does not, so has a proportionate incentive to be well informed.  Other potential models would jettison one person, one vote in ways that would reward better informed voters with greater influence.  I was reminded of my “oligarchy of the intelligentsia” phase when I studied politics at university.

A model I found enchanting, maybe because of its cool name, is “the Simulated Oracle.”  Imagine that along with a person’s vote, we collect also some basic demographic data and even administer a short quiz on political know-how.  With large enough data sets, we could employ the magic of statistics to control variables and correct for self-serving biases.  Factors such as race and gender, the community I live in, and my wealth can be predicted to evidence self-serving biases in my voting behavior, not necessarily the vote that a more altruistic me might cast.  The Simulated Oracle can control variables and correct for irrational or unfair biases, transforming my vote into a hypothetical ideal, the vote my better self would cast.  Weight everyone’s votes accordingly, and we might get a result that compensates for individual rent-seeking.

The mythology of democracy is emotively powerful in our society today, shaping how we define ourselves and our ideals.  But the U.S. Constitution—in, for examples, life tenure in the Article III courts, a republican representation system, and the original method of selecting senators—was designed to temper the risky excesses of pure democracy.  Moreover, the framers intended the Constitution to be amended.  There is no reason to think that progress means evolution toward pure direct democracy.  Remember Ross Perot suggesting instant home voting on contemporary issues?  Today that sounds like a good way to run Dancing with the Stars, and not so good a way to make foreign policy, tax policy, or really to do anything important.

Rather, we are engaged, or should be engaged, in an ongoing process of perfecting the organization of human society.  It’s not so strange to imagine that democracy as we know it now is just one stop on our journey.

Brennan is awash with fascinating data about the American electorate, and I’ll share just one item.  Turns out that people who self-identify with political third parties, such as libertarianism, are among our most informed voters. 

Am I blushing?

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