More on Politics
A commenter on my previous post wrote:
Wow, this is terrible. For one, everyone's vote should count equally. Duh.
This was wrong twice over. For one thing, it isn’t possible for everyone’s vote to count equally. My vote for president has no effect, since any election where California is a swing state will be one where the Republicans can win without it. That could be solved, for the presidential election, by abolishing the electoral college system, but any majority vote system will give more weight to the votes of voters with strong preferences on swing issues, issues where votes for the two sides are about even. If the issue important to me is either one where my side is sure to win or where my side is sure to lose, my vote has no effect.
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Even if it were possible for everyone’s vote to count equally, there is no good reason why it should. The right to vote is not, like the right not to be murdered, someone people are entitled to; children have the same right not to be murdered as adults but nobody I know of argues that a three year old should get to vote for president. The right question is what rules for who gets to vote will produce the best outcomes.
In Heinlein's novel Star Troopers the only people who have the vote are ones who volunteered for the military or some civilian equivalent, some dangerous activity that is believed to benefit the general society.1 That may be the wrong answer but it is answering the right question, asking what people have characteristics that make them likely to vote in the general interest. A historical version of the same approach would be a property franchise in 18th or early 19th century America. Someone who owns property has an incentive to be concerned with the long run health of the local society both because he is likely to stay there and because, if he leaves, the value he can sell his property for will depend on how much other people want to live there. Along similar lines, one could see an argument for restricting the franchise to parents, on the grounds that if you have children you have an interest in the welfare of the society past your own life.
Both of those assume that the problem to be solved is giving voters a long time horizon — other voting rules might make sense for solving other problems. My point is not to argue for any particular restriction of the franchise but that the “right to vote” is not about rights at all but about institutional design.
Two Views of Democracy
There are two quite different models of how democracy works held by people who think it does work. One is a model of incentives, one of selection. The incentive version relies on the fact that politicians want to get elected and reelected. To get elected, they have to support the policies that a majority of the voters want; to get elected again, they have to actually work for those policies. Hence, it is argued, it is in the interest of a politician to do what the voters want him to do, whatever his private beliefs and objectives — other than getting elected — may be.
The selection model relies on the facts that people differ and that we have some ability to tell what other people are like. Some candidates are good people who want good things, the welfare of their fellow citizens, justice, peace, ... . Some are not only good people but smart and hard working, hence likely to take the acts that produce those good things. The voters identify the good politicians, elect them and rely on the benevolent desires of those politicians to motivate them to do the right thing.
The two models have different requirements and different implications. For the incentive model to work, voters must know both what elected politicians are doing and what they ought to be doing, in order to vote for the ones who do what they ought to. In a large society with a government doing many things, knowing either what it should do or what a particular politician is doing is hard, which one reason that model might not work very well. When a politician wants to buy the votes of farmers by pushing up the price of food, he explains that he is doing it to guarantee American consumers a reliable food supply. When a politician wants to buy the votes of auto workers and GM stockholders by using a tariff to drive up the price of automobiles, he explains that he is doing it for the health of the American economy. Distinguishing good arguments from bad takes more effort, knowledge, and ability than most voters can, or find it in their interest to, devote to doing so.
The selection model avoids that set of problems. You don't have to know what the government should be doing; you have delegated the job of figuring that out to someone else. Nor do you have to know what your politician is doing. The selection model even works for issues such as the Manhattan Project, where the voters cannot know what the government is doing. But it depends on voters being able to accurately evaluate the personalities of people they have met for at most a few seconds, based on what those people say about themselves and what others say about them. It thus leads to campaigns of charisma, bogus virtue, and the like.
My point is not to judge which model is more realistic or which works less badly, merely to point out that people who believe in democracy are likely to have one of those two models in mind and are often unclear about which it is or what the differences between them are. So might people who don’t believe in democracy. The selection model, carried to its extreme, is an argument for benevolent dictatorship. All it requires is the right dictator.
That issue is explored in The Praise Singer by Mary Renault, a historical novel set in ancient Greece.
Tyranny, for the Greeks, was not a pejorative term; a tyrant was a popular dictator. The book provides portraits of three tyrannies. In the first the tyrant is corrupt but competent. In order for him to be rich and powerful, live the good life, the island he rules has to be safe and prosperous and, on the whole, it is. When he dies the system collapses, leaving the citizens he ruled worse off.
The second example, Pisistratos, the tyrant of Athens, is benevolent as well as competent. In Renault’s version he was the younger lover of Solon, the Athenian lawgiver. As he explains to the protagonist,2 when Solon wrote the laws everyone agreed with all of them except for one thing. Everybody wanted the laws changed to benefit himself. If Solon wasn’t there they could make him change the laws, so he left Athens.
They keep them still. I see to that, who could have given them laws they would have liked less.
Pisistratos is a virtuous tyrant, kept that way by the memory of his dead lover.
He dies. His sons carry on for a little while, start to misuse their power and their rule collapses.
Pretty clearly, in Renault’s view, tyranny is the best form of government. Provided you have the right tyrant.
The same two models can be applied to other issues, such as giving convicted criminals time off for good behavior. That can be viewed as an incentive to behave well in prison. Alternatively, good behavior in prison is evidence that the criminal has reformed or was never all that bad, hence that it's safe to let him out.
The Institutional Revolution by Douglas W. Allen presents the same alternatives in a broader context, the general problem of a principal controlling an agent. He argues that, prior to about the late 18th century, the model of employment we are used to, where the principal hires the agent, monitors him, and fires him if he does not act in the interest of the principal, the equivalent of my first model of democracy, was unworkable for most jobs due to a variety of technological limitations. One solution was patronage — appoint someone you can trust because he is a relative, a friend, or dependent in the long run on your good will. The other was property — give the agent ownership of an office whose income, and how much he can eventually sell it for to someone else, depend to a significant degree on his running it in the way you want him to. Both were, like my second model, ways of aligning the interest of the agent with that of the principal that did not depend on close monitoring of the agent.3
Representative Democracy Done Right
Existing institutions of representative democracy are a crude tool for pooling the preferences of the voters. A congressional candidate who got 190,000 votes gets to cast one vote in Congress. So does a candidate who got 110,000 votes. A candidate who got 90,000 votes gets no vote. A voter betrayed by the candidate he voted for has to wait for the next election to do anything about it. We could do better.
Each voter has a vote that he can assign to a representative of his choice. A representative with at least 300,000 votes can occupy a seat in congress, representatives with fewer can group up to qualify for a shared seat, details determined by mutual agreement. Each representative casts the number of votes assigned to him. Voters can change the assignment of their votes at any time.
I do not claim that it will work better than our present system since I do not have an adequate theory to map electoral institutions to outcomes, but it is at least more elegant, less of a kludge than the way we now do it.
Once there was a blog called Slate Star Codex, run by a young psychiatrist with an extraordinary range of interests and an equally extraordinary amount of intellectual energy. The random post, which might be on anything but almost always interesting, got five hundred to a thousand comments. The commenting community ranged politically from communist to anarcho-capitalist, religiously from atheist to committed Catholic, professionally from a literal plumber to a literal rocket scientist. Conversation was almost always civil. It was what the rest of the internet should have been, and I spent a lot of time reading and commenting on it.
Eventually there were enough readers so that people started organizing meetups, real-space gatherings of readers who wanted to actually see each other. I and my family organized one for the South Bay. SSC, like most good things, eventually came to an end4 but the meetups are still happening, supported in part by its successors, the Substack Astro Codex Ten and the forum Data Secrets Lox.
We are having one Sunday May 28th at our house in San Jose. Readers are all invited. Details here.
Military or the civilian equivalents in his system only get the vote after their term of service is over.
Simonides, a professional poet:
Go tell the Spartans, passer-by, That here, obedient to their law, we lie