What is Democracy Good For?

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James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Murali says:

    I don’t believe in an End of History, I think at some point someone will come up with a better system, and while it will attract derision initially, it will prove itself. It may even have been invented already, I think futuarchy has real potential, and would like to see it trialled at a limited scale.

    I actually would agree with this.

    Many of the questions facing government are partially or entirely subjective.

    I don’t know how much of this is the case. And perhaps the problem is more intractable on a realistic scale, but the kinds of things that end up as subjective seem to be very few. How many policy questions are genuinely subjective? Funding basic research and the arts and public libraries? Public parks? A lot of this stuff is small potatoes. Otherwise on the values bit, the objectively proper aim of government is to provide a value neutral framework in which people can pursue and try and realise whatever value they choose consistent with everyone else doing similarly.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic says:

      How many policy questions are genuinely subjective?

      Very many beyond public broadcasting and public parks fall into the original post’s saying “partially or entirely subjective”. Questions of war and peace – how much of an opportunity to give diplomacy, for instance intervention in Syria or not? Who or what to tax and how much – should the tax system be progressive and if so how much? Should the tax system tend towards egalitarian, redistributive aims? The balance between the individual and the community – what, if any, exemptions do we give to conscience and religious liberty? And when do we say regardless of conscience the individual must obey? Many questions government faces are shot through with value judgments both large and small, with no objectively right answer.

      Also, there’s a big argument that the objectively proper aim of government is as you’ve outlined. There’s a school of thought that government’s aim should be guided by perfectionism – guiding the individual towards a specific view of human development. Your account itself presents an overarching good, state neutrality between goods, similar to a perfectionist perspective’s selecting a good and charging the state with bringing that good about.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Just because something is a matter of values or of fundamental moral principle doesnt mean its subjective. Moral questions are after all, questions about objective morality and not subjective preference. The argument that values questions are purely subjective argues too much. You are unable to defend restrictions on majority rule (like constitutions) if values are a subjective matter.Report

        • Avatar Creon Critic says:

          Are there objective answers to the questions I posed in my first paragraph @ 9:10a?

          Even taking into account a common overarching framework that shares quite a few premises, there’s still plenty of room for disagreement grounded in fairly subjective sentiments – interpretations of evidence, weighing of consequences and causality for instance. Some of the most heated intellectual arguments are within the umbrella of a particular ideology.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Are here objective answers? probably. Is it easy to find out what said answers are? no. They are difficult problems. There is an objectively correct answer to these things (for some notion of objective and correct*). By analogy, there is quite likely a grand unified theory of nature that is able to unify all 4 major physical theories: (Special relativity, general relativity, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics) Working out the details of said theory is definitely difficult. It doesn’t mean that it is a question that can only beanswered subjectively. The distinction between facts and values is not that one is subjective while the other is not. Value statements are just as truth apt as factive statements even if the truth value of value statements is difficult to ascertain. (or at least we assume they are insofar as we make any kind of rccomendation like democracy is good etc)

            *but perhaps the only reasonable notion of objective and correct that appliesReport

            • Avatar Creon Critic says:

              The scientific method does the work of establishing the grounds on which competing scientific theories compete – offering a shard understanding of how a puzzle should be approached, how a proper experiment should be constructed and validated. With these types of policy mixed with values questions, the divergence begins at least one step prior: are consequentialist answers exclusively admissible or are non-consequentialist answers allowed? And even supposing we limited ourselves to the consequentialist approaches, how one weights the tradeoffs on offer heavily influences the outcomes. And of course there’s the common caveat of the social sciences, the object of study being humans, and humans being quirkier creatures that respond, adapt, change, and incorporate new information – coming to definitive answers is particularly tricky.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                Not to interfere with the discussion, but I would point out that there are three or four definitions for subjective and three or four for objective. In some cases the definitions are opposites of each other and in other cases they are not. We need to be careful which definition we use on these words as it is easy to get tripped up using the same word in different meanings.

                My two cents is that everything humans pursue is a value. That is why we are pursuing it –as subjects we value it.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                So the meaning of “subjective” is subjective? Jesus, we are lost.

                JamesK, nice post. it’s indeed true that for most people, democracy is a self-evident good, and the lack of it a self-evident bad [if not evil]. makes political philosophizing a bit sticky if not often impossible.

                Roger writes:

                My two cents is that everything humans pursue is a value. That is why we are pursuing it –as subjects we value it.

                I’m in agreement. Technocracy’s and social science’s claim to being “value-free” [therefore objective, therefore self-evidently true] is a landmark achievement in the history of knowledge.

                http://www.criticism.com/md/weber1.html

                Subjectivity is obviated, democracy obsolete. But like doubting democracy, doubting social science is even more fraught with peril in this modern and enlightened age, which is why one fellow said philosophy must be kept safe from society, and vice-versa.Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          The main subjective question I was thinking of was the trade-off between economic growth and environmental quality. At least in my part of the world, that’s a pretty big question.

          And I’m less sure than you are that moral questions have objectively correct answers. I suspect at least some moral questions reduce to questions of terminal values that are not widely agreed on. But even if I’m wrong about that, until we can discover what the objectively correct moral system is, we need to give all the reasonable potential answers an opportunity in the public square.

          And from my perspective the subjectivity of some of these questions is actually a good reason to restrict government, when decisions are subjective it’s optimal to not collectively decide things unless you have to, and that means limiting the ability of government to get involved.Report

  2. Avatar Roger says:

    James,

    Great job. I agree pretty much completely.

    The one caveat is that I would stress that institutions aren’t necessarily invented by people either. Well they kinda are, but more by a process of tinkering and compromise and selective retention. In other words, institutions evolve over time. What emerges isn’t something which comes out of a master design, but is an emergent property that arises out of the dunamic. Not necessarily for the better, but possibly.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      Yes this is true. If laws are a kind of software for the human brain, then institution are the kind of open source code that is constantly being patched and revised by many different programmers, and with minimal editorial control.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Hayek: the product of human action, not human design.Report

  3. Avatar Citizen says:

    I wish Murali could live a few years with neighbors willing to defend his individual rights. When freedom is cleaved only for the masses it tends to be a fatal cut. What are we calling democracy?Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      What I’m calling democracy is rule by the demos. A system where decisions are made, either directly or indirectly, using the preferences of the majority as the decision-making rule.Report

      • Avatar Citizen says:

        Maybe this is the problem with democracy. It carries a significant variation from person to person. A democracy “of the people” in my definition is not limited to a fraction of the population that happens to be in the majority. I apply it to each individual.

        This is nearly a paradox for most, the individual and the many under the same flag. If a system is incapable of defending one mans rights, it has no merit in defending the rights of many.

        I see it useless for America to try to plant democracy around the world. It has to burst naturally through the hard crusted soil of its native land and strive to bind its roots deeply against the oncoming winds of greed, corruption and facism. It just doesn’t occur by giving a puppet government millions and repeatedly telling them democracy is “good”.Report

  4. Avatar Ryan Noonan says:

    What I think is often overlooked about the Constitution is the extent to which the ratification votes in the states generally had much looser voting requirements than were enforced in actual elections (minimal or nonexistent property requirements, some women – especially widows – were allowed to vote, etc). Ratification was widely viewed as a question for all (or most) of the people in a way that other votes were not, and as such, when the Constitution was eventually ratified, it was given a stamp of approval that was deeply democratic. That is, the people who chose “a republic, not a democracy” (which, as you point out, is kind of a misnomer anyway) did so in a profoundly democratic fashion. It gave the final thing an imprimatur of legitimacy that would otherwise have been extremely difficult to come by.Report

  5. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Nice post, James K. I think lots of people believe democracy, and especially our form of democracy, is a good in and of itself. That might have merit, I suppose, but I’m firmly in ‘democracy sucks but it’s better than all the alternatives’ camp.Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Ambivalent about democracy? The definition of democracy encompasses ambivalence. It’s the least-worst option. It’s the product of compromise and provides a mechanism for further compromise, hardly a paragon of goodness. Tyranny’s wonderfully efficient and Anarchy is bad for business. Democracy is a way of harnessing ambitious and grasping politicians to the plow of progress. If they don’t make very much progress, that’s by design.

    We are not governed by machines. We grant mandate to our politicians to act on our behalf. Hobbes lays all this out. Politicians will do the right thing because we’ve worked out how to make their goals our goals. And we routinely consign politicians and entire political parties to the scrap heap. Democracy evolves. All other forms of government are brittle and don’t cope with change.

    Why should the most-informed view always win? Information won’t make a decision: too much information and you become lost in Analysis Paralysis. Sometimes you have to go with the information you have. Democracy isn’t an algorithm, it’s an iterative process.

    Madison had a great deal to say about majorities. They aren’t always tyrannies. Tyranny is always a Majority of One. Mobs aren’t tyrannical until they acquire a ringleader. Someone has to make a decision, even in a mob action.

    And what is all this about judges subverting the will of the people? Even judges must obey the law. They are appointed to parse the law as made by legislatures, themselves arising from the mandate of the people, you know, those majority mobs. Last I heard, nobody won an election with a minority of the vote. There’s a trivial escape from Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem: in a domain of three choices, every chooser may rank all three choices from best to worst, assigning weights to best, middle and worst, say 7, 5 and 3. Accumulate enough 5 votes and you can win.

    I believe the word is Futarchy. Robin Hanson’s Futarchy is nonsense.

    1. Democracies do not fail for lack of information but because they do not act on the information they have in a timely manner.
    2. Nations are not rich. People are rich. A poor nation can contain rich people and vice versa.
    3. “Betting” markets are used to manage risk, not to aggregate information.
    4. Government reduced to betting would require a trading floor, a clearing house and a settlement mechanism. Furthermore, no mechanisms are proposed for hedging bets, nor market limits. It would be trivial to break this market: I could flood the market with “orders” and stampede it.

    The worthy Hanson would be well advised to stick to his Sacred Quest and learn more about how risk markets operate in the real world ere he proposes to replace democracy with science fiction.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      There’s a trivial escape from Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem: in a domain of three choices, every chooser may rank all three choices from best to worst, assigning weights to best, middle and worst, say 7, 5 and 3. Accumulate enough 5 votes and you can win.

      Yeah, no. That doesn’t work. That’s the first thing Arrow tried and it doesn’t work. You get intransitive rankings that way, which is another way of saying that there’s no guarantee that the preferred option of the majority of people will actually end up ranked first. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not really a point against democracy since all collective decision-making has this problem.

      1. Democracies do not fail for lack of information but because they do not act on the information they have in a timely manner.

      The point of futuarchy is not that prediction markets collect more information, it’s that they collect information in an apolitical way, insulating fact-based decisions from the biases of the voting public.

      2. Nations are not rich. People are rich. A poor nation can contain rich people and vice versa.

      Very true, but I fail to see the relevance.

      3. “Betting” markets are used to manage risk, not to aggregate information.

      Prediction markets and decision markets do aggregate information. They are competitive with conventional forecasting as a method of predicting future events. They make mistakes, but since there aren’t any good methods of predicting the future, that’s not a fatal problem.

      4. Government reduced to betting would require a trading floor, a clearing house and a settlement mechanism. Furthermore, no mechanisms are proposed for hedging bets, nor market limits. It would be trivial to break this market: I could flood the market with “orders” and stampede it.

      This has been tested experimentally and it turns out not to be true. More activity improves the operation of the market, attempts to manipulate it are inevitably defeated by arbitrage. I know what you’re thinking – you’re thinking Soros vs. the Bank of England. But in this story the markets are playing the role of Soros, not the Bank of England.Report