Thursday, August 18, 2016

Democracy and the Wisdom of Crowds

Oxford Union Debating Hall
Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi have collaborated thinking about how human communities have organized themselves, and why democracy based on equality, may be (and will continue to be) the best thing going.

Back in 2012 they published An Outline of Cognitive Democracy. There they note that there have been three enduring political institutions: markets, hierarchies, and democracies.

Markets, they said, work best to solve individual problems rather than collective problems. Governments might meddle in markets through the imposition of Pegovian taxes in order to address collective problems, such as achieving a goal of reducing total carbon emissions through the imposition of taxes in conjunction with a cap and trade program; but, at heart markets are not about collective goals. Markets solve individual problems through price and exchange mechanisms.

A feature of markets, say Farrell and Shalizi, is that they eliminate rational and reasoned discourse, and limit the useful exchange of views. People communicate only through prices and advertising.  Because markets are impersonal, markets homogenize what is provided, they reduce diversity, and they reduce the exchange of ideas. Because information is in the hand of sellers and their advertisers, markets tend to suppress the free flow of ideas. Farrell and Shalizi suggest that markets may provide stability and order, but in the long term markets alone are not sufficient to solve our complex social problems.  [More on this tomorrow]

Similarly, hierarchies have deficiencies. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein speak about libertarian paternalism and "choice architects." Choice architects are leaders who have responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions. Their job is to design institutions to spur better choices. We might think of Plato's philosopher king.

The problem with hierarchies, say Farrell and Shalizi, whether our philosopher king is enlightening or not, is that that any hierarchy requires power asymmetries in order to work. Power asymmetries are set up to push orders down; hierarchies are not so good at filtering useful information up. Hierarchies require bureaucracies, and bureaucracies systematically encourage a culture of conformity in order to increase predictability and static efficiency.

Thaler and Sunstein, report Farrell and Shalizi, criticize the market model by giving numerous examples of how individuals make poor choices and decisions. But, they say, how do philosopher kings--much less Saudi princes, or Russian presidents--make better decisions on individuals's behalf? Such hierarchies, even absent any corruption, treat individual citizens as passive consumers whose choices need to be guided to the desired outcome. Citizens are not participants in politics. Libertarian paternalism (the philosopher king model) is flawed not because it restricts people's choices, say Farrell and Shalizi, but because it makes heroic assumptions about the choice architect's (philosopher king's) abilities to figure out what the choices should be.

Figuring out what the right choices should be, and how to price these choices, turned out to be a central problem in the collapse of the centrally planned state as envisioned by the Soviet Empire. For a great description of this--in a history of an idea novelistic format--read Francis Spufford's Red Plenty. For a great read on how life in Plato's Republic might turn out, we should all be reading Jo Walton's The Just City.

We get better results in solving our complex problems if we all muddle through our politics without submission to philosopher kings or choice architects.

Democracy is the best model to solve complex social problems, argue Farrell and Shalizi, because it can best harness diversity in order to generate useful knowledge. In order for this to work best, we need equality among citizens, fewer power asymmetries, and an actual debate. Democracy and equal rights, that's the key.

Farrell and Shalizi point to social research over the past few decades which has shown that our reasoning becomes much better if we are challenged in an argumentative setting. Democracy with minimal power asymmetries--i.e. Democracy and equality--enables debates and the exchange of ideas. Groups with persistent dissenting minorities, research has shown, are able to come up with more creative and better solutions to problems. Groups that debate and argue tend to be smarter and wiser than the elite members in the group.

Karl Popper noted this about the scientific process: the reliability of science is an emergent property of scientific institutions, not of scientists. Likewise, Democracies in conditions of low power asymmetries--high levels of equality--can reliably come up with better solutions to complex social problems than either market based systems or hierarchically based systems.

Some of this, of course, is faith and a profession of values. Democracy does not come with a guarantee that complex social problems will be solved optimally, or well. Democracies can go far off the rails. Complex problem solving requires, at minimum agreement among diverse groups as to what the problems are that should be solved. When debating, there must be a modicum of good faith, and a minimal level of empirical standards--a willingness to change one's mind based on new and different information. Some would say those conditions are lacking in the current U.S. Congress.

It is human nature, of course, that we consider arguments through the filter of a strong confirmation bias. That is we all have a tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs, and we look with a jaundiced eye on any facts and argument that contradict our preexisting beliefs. However, say Farrell and Shalizi, research shows that groups can make this work. When we argue in diverse groups in favor of our pet solutions to complex social problems, our reasoning is intended not so much to reach a right answer, but to expose and evaluate weaknesses in the arguments of others. It is an argumentative account of reasoning. The benefit to a group, a demos, that challenges opposing views--and nurtures minimal power asymmetries--is that everybody is forced to improve their reasoning process and their arguments, and to come up with better evidence.  Better decision making can emerge from this process, just like scientific truth can emerge from the scientific process--and not from the impartial objectivity of individual scientists. 

The next post will look at the problem of the uninformed voter. Ilya Somin has written a book,  Democracy and Political Ignorancein which he argues that political ignorance is a fly in this ointment of political discourse, that it is an unsurmountable problem because it's rational for citizens to be politically ignorant, and that the solution is to have limited government so people can vote with their feet.  Stay tuned. 

In the meantime, let me know what you think of Farrell and Shalizi's optimistic take on Democracy with conditions of low power asymmetries. 
You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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