Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Knowledge and Democracy

Myron of Working Towards Something That Makes Sense (a very interesting fellow) suggested to me the other day the idea that democracy is a superior form of government in that by allowing all members of the polis to vote, one incorporates the collective knowledge of many more people than are involved in an oligarchy or monarchy.

The idea is attractive to me in that it ties in with what I find attractive about a free economy and decentralized approach to charitable action: that people in a given situation are more likely to know the details of what is the best choice than is some distant, centralized authority. People often fail when they try to centralize or re-engineer important functions in society, because the centralizers seldom are able to know enough about all the different situations their actions will affect to correctly account for all of them. An open market (or a decentralized system of charity/safety net institutions) thus incorporates the knowledge and decision making capabilities of many more people and is able to achieve better solutions.

However, when it comes to democracy, I'm not sure that that argument works as well. (My own reason for preferring democracy is the more negative precept that democracy gives the people the government they deserve.) Here's the reason: In a democracy of any real size, the people as a whole are not deeply involved in drafting laws and policies. Rather, they either vote to elect leaders (in a republic) or in a more direct democracy vote on laws and policies which are crafted by a relatively small governing set or class.

The act of voting, in itself, does not do much to collect information from the populace as a whole. Nor can I think of any practical means (in a democracy of any size) whereby one could easily harness that information.

It seems to me that the only way to take advantage of this collective knowledge is to keep the number of things administered at the national level to a minimum, while allowing the most intrusive services (in which I would put education, health care and unemployment/poverty alleviation) to be administered at the most local level possible. (Preferably something rather smaller than most cities these days.)



Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

I dunno Darwin, I've Myron over at my blog saying he's not even sure what a human being is.

Darwin said...

Well, Myron isn't Catholic (and indeed, is pretty much a deist rather than theist) so I take it as read that his metaphysics differs from ours a great deal. But he does strike me as a very interesting and thoughtful blogger -- though clearly we differ a lot on some issues.

j. christian said...

I agree that there's a difference between "democracy in markets" and "democracy in policy." For the former, an individual is truly making a microeconomic decision: Should I buy this bread? Should I take this job? In the latter case, we're not asking an individual to make a micro decision about policy (e.g., "Should I have an abortion?") Instead, we're asking the individual to vote on the principle of the policy in question. It's a much more abstract problem than just deciding which loaf of bread to buy.

Zach said...

"It seems to me that the only way to take advantage of this collective knowledge is to keep the number of things administered at the national level to a minimum, while allowing the most intrusive services ... to be administered at the most local level possible."

This is a very Tocquevillian point. Tocqueville argued the that this division of political authority and responsibility into (in ascending levels of administrative abstraction) towns, cities, counties, states and the federal government was a key component of the American political genius.

It's sad to say, but we've botched the design pretty badly. People want their king from on high to take care of them and solve their problems. I wish we could return to the decentralized approach.

Oddly enough, I think this is a point on which Michael Iafrate and the Founders would agree. Local communities know best.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

The whole democracy-as-knowledge-collection idea reminds me of the idea that you could replace the knowledge conveyed through market prices by using surveys and other polling data to figure out what people's needs were. It didn't work out so well.

Myron said...

by allowing all members of the polis to vote

Not exactly what I meant. I'd say "by allowing all members of the polis to influence decisions", the method of voting itself is secondary. Votes and surveys are one thing, but what I really think is important is the free exchange of knowledge (free press, some opportunity for all viewpoints on any given issue to be heard, etc).

I think the freedom of information that the Internet has allowed leads us to a better democracy where better decisions will be made. Granted, it's not as clean and simple as how microeconomic decisions feed into macroeconomic decisions, but we have to compare it to the alternatives. What I think is, in theory, if all opinions are debated fairly and openly, the one that will eventually lead to a decisioin and an action, the one that will "win" in the marketplace of ideas, will be the one that incorporates the greatest amount of detail and thought, often by someone who has studied the issue extensively. People who have studied environmental science extensively will get to make decisions (by proxy through accountable rulers) on the environment. People who have spent their lifetimes as lawyers will get to make decisions on matters of law. No single ruler or small ruling elite could incorporate all of the lifetimes of study and knowledge that a free exchange of ideas can uncover. While I acknowledge that this is only very imperfectly realized, it still turns out better than other systems of government where power and decision-making is centralized.

Democracy is not just about voting, though. Voting averages out expert opinion with unexpert opinion, and the result is mediocre, but the more open debate there is, the better the end result of the vote will be. The ideal democratic system is about letting the most expert opinion come to the top, effectively having decisions be done by thousands and thousands of experts/specialists, rather than one person or a committee of the elite and well educated.

Darwin said...

Hmmmm. Okay, fair point.

But in that case, is anything remotely resembling a democracy actually required to achieve the effect, or would an aristocracy with a free press work just as well?

I'm honestly intrigued by the idea, I'm just trying to figure out whether it fits well with reality.

Myron said...

It seems to me that the only way to take advantage of this collective knowledge is to keep the number of things administered at the national level to a minimum, while allowing the most intrusive services (in which I would put education, health care and unemployment/poverty alleviation) to be administered at the most local level possible. (Preferably something rather smaller than most cities these days.)

That's interesting, and I'd agree localization wherever possible is probably good. The problem with localizing some decisions is economies of scale and standardization. Example: if there is a centralized health care purchasing agency, the number of suppliers is kept to a minimum, which leads to greater batch runs and cheaper prices. This of course has to be balanced against the possiblity of creating a monopoly or a cartel which will drive up prices. Re: Standardization, certain laws and standards would be best administered on a national/international scale, so that businesses can expand to new markets easily. In Canada this is a problem because many things (health care, education and significant elements of taxation, as well as many other laws) are administered provincially rather than federally. Even professional designations are often only valid provincially, which decreases the mobility of labour.

I think the democratizing task over the next few years will be understanding the impact of the Internet and finding ways to use it to manage a greater involvement in our democracy (I like sites like for this - I wonder if debates could incorporate some sort of voting sytem such that "good" opinions get voted to the top by readers, cutting through the media noise and giving the leaders a smaller amount of high quality opionion to review, while at the same time letting everyone who wants to (or at least a lot more people) have a voice.)

Myron said...

But in that case, is anything remotely resembling a democracy actually required to achieve the effect, or would an aristocracy with a free press work just as well?

That's a question I've thought about. The context I think about it is from my knowledge of business. It seems to me that power has increasingly flowed from the public sector to the private sector, with large business in many cases having as much or more power as the elected government. NGOs have recognized this, a friend of mine who is heavily involved with some put it this way in 2004 - the focus has shifted from governments to governance. I. E. transparency, accountability, freedom of expression, and the ability of people to influence the powers that affect their lives, whether those be governemnt agencies or businesses.

I'm not quite sure how it corresponds to anything we have yet in reality, but I think it's an ideal we should strive for, even so.

LogEyed Roman said...

I like some of Victor David Hanson's characterizatiions of "Democracy" from Hellenic Greece to today: Whatever people do or do not have the power to vote on, there has been a continuity of freedom of expression--importantly divided by the early Greeks into (a) The right to speak and (b) The right to say pretty much anything--and accountability to even the most powerful leaders. Thus even the most powerful European monarchs, though they might in fact be able to get a lot of people executed if they really wanted to, could not do so without at least a pretext of following some objective rule and not just their own pleasure; and also there was nerly always the threat of an eventual public audit of decisions, where at least some of the ruled had the ability to demand the rulers account for their decisions.

Hanson contrasts this to, say Xerxes, who when a man asked that one of his sons be excused military service, had the son in question chopped in half and placed where his army would march between the pieces; and the Sultans opposed by Christians for so much of the middle ages, who could have anyone executed and seize anyone's property with no need for any pretext at all.

Even Sparta had what Hanson called "democratic" characteristics, in that among the Peers, the members of the ruling class, there was a right to speak (however constrained by military etiquette), and all of them, including the king, were equally subject to the state's laws.

I get these ideas from Hanson's groundbreaking "Carnage and Culture", a book I highly recommend. He says that the results of this ongoing tradition, which has unbroken continuity from the Persian wars to today, however uneven in degree and however many permutations it somersaulted through, has shown in the overall pattern of extreme military deadliness on the part of the West--unrelated to any moral quality in motive or "racial" qualities.

Anyway, this does suppor the general thesis that when there is enough freedom for individuals to act, speak, and do what they wish with their property, the result tends to be greatly increased effectiveness.

LogEyed Roman

LogEyed Roman said...

There is in my mind a serious reservation regarding democracy, however. Don't misunderstand me; I support it fervently--would die for it--but I try not to have illusions about it.

It's not unrelated to Darwin's principle that people should get the government they deserve. Not even I would necessarily express it this way, but then even I would probably come up second best in a snarkiness contest with Darwin or Mrs. Darwin. I know my limits.

But I do feel that people have a right to a large extent to make mistakes and mess up their lives. For instance, I would never vote to allow casinos in U.S. territory in California where I live. But when there were ballot measures to allow these on Indian reservations I voted in favor of them. I believe they are wrong and foolish, but I think that Indian reservations are not U.S. territory and we have no business telling them what to do. (Abortion mills would be a different matter.)

To me, along with the justice and increased efficiency of democracy--true democracy in the sense that the real decisions and ideas of many be taken into account, like market pricing instead of "reasearch" which is conducted by those who are not really the people they are supposed to be measuring--along with this comes increased mob stupidity. Hanson himself acknowledges this in "Carnage and Culture". Along with the efficiency of their military and economy, and the freedom of their culture, the Greeks got unstable politics and endless vulnerability to demagogues and group hysteria.

I think this is part of the price we pay. It HAS TO include a degree of tolerance which can result in people saying that which will, at least to an extent, offend, blaspheme, etc. I believe that any attempt to totally control speech and trade so that "nobody ever gets hurt" can never be trusted (who guards the guardians?) and also must always stifle the initiative and collective wisdom and knowledge that makes democracy, and its economic engine, capitalism, so powerful.

Freedom is not free; not only does it require vigilance and the willingness to sacrifice to preserve it, it must require the acceptance that great risks must be accepted, and sometimes the consequences will be grievous.

LogEyed Roman

Myron said...

Excellent thoughts, LogEyed Roman.

Darwin, what I'm getting at is democracy is independent of the ruling system (elected/appointed, individual/group as the "decider"). There are "democracies" where the leader is "elected" in the world today, but they're not democratic because the vote is rigged. What I support is democracy the concept, not democracy the system where our leaders are elected by popular vote. Whether our leaders are elected or appointed, the important thing is that they are accountable (that they can be removed from power, regardless of how they came to power), and that everyone has the opportunity to influence them and present ideas, and some system aimed at selecting the ideas of the greatest merit is put in place. The private sector has recognized the merit in the concept of information freedom, by using creative information management/technology to flatten the management hierarchy and provide (some) workers with greater autonomy. Also, building cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary teams and having those teams make decisions, as well as unprecedented demographic and market analysis that would put political pollsters to shame - to a degree being able to predict purchasing preferences on the level of the individual (by statistically analyzing data from customer loyalty reward program purchases). Political pollsters have never even attempted something like this, but I think with modern information technology it might be done.

But that's all pie-in-the-sky. What I think we're moving towards is a system where the private and public sector mingle in new ways, and the private sector has more power than it ever had before. Although the leaders in that system may not be elected, I put my thoughts up here because by recognizing the distinction between democracy and voting, we are enabled to (and should) make sure the system we are moving towards remains democratic regardless of where decision making power flows.