What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

The sunk-cost fallacy

JDN 2457075 EST 14:46.

I am back on Eastern Time once again, because we just finished our 3600-km road trek from Long Beach to Ann Arbor. I seem to move an awful lot; this makes me a bit like Schumpeter, who moved an average of every two years his whole adult life. Schumpeter and I have much in common, in fact, though I have no particular interest in horses.

Today’s topic is the sunk-cost fallacy, which was particularly salient as I had to box up all my things for the move. There were many items that I ended up having to throw away because it wasn’t worth moving them—but this was always painful, because I couldn’t help but think of all the work or money I had put into them. I threw away craft projects I had spent hours working on and collections of bottlecaps I had gathered over years—because I couldn’t think of when I’d use them, and ultimately the question isn’t how hard they were to make in the past, it’s what they’ll be useful for in the future. But each time it hurt, like I was giving up a little part of myself.

That’s the sunk-cost fallacy in a nutshell: Instead of considering whether it will be useful to us later and thus worth having around, we naturally tend to consider the effort that went into getting it. Instead of making our decisions based on the future, we make them based on the past.

Come to think of it, the entire Marxist labor theory of value is basically one gigantic sunk-cost fallacy: Instead of caring about the usefulness of a product—the mainstream utility theory of value—we are supposed to care about the labor that went into making it. To see why this is wrong, imagine someone spends 10,000 hours carving meaningless symbols into a rock, and someone else spends 10 minutes working with chemicals but somehow figures out how to cure pancreatic cancer. Which one would you pay more for—particularly if you had pancreatic cancer?

This is one of the most common irrational behaviors humans do, and it’s worth considering why that might be. Most people commit the sunk-cost fallacy on a daily basis, and even those of us who are aware of it will still fall into it if we aren’t careful.

This often seems to come from a fear of being wasteful; I don’t know of any data on this, but my hunch is that the more environmentalist you are, the more often you tend to run into the sunk-cost fallacy. You feel particularly bad wasting things when you are conscious of the damage that waste does to our planetary ecosystem. (Which is not to say that you should not be environmentalist; on the contrary, most of us should be a great deal more environmentalist than we are. The negative externalities of environmental degradation are almost unimaginably enormous—climate change already kills 150,000 people every year and is projected to kill tens if not hundreds of millions people over the 21st century.)

I think sunk-cost fallacy is involved in a lot of labor regulations as well. Most countries have employment protection legislation that makes it difficult to fire people for various reasons, ranging from the basically reasonable (discrimination against women and racial minorities) to the totally absurd (in some countries you can’t even fire people for being incompetent). These sorts of regulations are often quite popular, because people really don’t like the idea of losing their jobs. When faced with the possibility of losing your job, you should be thinking about what your future options are; but many people spend a lot of time thinking about the past effort they put into this one. I think there is also some endowment effect and loss aversion at work as well: You value your job more simply because you already have it, so you don’t want to lose it even for something better.

Yet these regulations are widely regarded by economists as inefficient; and for once I am inclined to agree. While I certainly don’t want people being fired frivolously or for discriminatory reasons, sometimes companies really do need to lay off workers because there simply isn’t enough demand for their products. When a factory closes down, we think about the jobs that are lost—but we don’t think about the better jobs they can now do instead.

I favor a system like what they have in Denmark (I’m popularizing a hashtag about this sort of thing: #Scandinaviaisbetter): We don’t try to protect your job, we try to protect you. Instead of regulations that make it hard to fire people, Denmark has a generous unemployment insurance system, strong social welfare policies, and active labor market policies that help people retrain and find new and better jobs. One thing I think Denmark might want to consider is restrictions on cyclical layoffs—in a recession there is pressure to lay off workers, but that can create a vicious cycle that makes recessions worse. Denmark was hit considerably harder by the Great Recession than France, for example; where France’s unemployment rose from 7.5% to 9.6%, Denmark’s rose from an astonishing 3.1% all the way up to 7.6%.

Then again, sometimes what looks like a sunk-cost fallacy actually isn’t—and I think this gives us insight into how we might have evolved such an apparently silly heuristic in the first place.

Why would you care about what you did in the past when deciding what to do in the future? Well there’s one reason in particular: Credible commitment. There are many cases in life where you’d like to be able to plan to do something in the future, but when the time comes to actually do it you’ll be tempted not to follow through.

This sort of thing happens all the time: When you take out a loan, you plan to pay it back—but when you need to actually make payments it sure would be nice if you didn’t have to. If you’re trying to slim down, you go on a diet—but doesn’t that cookie look delicious? You know you should quit smoking for your health—but what’s one more cigarette, really? When you get married, you promise to be faithful—but then sometimes someone else comes along who seems so enticing! Your term paper is due in two weeks, so you really should get working on it—but your friends are going out for drinks tonight, why not start the paper tomorrow?

Our true long-term interests are often misaligned with our short-term temptations. This often happens because of hyperbolic discounting, which is a bit technical; but the basic idea is that you tend to rate the importance of an event in inverse proportion to its distance in time. That turns out to be irrational, because as you get closer to the event, your valuations will change disproportionately. The optimal rational choice would be exponential discounting, where you value each successive moment a fixed percentage less than the last—since that percentage doesn’t change, your valuations will always stay in line with one another. But basically nobody really uses exponential discounting in real life.

We can see this vividly in experiments: If we ask people whether they would you rather receive $100 today, or $110 a week from now, they often go with $100 today. But if you ask them whether they would rather receive $100 in 52 weeks or $110 in 53 weeks, almost everyone chooses the $110. The value of a week apparently depends on how far away it is! (The $110 is clearly the rational choice by the way. Discounting 10% per week makes no sense at all—unless you literally believe that $1,000 today is as good as $140,000 a year from now.)

To solve this problem, it can be advantageous to make commitments—either enforced by direct measures such as legal penalties, or even simply by making promises that we feel guilty breaking. That’s why cold turkey is often the most effective way to quit a drug. Physiologically that makes no sense, because gradual cessation clearly does reduce withdrawal symptoms. But psychologically it does, because cold turkey allows you to make a hardline commitment to never again touch the stuff. The majority of successful smokers report using cold turkey, though there is still ongoing research on whether properly-orchestrated gradual reduction can be more effective. Likewise, vague notions like “I’ll eat better and exercise more” are virtually useless, while specific prescriptions like “I will do 20 minutes of exercise every day and stop eating red meat” are much more effective—the latter allows you to make a promise to yourself that can be broken, and since you feel bad breaking it you are motivated to keep it.

In the presence of such commitments, the past does matter, at least insofar as you made commitments to yourself or others in the past. If you promised never to smoke another cigarette, or never to cheat on your wife, or never to eat meat again, you actually have a good reason—and a good chance—to never do those things. This is easy to confuse with a sunk cost; when you think about the 20 years you’ve been married or the 10 years you’ve been vegetarian, you might be thinking of the sunk cost you’ve incurred over that time, or you might be thinking of the promises you’ve made and kept to yourself and others. In the former case you are irrationally committing a sunk-cost fallacy; in the latter you are rationally upholding a credible commitment.

This is most likely why we evolved in such a way as to commit sunk-cost fallacies. The ability to enforce commitments on ourselves and others was so important that it was worth it to overcompensate and sometimes let us care about sunk costs. Because commitments and sunk costs are often difficult to distinguish, it would have been more costly to evolve better ways of distinguish them than it was to simply make the mistake.

Perhaps people who are outraged by being laid off aren’t actually committing a sunk-cost fallacy at all; perhaps they are instead assuming the existence of a commitment where none exists. “I gave this company 20 good years, and now they’re getting rid of me?” But the truth is, you gave the company nothing. They never committed to keeping you (unless they signed a contract, but that’s different; if they are violating a contract, of course they should be penalized for that). They made you a trade, and when that trade ceases to be advantageous they will stop making it. Corporations don’t think of themselves as having any moral obligations whatsoever; they exist only to make profit. It is certainly debatable whether it was a good idea to set up corporations in this way; but unless and until we change that system it is important to keep it in mind. You will almost never see a corporation do something out of kindness or moral obligation; that’s simply not how corporations work. At best, they do nice things to enhance their brand reputation (Starbucks, Whole Foods, Microsoft, Disney, Costco). Some don’t even bother doing that, letting people hate as long as they continue to buy (Walmart, BP, DeBeers). Actually the former model seems to be more successful lately, which bodes well for the future; but be careful to recognize that few if any of these corporations are genuinely doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Human beings are often altruistic; corporations are specifically designed not to be.

And there were some things I did promise myself I would keep—like old photos and notebooks that I want to keep as memories—so those went in boxes. Other things were obviously still useful—clothes, furniture, books. But for the rest? It was painful, but I thought about what I could realistically use them for, and if I couldn’t think of anything, they went into the trash.