Stop telling people they need to vote. Tell them they need to cast informed votes.

Feb 11 JDN 2458161

I just spent last week’s post imploring you to defend the norms of democracy. This week, I want to talk about a norm of democracy that I actually think needs an adjustment.

Right now, there is a very strong norm that simply says: VOTE.

“It is our civic duty to vote.” “You are unpatriotic if you don’t vote.” “Voting is a moral obligation.” Etc.

The goal here is laudable: We want people to express the altruistic motivation that will drive them to escape the so-called Downs Paradox and actually go vote to make democracy work.

But the norm is missing something quite important. It’s not actually such a great thing if everyone just goes out and votes, because most people are seriously, disturbingly uninformed about politics.

The norm shouldn’t be that you must vote. The norm should be that you must cast an informed vote.

Best if you vote informed, but if you won’t get informed, then better if you don’t vote at all. Adding random noise or bias toward physical attractiveness and height does not improve electoral outcomes.

How uninformed are voters?

Most voters don’t understand even basic facts about the federal budget, like the fact that Medicare and Social Security spending are more than defense spending, or the fact that federal aid and earmarks are tiny portions of the budget. A couple years ago I had to debunk a meme that was claiming that we spend a vastly larger portion of the budget on defense than we actually do.

It gets worse: Only a quarter of Americans can even name all three branches of government. Almost half couldn’t identify the Bill of Rights. We literally required them to learn this in high school. By law they were supposed to know this.

But of course I’m not one of the ignorant ones, right? In a classic case of Dunning-Kruger Effect, nobody ever thinks they are. When asked to predict if they would pass the civics exam required to obtain citizenship, 89% of voters surveyed predicted they would. When they took it, only 17% actually passed it. (For the record, I took it and got a perfect score. You can try it yourself here.)

More informed voters already tend to be more politically engaged. But they are almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, which means (especially with the way the Electoral College works) that elections are primarily determined by low-information voters. Low-information voters were decisive for Trump in a way that is unprecedented for as far back as we have data on voter knowledge (which, sadly, is not all that far back).

To be fair, more information is no panacea; humans are very good at rationalizing beliefs that they hold for tribal reasons. People who follow political news heavily typically have more distorted views on some political issues, because they only hear one side and they think they know but they don’t. To truly be more informed voters we must seek out information from reliable, nonpartisan sources, and listen to a variety of sources with differing views. Get your ideas about climate change from NPR or the IPCC, not from Huffington Post—and certainly not from Fox News. But still, maybe it’s worth reading National Review or Reason on occasion. Even when they are usually wrong, it is good for you to expose yourself to views from the other side—because sometimes they can be right. (Reason recently published an excellent article on the huge waste of government funds on building stadiums, for example, and National Review made some really good points against the New Mexico proposal to mandate college applications for high school graduates.)

And of course even those of us who are well-informed obviously have lots of other things we don’t know. Given my expertise in economics and my level of political engagement, I probably know more about politics than 99% of American voters; but I still can’t name more than a handful of members of Congress or really any state legislators aside from the ones who ran for my own district. I can’t even off the top of my head recall who heads the Orange County Water District, even though they literally decide whether I get to drink and take a shower. I’m not asking voters to know everything there is to know about politics, as no human being could possibly do such a thing. I’m merely asking that they know enough basic information to make an informed decision about who to vote for.

Moreover, I think this is a unique time in history where changing this norm has really become viable. We are living in a golden age of information access—almost literally anything you could care to know about politics, you could find in a few minutes of Google searching. I didn’t know who ran my water district, but I looked it up, and I do now: apparently Stephen R. Sheldon. I can’t name that many members of Congress, but I don’t vote for that many members of Congress, and I do carefully research each candidate running in my district when it comes time to vote. (In the next California state legislature election, Mimi Walters has got to go—she has consistently failed to stand against Trump, choosing her party over her constituency.)

This means that if you are uninformed about politics and yet still vote, you chose to do that. You aren’t living in a world where it’s extremely expensive or time-consuming to learn about politics. It is spectacularly easy to learn about politics if you actually want to; if you didn’t learn, it was because you chose not to learn. And if even this tiny cost is too much for you, then how about this? If you don’t have time to get informed, you don’t have time to vote.

Voting electronically would also help with this. People could, in the privacy of their own homes, look up information on candidates while their ballots are right there in front of them. While mail-in voter fraud actually does exist (unlike in-person voter fraud, which basically doesn’t), there are safeguards already in widespread use in Internet-based commerce that we could institute on electronic voting to provide sufficient protection. Basically, all we need to do is public-key signing: issue every voter a private key to sign their votes, which are then decrypted at the county office using a database of public keys. If public keys were stolen, that could compromise secret-ballot anonymity, but it would not allow anyone to actually change votes. Voters could come in person to collect their private keys when they register to vote, at their convenience weeks or months before the election. Of course, we’d have to make it user-friendly enough that people who aren’t very good with computers would understand the system. We could always leave open the option of in-person voting for anyone who prefers that.

Of course, establishing this norm would most likely reduce voter turnout, even if it did successfully increase voter knowledge. But we don’t actually need everyone to vote. We need everyone’s interests accurately represented. If you aren’t willing to get informed, then casting your vote isn’t representing your interests anyway, so why bother?

False equivalence is not centrism

False equivalence is not centrism

Feb 4 JDN 2458154

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

~ W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming


Centrism is not very popular these days, but I believe this is because neither its alleged adherents nor its alleged opponents actually have a clear understanding of what centrism is supposed to be. Most of what is called “centrism” in this polarized era (the US is now more politically polarized than it has been in decades) is actually false equivalence.

Most people who express pride in their “centrism” adopt a heuristic which basically amounts to taking the two positions that are most loudly proclaimed in public and averaging them. One side says “Kill all puppies”, the other side says “Don’t kill puppies”, and they proudly and self-righteously declare that the only sensible policy is to kill precisely 50% of the puppies. Anyone who says “the two parties are the same” or “liberals deny science too” is guilty of this false equivalence—and it’s all too common.

But this is not what centrism is supposed to be. A good centrist isn’t someone who looks at their existing Overton Window and chooses the mean value. A good centrist is someone who understands and appreciates Horseshoe Theory. Horseshoe Theory says that the political spectrum is not actually a straight line from left to right; it’s more of a horseshoe shape, where the far-left and the far-right curl down and toward one another. A good centrist is someone who values the top of the horseshoe, more strongly than they value whatever particular policies might move you toward the left or the right edge.

What does the top of the horseshoe represent? Democracy.

A good centrist is someone who really, truly believes in defending democracy.

What the far-left and the far-right have in common is authoritarianism:

For those on either edge of the horseshoe, people who disagree with (the collectivization of all wealth/the superiority of my master race) aren’t simply wrong, they are evil. Persuading them to vote my way is a waste of time. Freedom of speech is dangerous, because it allows them to spread their evil ideas. It would be better to suppress freedom of speech, so that only people who know the truth (read: agree with me) are allowed to speak.

Along similar lines, Slate Star Codex recently published an excellent blog post on how people seem to separate into two very broad political worldviews: There are Mistake Theorists, who think that most of the world’s problems are due to honest ignorance and error; and there are Conflict Theorists, who think that most of the world’s problems are due to the malign influence of evil enemy factions. The far-left and the far-right are overwhelmingly composed of Conflict Theorists. A good centrist is a Mistake Theorist through and through.

Being a good centrist means fighting to defend the institutions that make freedom possible. Here is a whole list of policies that neither the far-left nor the far-right particularly values that we as centrists must:

  1. Voting rights: We must fight against voter suppression and disenfranchisement wherever it occurs. We must stand up to defend the principle “one person, one vote” wherever necessary.
  2. Equality under the law: We must protect the rights of everyone to have equal representation and equal standing as citizens—including, but by no means limited to, women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities.

  3. Election reform: We must find ways to undermine gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and the campaign finance system that allows corporations and wealthy individuals to exert disproportionate influence.

  4. Freedom of speech: We must protect the right of everyone to speak, including those whose views we find abhorrent. Our efforts should be focused most on those who have the least representation in our discourse.

  5. Individual privacy: We must fight against the creeping rise of the surveillance state and the use of extra-legal means of intelligence gathering, particularly in domestic spying. We should be outraged that the House of Representatives voted to extend the NSA’s warrantless wiretap authority after what Edward Snowden revealed about the NSA.

  6. Demilitarization and deincarceration: We must fight to contain or reverse the expansion of military and penal force that has given the United States not only a military larger than the next ten countries combined, but also the world’s highest rate of incarceration.

On some of these issues we might find agreement with the left or (less likely) the right—but even when we don’t, we must press forward. In particular, the goal of equality under the law often aligns with the goal of left-wing social justice—but there are cases where it doesn’t, cases where hatred of White straight men or a craving for vengeance against past injustice drives the left to demand things that would violate this principle. And the atavistic joy of punching Nazis in the face must never overwhelm our sacred commitment to the principles of free speech.

This doesn’t mean we can’t also adopt detailed policy views that align with the left or the right (or both). I for one support single-payer healthcare (left), progressive taxation (left), renewable energy (left), open borders (left), zoning reform (right), reductions in corporate taxes (right), free trade (right, or so I thought?), and a basic income (both—yet strangely we can’t seem to make it happen).

But being a good centrist means that these detailed policy prescriptions are always less important to you than the core principles of democracy itself. When they find out that the rest of the country is against them on something, a leftist or a rightist starts looking for ways to undermine the public will and get the policy they want. A centrist accepts that they have been outvoted and starts looking for ways to persuade the majority that they are mistaken.

Centrism is about defending the guardrails of democracy. False equivalence is not centrism; it is an obstacle to centrism. It prevents us from seeing when one side has clearly damaged those guardrails much more than the other. So let me come out and say it: At this historical juncture, in the United States, the right wing is a far greater threat to the core principles of democracy than the left. This is not to say that the left is inherently incapable of threatening democracy, or never will do so in the future; but it is to say that right here, right now, it’s the right wing we should be worried about. Punching Nazis will never be as threatening to the core of freedom as warrantless wiretaps or the discrediting of the mainstream press.

Did the World Bank modify its ratings to manipulate the outcome of an election in Chile?

Jan 21 JDN 2458140

(By the way, my birthday is January 19. I can’t believe I’m turning 30.)

This is a fairly obscure news item, so you may have missed it. It should be bigger news than it is.
I can’t fault the New York Times for having its front page focus mainly on the false missile alert that was issued to some people in Hawaii; a false alarm of nuclear attack definitely is the most important thing that could be going on in the world, short of course of actual nuclear war.

CNN, on the other hand, is focused entirely on Trump. When I first wrote this post, they were also focused on Trump, mainly interested in asking whether Trump’s comments about “immigrants from shithole countries” was racist. My answer: Yes, but not because he said the countries were “shitholes”. That was crude, yes, but not altogether inaccurate. Countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan are, by any objective measure, terrible places. His comments were racist because they attributed that awfulness to the people leaving these countries. But in fact we have a word for immigrants who flee terrible places seeking help and shelter elsewhere: Refugees. We call those people refugees. There are over 10 million refugees in the world today, most of them from Syria.

So anyway, here’s the news item you should have heard about but probably didn’t: The Chief Economist of the World Bank (Paul Romer, who coincidentally I mentioned in my post about DSGE models) has opened an investigation into the possibility that the World Bank’s ratings of economic freedom were intentionally manipulated in order to tilt a Presidential election in Chile.

The worst part is, it may have worked: Chile’s “Doing Business” rating consistently fell under President Michelle Bachelet and rose under President Sebastian Piñera, and Piñera won the most recent election. Was that the reason he won? Who knows? I’m still not entirely clear on how we ended up with President Trump. But it very likely contributed.

The World Bank is supposed to be an impartial institution representing the interests of global economic development. I’m not naive; I recognize that no human institution is perfect, and there will always be competing political and economic interests within any complex institution. Development economists are subject to cognitive biases just like anyone else. If this was the work of a handful of economic analysts (or if Romer turns out to be wrong and the changes in statistical methodology were totally reasonable), so be it; let’s make sure that the bias is corrected and the analysts involved are punished.

But I fear that the rot may run deeper than this. The World Bank is effectively a form of unelected international government. It has been accused of inherent pro-capitalist (or even racist) bias due to the fact that Western governments are overrepresented in its governance, but I actually consider that accusation unfair: There are very good reasons to make sure that your international institutions are managed by liberal democracies, and turns out that most of the world’s liberal democracies are Western. The fact that the US, France, Germany, and the UK make most of the decisions is entirely sensible: Those are in fact the countries we should want making global decisions.

China is not underrepresented, because China is not a democracy and doesn’t deserve to be represented. They are already more represented in the World Bank than they should be, because representing the PRC is not actually representing the interests of the people of China. Russia and Saudi Arabia are undeniably overrepresented. India is underrepresented; they should be complaining. Some African democracies, such as Namibia and Botswana, would also have a legitimate claim to underrepresentation. But I don’t lose any sleep over the fact that Zimbabwe and Iran aren’t getting votes in the World Bank. If and when those countries actually start representing their people, then we can talk about giving them representation in world government. I don’t see how refusing to give international authority to dictators and theocrats constitutes racism or pro-capitalist bias.

That said, there are other reasons to think that the World Bank might actually have some sort of pro-capitalist bias. The World Bank was instrumental in forming the Washington Consensus, which opened free trade and increase economic growth worldwide, but also exposed many poor countries to risk from deregulated financial markets and undermined social safety nets through fiscal austerity programs. They weren’t wrong to want more free trade, and many of their reforms did make sense; but they were at best wildly overconfident in their policy prescriptions, and at worst willing to sacrifice people in poor countries at the altar of bank profits. World poverty has in fact fallen by about half since 1990, and the World Bank has a lot to do with that. But things may have gone faster and smoother if they hadn’t insisted on removing so many financial regulations so quickly without clear forecasts of what would happen. I don’t share Jason Hickel’s pessimistic view that the World Bank’s failures were intentional acts toward an ulterior agenda, but I can see how it begins to look that way when they keep failing the same ways over and over again. (I instead invoke Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”)

There are also reports of people facing retaliation for criticizing World Bank projects, including those within the World Bank who raise ethical concerns. If this was politically-motivated data manipulation, there may have been people who saw it happening, but were afraid to say anything for fear of being fired or worse.

And Chile in particular has reason to be suspicious. The World Bank suddenly started giving loans to Chile when Augusto Pinochet took power (the CIA denies supporting the coup, by the way—though, given the source, I can understand why one would take that with a grain of salt), and did so under the explicit reasoning that an authoritarian capitalist regime was somehow “more trustworthy” than a democratic socialist regime. Even in the narrow sense of financial creditworthiness that seems difficult to defend; the World Bank knew almost nothing about what kind of government Pinochet was going to create, and in fact despite the so-called “Miracle of Chile”, rapid economic growth in Chile didn’t really happen until the 1990s, after Chile became a democratic capitalist regime.

What I’m really getting at here is that the World Bank has a lot to answer for. I am prepared to believe that most of these actions were honest mistakes or ideological blinders, rather than corruption or cruelty; but even so, when millions of lives are at stake, even honest mistakes aren’t so forgivable. They should be looking for ways to improve their internal governance to make sure that mistakes are caught and corrected quickly. They should be constantly vigilant for biases—either intentional or otherwise—that might seep into their research. Error should be met with immediate correction and public apology; malfeasance should be met with severe punishment.

Perhaps Romer’s investigation actually signals a shift toward such a policy. If so, this is a very good thing. If only we had done this, say, thirty years ago.

Building a wider tent, revisited

Sep 17, JDN 2458014

At a reader’s suggestion, I am expanding upon the argument I made a few weeks ago that political coalitions are strongest when they are willing to accept some disagreement. I made that argument with numbers, which is likely to convince someone like me; but I know that many other people don’t really think that way, so it may help to provide some visuals as well.

60% of this rectangle is filled in red.

Rectangle_1

This represents the proportion of the population that agrees with you on some issue. For concreteness but to avoid making this any more political than it already is, I’m going to pick silly issues. So let’s have this first issue be about which side of the road we should drive on. Let’s say your view is that we should drive on the right. 60% of people agree that we should drive on the right. The other 40% think we should drive on the left.

Now let’s consider another issue. Let’s say this one is about putting pineapples on pizza. You, and 60% of people, agree that pineapples should not be put on pizza. The other 40% think we should put pineapples on pizza.

For now, let’s assume those two issues are independent, that someone’s opinions on driving and pizza are unrelated. Then we can fill 60% of the rectangle in blue, but it should be a perpendicular portion because the two issues aren’t related:

Rectangle_2

Those who agree with you on driving but not pizza (that would include me, by the way) are in red, those who agree with you on pizza but not driving are in blue, those who agree with you on both are in purple, and those who disagree with you on both are in white. You should already be able to see that less than half the population agrees with you on both issues, even though more than half agrees on each.

Let’s add a third issue, which we will color in green. This one can be the question of whether Star Trek is better than Star Wars. Let’s say that 60% of the population agrees with you that Star Trek is better, while 40% think that Star Wars is better. Let’s also assume that this is independent of opinions on both driving and pizza.

Rectangle_3

This is already starting to get unwieldy; there are now eight distinct regions. The white region (8) is comprised of people who disagree with you on everything. The red (6), blue (4), and green (7) regions each have people agree with you on exactly one issue. The blue-green (3), purple (2), and brown (5) regions have people agree with you on two issues. Only those in the dark-green region (1) agree with you on everything.

As you can see, the proportion of people who agree with you on all issues is fairly small, even though the majority of the population agrees with you on any given issue.

If we keep adding issues, this effect gets even stronger. I’m going to change the color-coding now to simplify things. Now, blue will indicate the people who agree with you on all issues, green the people who agree on all but one issue, yellow the people who agree on all but two issues, and red the people who disagree with you on three or more issues.

For three issues, that looks like this, which you can compare to the previous diagram:

Rectangle_4

Now let’s add a fourth issue. Let’s say 60% of people agree with you that socks should not be worn with sandals, but 40% think that socks should be worn with sandals. The blue region gets smaller:

Rectangle_5

How about a fifth issue? Let’s say 60% of people agree with you that cats are better than dogs, while 40% think that dogs are better than cats. The blue region continues to shrink:

Rectangle_6

How about a sixth issue?

Rectangle_7

And finally, a seventh issue?

Rectangle_8

Now the majority of the space is covered by red, meaning that most of the population disagrees with you on at least three issues.

To recap:

By the time there were two issues, the majority of the population disagreed with you on at least one issue.

By the time there were four issues, the majority of the population disagreed with you on at least two issues.

By the time there were seven issues, the majority of the population disagreed with you on at least three issues.

This despite the fact that the majority of the population always agrees with you on any given issue!

If you only welcomed people into your coalition who agree on every single issue (the blue region), you wouldn’t win election if there were even two issues. If you only welcomed those who disagree on at most one (blue or green), you’d stop winning if there were at least four issues. And if there were at least seven issues, you couldn’t even win by allowing those who disagree on at most two issues (blue, green, yellow).

Now, this argument very much does rely upon the different opinions being independent, which in real politics is not the case. So let’s introduce some correlations and see how this changes the result.

Suppose that once someone agrees with you about driving on the right side of the road, they are 90% likely to agree on pizza, Star Trek, sandals, and cats.

Rectangle_9
That makes things look a lot better for you; by including one level of disagreement, you could dominate every election. But notice that even in this case, if you exclude all disagreement, you will continue to lose elections.

With enough issues, even with very strong correlations you can get the same effect. Suppose there are 20 issues, and if you agree on the first one, there is a 99% chance you’ll agree on each of the others. You are still only getting about half the electorate if you don’t allow any disagreement! Due to the very high correlation, if someone disagrees with you on a few things, they usually disagree with you on many things; yet you’re still better off including some disagreement in your coalition.

Rectangle_10

Obviously, you shouldn’t include people in your coalition who actively oppose its core mission. Even if they aren’t actively trying to undermine you, at some point, the disagreement becomes so large that you’ve got to cut them loose. But in a pluralistic democracy, ideological purism is a surefire recipe for electoral failure. You need to allow at least some disagreement.

This isn’t even getting into the possibility that you might be wrong about some issues, and by including those who disagree with you, you may broaden your horizons and correct your mistakes. I’ve thus far assumed you are completely correct and in the majority on every single issue, and yet you still can’t win elections with complex policy mixes unless you include people who disagree with you.

This is a battle for the soul of America

July 9, JDN 2457944

At the time of writing, I just got back from a protest march against President Trump in Santa Ana (the featured photo is one I took at the march). I had intended to go to the much larger sister protest in Los Angeles, but the logistics were too daunting. On the upside, presumably the marginal impact of my attendance was higher at the smaller event.

Protest marches are not a common pastime of mine; I am much more of an ivory-tower policy wonk than a boots-on-the-ground political activist. The way that other people seem to be allergic to statistics, I am allergic to a lack of statistics when broad claims are made with minimal evidence. Even when I basically agree with everything being said, I still feel vaguely uncomfortable marching and chanting in unison (and constantly reminded of that scene from Life of Brian). But I made an exception for this one, because Trump represents a threat to the soul of American democracy.

We have had bad leaders many times before—even awful leaders, even leaders whose bad decisions resulted in the needless deaths of thousands. But not since the end of the Civil War have we had leaders who so directly threatened the core institutions of America itself.

We must keep reminding ourselves: This is not normal. This is not normal! Donald Trump’s casual corruption, overwhelming narcissism, authoritarianism, greed, and utter incompetence (not to mention his taste in decor) make him more like Idi Amin or Hugo Chavez than like George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. (Even the comparison with Vladimir Putin would be too flattering to Trump; Putin at least is competent.) He has personally publicly insulted over 300 people, places, and things—and counting.

Trump lies almost constantly, surrounds himself with family members and sycophants, refuses to listen to intelligence briefings, and personally demeans and even threatens journalists who criticize him. Every day it seems like there is a new scandal, more outrageous than the last; and after so long, this almost seems like a strategy. Every day he finds some new way to offend and undermine the basic norms of our society, and eventually he hopes to wear us down until we give up fighting.

It is certainly an exaggeration, and perhaps a dangerous one, to say that Donald Trump is the next Adolf Hitler. But there are important historical parallels between the rise of Trump and the rise of many other populist authoritarian demagogues. He casually violates democratic norms of civility, honesty, and transparency, and incentivizes the rest of us to do the same—a temptation we must resist. Political scientists and economists are now issuing public warnings that our democratic institutions are not as strong as we may think (though, to be fair, others argue that they are indeed strong enough).

It was an agonizingly close Presidential election. Even the tiniest differences could have flipped enough states to change the outcome. If we’d had a better voting system, it would not have happened; a simple plurality vote would have elected Hillary Clinton, and as I argued in a previous post, range voting would probably have chosen Bernie Sanders. Therefore, we must not take this result as a complete indictment of American society or a complete failure of American democracy. But let it shake us out of our complacency; democracy is only as strong as the will of its citizens to defend it.

No, this isn’t like Watergate. It’s worse.

May 21, JDN 2457895

Make no mistake: This a historic moment. This may be the greatest corruption scandal in the history of the United States. Donald Trump has fired the director of the FBI in order to block an investigation—and he said so himself.

It has become cliche to compare scandals to Watergate—to the point where we even stick the suffix “-gate” on things to indicate scandals. “Gamergate”, “Climategate”, and so on. So any comparison to Watergate is bound to draw some raised eyebrows.

But just as it’s not Godwin’s Law when you’re really talking about fascism and genocide, it’s not the “-gate” cliche when we are talking about a corruption scandal that goes all the way up to the President of the United States. And The Atlantic is right: this isn’t Watergate; it’s worse.

First of all, let’s talk about the crime of which Trump is accused. Nixon was accused of orchestrating burglary and fraud. These are not minor offenses, to be sure. But they are ordinary criminal offenses, felonies at worst. Trump is accused of fundamental Constitutional violations (particularly the First Amendment and the Emoluments Clause), and above all, Trump is accused of treason. This is the highest crime recognized by the Constitution of the United States. It is the only crime with a specifically listed Constitutional punishment—and that punishment is execution.

Donald Trump is being investigated not for stealing something or concealing information, but for colluding with foreign powers in the attempt to undermine American democracy. Is he guilty? I don’t know; that’s why we’re investigating. But let me say this: If he isn’t guilty of something, it’s quite baffling that he would fight so hard to stop the investigation.

Speaking of which: Trump’s intervention to stop Comey is much more direct, and much more sudden, than anything Nixon did to stop the Watergate investigations. Nixon of course tried to stonewall the investigations, but he did so subtly, cautiously, always trying to at least appear like he valued due process and rule of law. Trump made no such efforts, openly threatening Comey personally on Twitter and publicly declaring on national television that he had fired him to block the investigation.

But perhaps what makes the Trump-Comey affair most terrifying is how the supposedly “mainstream” Republican Party has reacted. The Republicans of Nixon had some honor left in them; several resigned rather than follow Nixon’s illegal orders, and dozens of Republicans in Congress supported the investigations and called for Nixon’s impeachment. Apparently that honor is gone now, as GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham have expressed support for the President’s corrupt and illegal actions citing no principle other than party loyalty. If we needed any more proof that the Republican Party of the United States is no longer a mainstream political party, this is it. They don’t believe in democracy or rule of law anymore. They believe in winning at any cost, loyalty at any price. They have become a radical far-right organization—indeed, if they continue down this road of supporting the President in undermining the freedom of the press and consolidating his own power, I think it is fair to call them literally neo-fascist.

We are about to see whether American institutions can withstand such an onslaught, whether liberty and justice can prevail against corruption and tyranny. So far, there have been reasons to be optimistic: In particular, the judicial branch has proudly and bravely held the line, blocking Trump’s travel ban (multiple times), resisting his order to undermine sanctuary cities, and standing up to direct criticisms and even threats from the President himself. Our system of checks and balances is being challenged, but so far it is holding up against that challenge. We will find out soon enough whether the American system truly is robust enough to survive.

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.”