Cognitive Democracy: Condorcet with Competence

by on February 25, 2013 at 7:33 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

We usually think of democracy as a way of aggregating diverse preferences but we can also imagine that we share similar preferences and that what we disagree about is the best way to achieve those preferences. From this perspective, democracy can be thought of as a tool for information aggregation. Using simple probability theory, Condorcet showed in 1785 that even when each individual voter has only a slightly better than chance probability of choosing the bettier of two options the probability that majority rule chooses the better outcome quickly goes to 1 as the number of voters increases (the wisdom of the crowds).

A number of writers at Crooked Timber have been discussing Knight and Johnson’s The Priority of Democracy, one strand of which involves such an cognitive defense of democracy. Cosma Shalizi, for example, writes:

Democratic debate is a tool for cognition, for harnessing the dispersed knowledge of the citizens and their diversity of perspectives and insights.

But does an cognitive defense of democracy lead to universal suffrage? Or does it suggest what Melissa Schwartzberg calls “epistocracy”, rule by the educated? (See also Henry Farrell’s comments). The wisdom of the crowds breaks down when the crowd’s errors are systematically biased rather than random. As Peter Boettke notes, Bryan Caplan makes a strong case in The Myth of the Rational Voter that better educated voters are less systematically biased than the average voter and more likely to agree with experts on questions of fact.

When voters are not equally competent some remarkable mathematical results show that the best cognitive democracy is not universal suffrage and one-person, one-vote but a specific form of weighted voting.

Begin with a simple example. Suppose there is one correct decision and there are three voters each trying to reach the correct decision with competence levels of {.55, .55, .55}, where the competence levels are just the probabilities that each voter chooses the correct decision. The best a dictator could do in choosing the correct decision is .55 but if use majority rule the probability of reaching the correct decision is 0.57475, higher than that of any individual voter. (We reach the correct decision if all three voters reach the correct decision which has prob .55^3 or if two voters reach the correct decision and one does not, as this can happen in three ways the probability of the latter is 3*.55*.55*(1-.55) for a grand total of .57475.) Moreover, if we were to increase the number of voters to 100, the probability of majority rule reaching the correct decision goes to 84%–far above that of any dictator, this is the essence of Condorcet’s theorem.

Now let’s assume that the voters have competences of {.55,.60,.70}. Majority rule, using the same reasoning as before, gets us a democratic competence level of .673, not bad but notice that this is less than the competence level of the highest competence individual. The ideal voting system in this case would weight voter three enough so that she determines the outcome, thus giving democracy a competence level of .7.

More generally, if the voter competences levels are {p1,p2,p3} then the cognitively most efficient voting scheme gives each voter a weight of Log[pi/(1-pi)]–the result is remarkable for a being such a simple formula of the voter’s own competence level (note that the individual’s weighting is not a function of the competency levels of the other voters.) The result was shown first in this context by Nitzan and Paroush, Nobel-prize winner Lloyd Shapely and Bernard Grofman also made important contributions and see Grofman, Owen, Feld for some related results.)

Democracies make many decisions which are information based (Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? Will an invasion make the US safer? Do phthalates cause significant health risks?). Note also that we might also use this method for many committee decisions. Which scientific approach is deserving of greater funding? Which marketing plan should we adopt? Is surgery the best option? and in these decisions weighting votes by a measure of competence, which can be estimated from past decisions, may lead to significant improvements in outcomes.

Voters have diverse preferences not just competences but we could combine cognitive and preference aggregation theories of democracy by using high competence voters from different demographics categories to estimate what people would think about issues if only they were better informed. In this way we can distinguish differences due to knowledge from those due to preferences and we could upweight the competent while maintaining demographic balance thus creating a cognitive democracy based on enlightened preferences.

Geoff Olynyk February 25, 2013 at 7:48 am

Yes, that’s very nice, but how do you turn “competence” – a hazy term comparable to “intelligence” – into something that can be measured? To implement something like this, every voter would have to have a competence number next to their name, and that number has to come from somewhere.

Chi_R February 25, 2013 at 7:58 am

That was my first reaction, that all of this hinges on the concept of “competence”. Also, unfortunately, i can see how it would become another tool to try to win seats, in a similar vein as redistricting.

Rahul February 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Doesn’t this sort of reduce to the Bayesian framework? The “competence” is your prior on how good any individual voter is.

The analysis might fit a little better for, say, a CEO trying to take a two-alternatives decision based on votes from a panel of his top 100 executives. Here post a decision it is much easier to measure which voters voted “right” and “wrong”. That, then might be a way to calibrate your priors, i.e. competencies.

Of course, that assumes there is a way to know who voted right. In a democracy or national voting framework that’s a bit silly.

beamish February 25, 2013 at 8:03 am

In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill argues for giving multiple votes to the educated. In his Autobiography, he says that he never found anyone to agree with him: “As far as I have been able to observe, it has found favour with nobody; all who desire any sort of inequality in the electoral vote, desiring it in favour of property and not of intelligence or knowledge. If it ever overcomes the strong feeling which exists against it, this will only be after the establishment of a systematic National Education by which the various grades of politically valuable acquirement may be accurately defined and authenticated. Without this it will always remain liable to strong, possibly conclusive, objections; and with this, it would perhaps not be needed.”

Geoff Olynyk February 25, 2013 at 8:09 am

Also Goodhart’s law (“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”), which I sometimes like to call Simon’s Law (after the creator of The Wire).

In other words, if you start doling out votes according to some measure of “competence” or “education”, the market will figure out a way to get people who want it a higher score on that measure, regardless of whether or not they deserve it. Rapes become assault, assault becomes mischief, and lieutenants become majors…

Eva February 25, 2013 at 1:00 pm

I was going to ask the question: what is the equilibrium here?

- People who have the most to gain from policies start buying out the competent rather than buying out the masses. (Easier or harder to buy out?)
- People start to mimic the competent, adding noise. (How costly is mimicry?)
- With the returns to having certain policies be the “right” ones increased, research becomes more corrupt.

Ultimate outcome depends on all these.

ladderff February 25, 2013 at 2:44 pm


Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:45 am

“In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill argues for giving multiple votes to the educated. ”

The equilibrium is that The Government commandeers education even more than they already have.

byomtov February 25, 2013 at 9:23 pm


Though what it has to do with The Wire I don’t know.

Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:46 am

The Wire is what happens when our ass-clowns try to implement 1984.

Doug M February 25, 2013 at 3:48 pm

In theory this is an argument for representative democracy rather than direct democracy.

A large group of possibly low-information voters choose the candidate that they believe to be most competent. Perhaps he his, perhaps he isn’t the most competent candidate in the field, but it would be reasonable to expect that he has above average competence. Representatives are put into a house of representatives. This legislative body, we hope is reasonably competent.

Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:48 am

This is further evidence to me that we have lost all general welfare and public goods provision and are not fully zero-sum. This is explained by the historically low approval of Congress but the re-election of your local representative because “at least he’s fighting for me to gets mines!”

Prakash February 26, 2013 at 4:42 am

Net Taxes Paid from period of last election to present election. Money is difficult to forge.

Bret February 26, 2013 at 7:37 pm

Yeah. That’ll go over well! :-)

prior_approval February 25, 2013 at 7:55 am

You know, there seemed to be a slight problem with the idea that in a democracy, all decisions are made democratically. Something which is then crystallized by this – ‘Democracies make many decisions which are information based (Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? Will an invasion make the US safer? Do phthalates cause significant health risks?)’

None of those decisions were made in any sense where a ballot was held and a democratic decision made.

Maybe defining one’s terms a bit better would be helpful.

Ashok Rao February 25, 2013 at 8:05 am

How do you define competence? I suppose, in immigration policy, I’d trust an electorate of businessmen and maybe economists who understand the clear benefits of open borders of populists concerned with nativism.

But how do you define competence in, say, a general election vis-a-vis the choice of a leader, not a decision itself?

Frederic Mari February 25, 2013 at 8:42 am

Not to mention that the businessmen might be self-serving and the economists deluded into believing long dead dogmas… TC does answer some of the concerns about how you define people’s competence by using “past experience” as a tool. I guess this is a reference to systems like ‘Good Judgement Project’ where you are asked series of questions, your answers (and the confidence you gave them) are weighted.

Which is a fine system but still won’t tell you who is right or wrong between the open-border Ricardian economists and the ‘nativists’ when it comes to immigration…

Steve Sailer February 25, 2013 at 5:26 pm

The truly cognitively competent policy response regarding immigration would be: “Let’s not let in so many cognitively less competent illegal immigrants because they or their descendants will just end up voting.”

roystgnr February 25, 2013 at 8:06 am

What happens when the probabilities of coming to correct conclusions are correlated? If we have cultural and educational systems which are sufficiently centralized, then picking out the N most informed voters almost certainly will not give us N statistically independent assessments of any question of prior interest.

TheCrankyProfessor February 25, 2013 at 8:15 am

Treating the educated as a proxy for the competent. That’s why committees stocked with Ph.d. holders reach effective consensus so quickly.

anon February 25, 2013 at 8:43 am


Philosopher kings can kiss my ass.

mrmandias February 26, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Probably they can’t. Even that simple task is beyond them.

GiT February 25, 2013 at 12:44 pm

What does consensus have to do with anything? This is about majority voting.

JWatts February 25, 2013 at 1:52 pm

“What does consensus have to do with anything? This is about majority voting.”

No, actually the article not about majority voting at all. At least not in the common meaning of majority voting. The article is explicitly about pro rata voting.

GiT February 25, 2013 at 2:16 pm

…and once the weights are applied, the majority rules. But thanks for the pedantry.

A weighted collection of votes and an unweighted collection of votes win in the same way – by outweighing the rest of the votes by just enough. Consensus procedures pursue agreement. Both pro-rata and equal weight voting are forms of majority rule, and both are not forms of consensus building (other than at the meta level where there is a sort of consensus about the procedure for acting in the face of disagreement).

GiT February 25, 2013 at 2:20 pm

To clarify: the question is “majority of what?” Votes or voters?

Philip W February 25, 2013 at 8:18 am

Is this post somehow Straussian? Surely Alex does not think that the decision to invade Iraq was well-made by entrusting it to the “experts.” Surely he sees the insuperable obstacles–both epistemological and political–to enacting a scheme like the one he describes here. So what is the real object of this post?

Go Kings, Go! February 25, 2013 at 11:13 pm

The Myth of the Rational Voter never made sense to me. What was the unbiased, “rational” vote in November 2012? 1988?

Tarrou February 25, 2013 at 8:27 am

How does Caplan’s assertion that the better educated are less systematically biased square with Kahan’s research showing that the highest cognitive categories were associated with the highest levels of bias in understanding science? Maybe that the best educated are the least cognitively capable? Because otherwise, I think we have a research conflict.

Garth Zietsman February 25, 2013 at 8:31 am

I developed a similar concept I call The Smart Vote. In essence if there is a significant difference in the average opinion of a group of intelligent people and a group of not so intelligent people then there is a very high chance that the DIRECTION OF THE DIFFERENCE points to the better option EVEN WHEN THE MAJORITY OF THE MORE INTELLIGENT GROUP FAVOR THE ‘WRONG’ OPTION. You can find a discussion of the concept at

Tyler has linked to my blog on Marginal Revolution before.

JWatts February 25, 2013 at 11:23 am

I have another somewhat related observation. The readability & credibility of a post is inversely related to the usage of the Caps Lock key.

Garth Zietsman February 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Sure but the comments box doesn’t seem to allow another way to emphasize something.

Rahul February 25, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Doesn’t it really?

Anyways, I had the impression that by nerd-convention the favored, politer, all-text version of emphasis is *this* or _this_ rather than THIS.

JWatts February 25, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Ok, but still you really don’t ever want to use Caps like that. It generally won’t have the effect you intend.

To Bold or italicize something use HTML syntax. For the phrase you want to bold add a to the front and a to the end. However, leave out the single quotes. I put them in so you could see the syntax. For italicizing use and then at the end a .


JWatts February 25, 2013 at 2:02 pm

LOL, sorry I didn’t realize it would strip out the greater than symbol.

To Bold: GreaterThan b LessThan phrase to be bolded GreaterThan ForwardSlash b LessThan

Claudia February 25, 2013 at 8:37 am

Interesting, but I think you could find test cases in the historical record. There was a time in the US when women and African Americans were judged incompetent and their “votes” had zero weight. Of course, looking past our shores or further back in time there are even more examples of rule by a few competent…err powerful people. How did that turn out?

I think a more pressing problem than competency is correlated errors in decision making. The ideas here sound like a recipe for massive group think, particularly the assignment of competency weights. Suppose the competency fairy said that only economists whose prior work was supportive of Krugman’s ideas would be considered highly competent? Do you really think the current niches of disciplines are going to have greater influence under such a scheme? This does not sound like an improvement to me.

JWatts February 25, 2013 at 11:25 am

+1, this response combined with Geoff Olynyk’s comment is a pretty strong counter-argument.

axa February 25, 2013 at 11:43 am

really interesting analysis. democracy may fail miserably as an information aggregation tool, because probably it is not that kind of tool.

perhaps democracy is just an invention to avoid as much as possible the existence of 2nd class humans that are either exploited or ignored by the “enlightened”. voting does not make you intelligent or informed, neither the answers found by universal voting are the best, but probably is just the only thing poor people have to barter in exchange of attention from the rest of well-off people.

ladderff February 25, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Is there some kind of evidence that the government got smarter when blacks and then women were given the vote? I see much to the contrary. Democracy is retarded, which is why only the government even pretends to use it. This post, and most of the comments attached seem to take for granted that democracy is both good and great, but the authors do not rely on it to produce good decisions in other institutions, say, their own families, or in the firms that they manage or work for, or to decide who wins an Oscar, or etc etc etc. Not even universities are run democratically. It’s just a bad idea.

MD February 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Let’s say we didn’t have some level of democracy, even if it’s just democratically selecting the lawmakers. Let’s say it was just you and your friends making all the laws. I’m not sure what I would get out of that. I’d probably have to revolt and try to kill you. Then I’d have to set up a committee of public safety to crack down on counter-revolutionary thinking. Maybe I take that too far, and end up in a grave next to yours. That’s bad for you and bad for me. Let’s stick with this democracy thing, okay?

ladderff February 25, 2013 at 5:33 pm

MD, in the real world I don’t make all the laws. Actually I don’t make any of them. I am not sure what I would get out of that, but I obey them anyway, for the same reason people everywhere have always obeyed them: a near certainty that if I go ahead and revolt, the sovereign will shoot me dead and spit on my grave. Your comment is only an expression of your unwillingness to face your own helplessness in this regard; you are trying to tell us that this government is the one you wanted all along, that it might not be perfect but it is ‘legitimate,’ and that you play a part in giving it that legitimacy. This is childish.

If your comment is taken to mean that as a practical matter, democracy is good because it’s stable, that’s crazy, too. This government is stable in spite of those election things they put us through every year; it is able to be stable because of the not-democratic components of its true constitution.

Claudia February 25, 2013 at 4:50 pm

ladderff, really? seriously? There was some stuff there at the end worth discussing (note as citizens don’t vote on every policy detail…) but your start was, well weak. There is plenty of evidence that diverse teams, including those with women perform better. Women have cooperative skills and are good at drawing out the insights of others. Getting people to express themselves is a huge challenge of information aggregation. I have seen people with off charts IQs who are abjectly bad at listening to others’ ideas….we all have our comparative advantage. And I have seen some low IQ individuals with incredible empathetic compasses. We have been moving to democracy with widespread suffrage for some time now, and may not be ‘smarter’ (though I suspect in the outcome space it is) but we seem to want these institutions. The massive overhauls as in the post remind me of the warning: ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’ (And that’s being overly generous is naming the perfect.)

ladderff February 25, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Balance the budget with empathetic compasses and widespread suffrage. Keep the streets safe with cooperative skills. In fact, these things are obviously at odds.

There are many ten-year-olds who can who can balance a budget, keeping expenditures in line with revenues. There are zero representative democracies with that ability. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I don’t expect you to applaud my view that women should never have gotten the vote, but just for fun I ask, does it make me more or less despicable that I don’t think men should have gotten it either?

Claudia February 25, 2013 at 6:10 pm

I don’t think you are despicable, I just disagree with you.

In my PhD studies, the government was usually modeled as a benevolent, all-knowing dictator. In theory, I don’t have a problem with that. In practice, I don’t think it’s possible. I have seen people who are essentially dictators in their institutions act benevolent but not all-knowing. Then there are others who think they know it all, but are far from benevolent. So I am skeptical that anything, but diffuse voices works to check the abuse of power. I worry more about the tail risks here than the getting the central tendency to its optimum.

Bill February 26, 2013 at 1:34 am

+1. For Claudia’s comments. Hitler and Stalin both thought that they, and their respective parties, stood up for and represented the best interest of the “masses”. Talk of despotic tail risk.

ladderff February 26, 2013 at 5:36 pm
Herb Abrams February 25, 2013 at 8:53 am

At the time that Mills wrote, government had a different role than today. We now use government to redistribute wealth for the common good.

Of course, this creates a huge conflict of interest between people as beneficiaries (banks, welfare recipients, oil companies, military-industrial complex, health care providers, etc) and people as voters. Polticians act in their best interest and exploit these conflicts to build coalitions of support to gain power.

My solution?

A single parliamentary body in which are seated representatives chosen in the customary one person one vote manner, alongside representatives chosen by vote gained pro rata based on income tax paid since the last election. Income tax paid, not wealth, not political donations.

The ratio between the two types of representatives is based on the percentage of government budget devoted to redistribution. If those voted in by tax voters succeed in reducing the portion of the government budget devoted to redistribution, then they also vote themselves a reduced role in the next election. Seems fair. Also seems fair that those who are coerced to give money to the government that is used not for the common good, but to benefit the various ‘needy’ groups have a say in how their money is spent.

Of course, this moves the focus to measuring income tax payments and what is redistribution. So be it. Good places to keep the focus.

My guess is that this will restore power to the middle class that actually pays the bills.

Instead of competence, money. The true, and just American way.

anon February 25, 2013 at 9:12 am

My solution?
Ai yi yi, another utopian solution.

Rather than try and fix what ails the political class and the crony capitalists, how about a little more truculence, a little “Irish democracy:”

Quiet, anonymous, and often complicitous, lawbreaking and disobedience may well be the historically preferred mode of political action for peasant and subaltern classes, for whom open defiance is too dangerous….One need not have an actual conspiracy to achieve the practical effects of a conspiracy. More regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called “Irish Democracy”–the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people–than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.

James Scott in “Two Cheers for Anarchism“

Tarrou February 25, 2013 at 10:04 am

Like you, I also like the word “truculence”. Hard to weave into everyday speech though.

NPW February 25, 2013 at 10:02 am

Interesting idea, but I don’t get this part:

“If those voted in by tax voters succeed in reducing the portion of the government budget devoted to redistribution, then they also vote themselves a reduced role in the next election. Seems fair.”

I don’t see the “fairness”. Why do they need to have a reduced role for performing the role they were elected to perform?

Would you keep the current definition of corps as people and award them votes also?

Herb Abrams February 25, 2013 at 2:22 pm


they would have a reduced role because they are henceforth contributing a smaller share of government expenditure

corps as people

no, no votes for corporate income tax. I’d prefer to eliminate it as part of a bigger reform that includes VAT,

I should have added one point more: An idea like this has more chance of becoming reality in a country that is more desperate for new ideas and to attract people/capital.

NPW February 25, 2013 at 8:27 pm

“government budget devoted to redistribution”……….Is this the Democrat or Republican definition of redistribution?

Herb Abrams February 26, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Sometimes, one needs just fight over it and then accept the arbitrary. Drinking age, voting age, retirement age, borders between states and so on.
If anything like what I propose, ever happens, the definition of redistribution will likely emerge somewhere else, not in the US.
I only plant the seed. Someone else, somewhere else, will seize the day.

Prakash February 26, 2013 at 5:14 am

I swear I had not read your comment before I added my comment about net taxes paid determining the competence number.

I really like the idea of the the taxpayers democracy. It seems like a natural negative feedback loop to groups voting themselves largesse. Your idea of the representation ratio reducing as a percentage of redistribution is interesting. I need to think more on this.

There are a number of metrics issues in this system as well since nearly every welfare measure provided, should be provided at market price, no subsidy of anything. Otherwise the largesse will not be direct, but be in terms of consumption subsidies like art, maybe.

Herb Abrams February 26, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Happy to see I am not alone in my thinking.

I avoid naming my proposal as a variant of democracy. Democracy is failing us. I wish I had a good label to offer as an alternative.

Differences of opinion on the metrics will not go away. If the pain associated with the current way of doing things becomes more than the prospective pain associated with a fight over a new system and new metrics, then we will welcome that fight. The result will be arbitrary. I’m OK with that.

NK March 11, 2013 at 1:38 pm

The idea of “competence” is utterly ridiculous.
The average “competency” in the EU has never been higher and yet the place is a hellhole sinking into totalitarianism, while voters vote for clowns (!?)

I prefer your way.

Ideally citizens would need to vote only about core matters which do not require particular competence. The rest should be left to the free market.

Ray Lopez February 25, 2013 at 9:30 am

CNTRL + F and “Arrow”–what??? no hits for Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem? (

Nick February 25, 2013 at 11:29 am

This post is about a world where there is a single ‘correct’ decision and so Arrow’ theorem doesn’t apply.

Ray Lopez February 25, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I see, thanks; it’s about the world where there is Truth waiting to be discovered. Such a world would not require much debate since Truth is easy ascertained once the facts are in, unless you are bigoted. A world of make-believe, aka textbook economics.

Andrew' February 25, 2013 at 9:42 am

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some document, or ‘law of the land’ to coin a phrase that ensured that people voted on ‘correct’ decisions rather than on wealth transfers.

mulp February 25, 2013 at 12:11 pm

But the entire point of the Constitution was to give Congress the power of wealth transfers, ie., taxation. All the forms of taxes at the time and contemplated were wealth transfers – taking money from people with money to spend to pay people without money to do things they would not do otherwise, and the biggest need for government was in wealth transfers – taking the land away from the people who had long occupied and used the land.

If no wealth transfers were the goal, then the Constitution would never have been drafted and the Congress would have remained powerless to levy taxes which would have rendered it powerless to take land for land redistribution.

Without wealth transfers, the best case is you would be part of the Navajo or Apache or British or French nation.

Owen February 25, 2013 at 10:17 am

Am I missing something, or is this incredibly politically naive? Elections in a capitalist democracy are only partly about aggregating preferences to determine the best policy–they’re in large part about getting marginalized groups to buy into a system of private property protections which allows for the unequal distribution of wealth. The need to appeal to a mass audience drives political actors to redistribute some of that wealth, but far less than in a fully socialist political system. Maintaining an equilibrium between redistribution and inequality still requires some public discovery of the “best policy”– it relies on society knowing that the overall level of wealth is much lower under unrestricted socialism than under unrestricted capitalism. Moreover, the location of that equilibrium along the “socialism spectrum” obviously differs according to society–Europe is much further to the left than the US, for example. Modern American conservatism and libertarianism is about pushing the equilibrium rightward or resisting movement to the left, and vice-versa for liberals.

By contrast, the (implicit) proposal here is to restrict the mechanism by which the equilibrium gets moved by weighting people’s opinions differently; the assumption (per Bryan Caplan) is that more-educated people would support moving the spectrum rightward. That may be correct. It also may be correct that moving rightward would result in greater wealth, and it could further be the case that the rising tide would lift all boats, resulting in increased wealth for all parties, even at the cost of higher inequality. But these possibilities are irrelevant, because you’re proposing to do so by cutting off the access of many, many people to this system. [NOTE: Neither this post nor the linked Caplan post actually describe any details for implementing this rational preference system. I suspect this is because, like the Herb Abrams post above, any proposal that could have any tangible impact would be transparently antidemocratic and would be immediately demagogued.] What gives the people you propose to disenfranchise any incentive to allow themselves to be disenfranchised? You could argue that the lesser-educated are unlikely to vote, but then that raises the question of how bad policies actually get made if only educated people are voting. You could argue that when it comes to estimating their own confidence, the nation as a whole suffers from a Lake Wobegon effect, and that’s probably true, but there would certainly be legions of politicians ready to defend the marginalized groups. Your last paragraph seems to suggest that you’re not *actually* proposing to disenfranchise half the country, but rather to sort of ignore their beliefs as a matter of policy– I have no idea how you’d do this.

So what you propose is basically the following: Look, the beliefs of stupid people are causing us to collectively make terrible decisions; stupid people, you’re not allowed to contribute anymore but we’ll totally remember you and decide what’s best for you. Why would this ever work or make sense?

Short version: Yes, democracy does have an information-aggregation role, but it’s absolutely secondary to its diverse-preference aggregation role, and proposing to improve our performance in the former by eliminating the latter is a political non-starter.

Eva February 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Even among democracies, there are different preferences regarding rule from “expert authority”.

For example, in Canada I’ve seen several examples of a politician going against the majority view and being supported in it by the people. Rulers can say they know better than the people and not cause an uproar like there would be in the US. Democracies are not homogeneous.

8 February 25, 2013 at 10:31 am

Democracy is a bad idea. The founders trashed democracy and accused their enemies of being democrats. Pretty much everyone has known democracy descends into totalitarian government since ancient Greece. Jefferson wanted an agrarian Republic ruled by an aristocratic class. He hated the urban centers which he saw as turning America into corrupt Europe.

The reason we can’t discuss the failings of democracy because America turned into a democracy (albeit not the more fully advanced democracy like the Soviet Union). Democracy is concerned with equality, and in America today, the worst one can be is a “racist, sexist, homophobe, etc. etc.” All Americans must be equal and hold the same ideas otherwise they will be driven from their job. Women’s suffrage is a bad idea, for example, and the franchise should be restricted among men as well, but good luck getting that debate started.

GiT February 25, 2013 at 12:50 pm

News at eleven: slave holders, landed gentry, and their cronies have despised democracy from the Greek anti-democrats to the founding fathers and beyond.

byomtov February 25, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Jefferson wanted an agrarian Republic ruled by an aristocratic class. He hated the urban centers which he saw as turning America into corrupt Europe.

So what? He was wrong.

8 February 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm

He appears to be quite right, if your goal is liberty. The statists are pretty much all in the cities. Restrict the franchise to outside the cities, and the two parties would be Republican and Libertarian.

KevinH February 25, 2013 at 10:47 am

“a measure of competence, which can be estimated from past decisions”

huh? Please try writing up a procedure for that using real world events/political positions. Maybe you could get it done, but it seems like a hard proposition in a reality without measurable counter-factuals.

Travis Ormsby February 25, 2013 at 12:04 pm

This is also where I ultimately had to disagree with the post. It seems pretty routine to say that “past returns are not well correlated with future returns” when making investment decisions, and I’m not sure why we would think that they would be more strongly correlated for making policy decisions.

It could easily be that the people who have been the most right in the past were simply the luckiest. In a situation where we evaluate the past decisions of a very large number of people in an area where few people are highly competent (i.e. just about every policy area), it could easily be the case where the number of people whose competence is 0.9 is quite a bit less than the number of people with competence less than 0.5 who simply guessed right 90% of the time.

It would take a long history of decision making in order to adequately differentiate these two types of people, during which time we could easily have a critical decision dominated by lucky, low-competence voters.

Careless February 25, 2013 at 1:11 pm

but you wouldn’t expect your people picked to be lucky to be worse than the group of bad+unlucky people over that period, so if you get anyone better than average, you’re doing better than 50-50

Joe February 26, 2013 at 11:27 am

Another problem is determining who is “correct.” The people who look to be the best and the brightest can be people who make decisions that look good in the short or medium term but very bad in the long term. To take the obvious example, one of the most common ways to be a very profitable investment banker from 2002 through 2007 was to massively underestimate the risk of securitized mortgages.

Anon. February 25, 2013 at 10:48 am

I don’t remember which book it was, but one of Alastair Reynolds’ space operas feature a system similar to that you proposed. A direct democracy where weights start off equal and are adjusted ex post: the quality of a policy is determined at some point, and people’s weights are adjusted depending on how they voted on it.

What happened in the book was that high-weight individuals formed a community where they earned a living by being lobbied to. Proponents of a proposal would pay to explain their position to the high-weight individuals in hopes of swaying their opinions.

Alexander Hamilton February 25, 2013 at 10:54 am

This is truly appalling rubbish. We do not have democracy in which voters directly vote on specific issues.We have a representative democracy in which voters have a choice between A and B. With notable exceptions, voters have done a pretty good job of picking the best candidates. The recent notable exception was Bush II in 2000, but that was a stolen election.

The historical notable exceptions would be the Libertarian/Austrian/Racist South before the Civil War and the Libertarian/Austrian/Racist South and Mid-West and West since Brown v. Board.

For example, in the last Presidential election, a waitress in the local diner would be in a better position to cast, and would cast a more informed vote than Alex, for, merely from her position in life she would know more about and be better able to judge. Merely by how Romney treated the family dog on vacation, she knew how to vote and did vote for Obama.

Given the choice between only A and B, our elections are referendum about either change or continuity.

There is a famous story about Mark Twain. Walking down the street he meet a racist, still pro-slavery, who ranted that whites should rule as they were smarter. Twain, got the fellow to say that the smarter man should rule, to which Twain, said “I agree, for I am smarter than you.”

As I am far smarter and better informed than Alex, Why should he be allowed to vote?

Anon. February 25, 2013 at 10:56 am

>Given the choice between only A and B, our elections are referendum about either change or continuity.

Are you 15 years old or a shill?

JWatts February 25, 2013 at 11:43 am

I doubt anyone would pay for that comment, so I’d say the evidence points away from ‘shill’.

DocMerlin February 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Considering he called the south “racist, austrian, libertarian,” he’s a troll not a shill.

mulp February 25, 2013 at 12:42 pm

The simple description of elections is voting on a false dichotomy,

This is the reason parties were opposed as a fundamental principle.

The Constitution was an attempt to create a true dichotomy – power without power, local and global power, unlimited liberty with limited liberty.

The genius of American politics for most of our history is hypocritical dichotomy pure principle.

The breakdown comes when parties box themselves into purity which denies dichotomy.

For example, the conservatives who demand adherence to the Constitution with a balanced budget amendment to prohibit debt as a return to the fundamental founding principles typified by the Continental Congress which acted in drafting the Constitution to prevent taxation. And then seriously believe they are being true to history and the Constitution.

Careless February 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm

“With notable exceptions, voters have done a pretty good job of picking the best candidates”

well that’s a level of silliness I don’t think I’ve ever seen equalled here.

Brock February 25, 2013 at 11:00 am

Any good regressions on what sort of education actually correlates with voting competence? Economics? Statistics? History? Literature?

Any good definitions of competence? Wouldn’t it depend on knowing a priori what a good voting outcome looks like? Or is there a reason you don’t need an omniscient observer prior to making this assessment?

I think the reason people favor property over education as a means to restrict the franchise is a matter of “you pay for it, you own it”. If voter=taxpayer, no one can be said to have voted “wrongly” – its his money, after all.

NAME REDACTED February 25, 2013 at 11:01 am

“From this perspective, democracy can be thought of as a tool for information aggregation.”
But its not! Its a way to make people think they are making a difference, so they don’t murder the rulers.

Urso February 25, 2013 at 11:59 am

Richard Posner says this.

Richard Posner says a lot of things.

NAME REDACTED February 25, 2013 at 2:25 pm

I had no idea Posner said this. I should read more of his writings.

Urso February 25, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Not quite so pithily though. I think it was in Law, Pragmatism, & Democracy

Miley Cyrax February 25, 2013 at 11:05 am

More than just incompetent voters are voters who vote themselves largesse from the treasury, as the saying goes.

Though I suppose the likelihood of a voter being in each of the two groups is correlated.

derek February 25, 2013 at 11:20 am

The only benefit of democracy is the ability to get rid of a government without bloodshed. Any power structure that is unassailable becomes abusive in some way, using it’s power only in it’s own self interest. Modern democratic structures have some elements of stability and continuity in the civil service and other institutions, but the raw exercise of power is limited.

All benefits that have come from democracy are not from a positive intent, but negative, keeping a limit on the worst traits of those who seek power.

The attempts at democratic reform that seek some utopian reflection of the voice of the people don’t work because they end up building unassailable structures. Good government comes when the metaphorical noose on the lamp post is hanging ready. Keeps a bit of reality intruding into the intoxication of power.

Carl Danner February 25, 2013 at 11:24 am

You can implement this locally in committee discussions by deferring to those who clearly are more competent to address a particular issue. Yet we all know people who insist on pushing their own view regardless.

chuck martel February 25, 2013 at 11:25 am

This one of the most inane posts ever on MR. Aside from the fact that I don’t need a faceless, mostly mindless, collective making decisions that negate my autonomy, we can never know the competence of any decision, arrived at by democracy or otherwise, because the untaken options have no results.

JWatts February 25, 2013 at 11:34 am

Is this not the pretext to Gattaca? So is the society in Gattaca considered Utopian by Alex T?

Bruce Cleaver February 25, 2013 at 11:49 am

Several posts have noted the difficulty of rank ordering or numerically determining ‘competence’. Even so, should that formidable project succeed, we would next be faced with the problem of carefully defining the questions to be solved. For example: Will an invasion make the US safer?

What counts as ‘safer’, and and what counts as ‘invasion’? Bombing only, no land troops? Drone strikes only, no manned bombing? As is well known, the wording of the questions can sway the outcome.

Urso February 25, 2013 at 11:58 am

“we can also imagine that we share similar preferences and that what we disagree about is the best way to achieve those preferences.”

“Imagine” is certainly the right word to use here.

Matt February 27, 2013 at 8:58 am

Haha, just so.

yang February 25, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Bring back the poll tax.
The problem with America is too many stupid people vote. Predictable results (ie Obama) ensue. Anything that reduces the % of the population that votes is a good thing.
Almost all barriers to voting can be overcome by anyone with a modest IQ, increasing the barriers is a good filter for the stupid and incompetent.

Travis Ormsby February 25, 2013 at 12:08 pm

agreed. I propose that anyone proposing a poll tax should be stripped of the franchise. This will reduce the percentage of the population that votes, thereby improving the results. Anyone with a modest IQ should be able to overcome this barrier.

Owen February 25, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Indeed. Here’s a request: When liberals complain about the unapologetically classist and racist attitudes sometimes manifested in the MR comments, and conservatives cry foul and ask for examples, can we remember to post this thread? Memo to libertarians: this is why, despite widespread public sympathy for many of your policy goals, nobody takes you seriously as a political movement.

chuck martel February 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Who says libertarians are part of a political movement?

Owen February 25, 2013 at 3:16 pm

I don’t know, anyone with a reasonable definition of “libertarian” and “political movement”? Unless this is an ironic comment on how little traction libertarians have gotten, I don’t get it. A movement whose apparent goal is to elect politicians and change public policies so that the federal government has less power is still a political movement.

Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:37 am


Did you read the post? Why are you married to the status quo of today’s sort of but not really one man one vote. Are you pushing for purer democracy in any realistic way? Do you think pure democracy is the perfect solution for all types of questions? Do you support things like Roe v. Wade? Etc. Consider making up more of your own questions to ask yourself.

Miley Cyrax February 25, 2013 at 12:51 pm

We could instead use a quick WORDSUM or news facts test at the polls, the score of which is used as a weight against vote. High scores, more weight. A five question quiz could take two minutes.

Mark Twain February 25, 2013 at 6:57 pm


I am smarter than you. Explain to me again why I should let you vote?

John February 26, 2013 at 4:58 pm

In a free society the simple answer is “If I don’t get as say in how I’m governed then don’t expect me to play by your rules.”

ezra abrams February 25, 2013 at 1:53 pm

every time some one trots out the tired fascism of how the educated are better, I reach for my revolver..
The most educated people in the US in 1776 were the VA slaveholders
The most educated people in germany in the early 1930s, the professoriate, largely supported hitler

etc, etc

PS: 5 gets you 10, YOUR definition of intellignet and educated and competant inlcudes yourself and your friends…funny how that always works out

Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:42 am

You get two votes, but if it didn’t work out, you lose both next time. That’s why Hanson says vote on values and bet on predictions (policies and outcomes). Every policy preference could be worded as, for example “if we pass ACA medical spending will be lower in 5 years.” This would be logistically difficult for a voting booth, but voting booths are stupid. We have the internet.

Rationalist February 25, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Almost every comment about this proposal is negative, so let me add a positive comment.

- Representative democracy is unlikely to be the best possible form of government. There’s probably something better out there. We should try to find it.
- Vote weighting may well be worse than democracy, but at least it gets us thinking outside the box.

DocMerlin February 25, 2013 at 2:29 pm

No, it doesn’t. Its the same box as always. Its the box of men ruling over other men and using proxy violence against them through the mechanism of the state. The state just exists so evil people can sleep at night and think they are innocent of the evil they do to their neighbors.

It would be like if animal rights activists hired a slaughterhouse so they wouldn’t have to kill animals.

Craig February 25, 2013 at 5:34 pm

“If men were angels no government would be necessary ”

Virtuous men may comply with just laws voluntarily simply because the conduct the laws command happens to be conduct to which they are inclined by their own goodwill. But all men are not virtuous. Coercive forces must be employed to compel their compliance.

John February 25, 2013 at 6:33 pm

And of course, handing the devil a great tool of power is non-problematic ;-)

DocMerlin February 27, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Creating a government is giving the devils the keys to your house (metaphorically).

Rationalist February 26, 2013 at 4:42 pm

This seems crazy. A large group of humans need coercive force to avoid free-riders; without the force of the state people would steal, rob, etc.

John February 26, 2013 at 5:02 pm

They do that now. The police don’t really stop such events they are suppose to help resolve the problem — but that’s no longer a sure thing. Moreover, the poverty of protection by government means has lead more than a few communities to take on the job themselves, either through neighborhood watch groups or gated communities.

The free-rider problem is often over stated and always seems to ignore the flip side of the coin: force carrying.

Rationalist February 27, 2013 at 3:44 am

What is “force carrying”?

DocMerlin February 27, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Er, dude, the state is just the free riders institutionalizing themselves into a monopoly structure. Creating a state to stop free riders is like hiring foxes to guard a henhouse.

John February 25, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Why limit the thinking to decision-making processes of government, or worse, representative selection processes when thinking outside the box?

In this day and age we should be considering government not as an active agent but rather as a institutional vehicle to reduce both informational and organizational cost, allowing members of society to resolve their own problems and the problem they want to assist in resolving. There will obviously be some degree of “active role” by government and the people acting in that capacity where factional dispute exist.

Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:33 am


This post motivated me to add an idea to my list of political reforms. And it will work. Most of the negative comments don’t understand the concept of disaggregation.

lemmy caution February 25, 2013 at 6:06 pm


This gives negative weight values for pi < .5

Hooray! Everyone can still vote.

Jeff Morgan February 25, 2013 at 7:59 pm

This is hilarious. Also, imagine knowing that you were negatively weighted, then you would vote for the option you like least!

Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:31 am

This would be easy to do.

(A) 2+2=5?
(B) Global warming is fo’ rizzle?

John February 25, 2013 at 6:22 pm

I think these types of exercises are so far away from what actually occurs in, at least, the USA that they are of academic interest only and should not be viewed as shedding any light on real world questions.

First, voters are not voting in policy but on representatives and the policies the representatives present in election periods is extremely vague, and often mostly rhetorical polemic than informative of detailed policy — yes you can see the difference in emphasis between the DP leadership and RP leadership but both are extreme position and neither end point will be implemented.

Second, our economic policies are always vetted through well informed experts. We still get some very questionable economic policies and economic behavior from the government. Pointing to “bad voters” for these outcomes is more hand waving than identifying a critical element of the problem. Nearly half of the people don’t vote and the most common profile of a non-voters matches well with Bryan’s finding. Both income and education are negatively correlated with voting, and it looks like they might be fairly strongly correlated. Even with universal suffrage there appears to be a self-selection that solves the “irrational voter” problem. I see no reason to think that we need to look to elitist solution — which seem to me to add to the risk of government embracing the role as central planner.

The solution to our political economic problems will be found in other areas and the need for “qualified” voters neither sufficient or necessary. My intuition tells me that moving in the other direction, requiring government to have earning a real majority of the eligible voting population, in combination with honoring existing Constitutional restrictions on federal government actions, would accomplish more than seeking some modern version of Plato’s Republic.

Alan February 25, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Alex has attempted to produce a post-hoc mathematical justification for something he already believed, that the problem with democracy is that the votes people not like Alex are also counted.

Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:30 am

Not exactly.

Andrew' February 26, 2013 at 3:30 am


Greg Ransom February 26, 2013 at 4:13 am

Why not use incentives rather than filters.

The cases of elite competence you cite are produced by incentive systems.

NL7 February 26, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I won’t have any objection to this system, provided that all decisions of the system are subject to selective veto by each affected person – making all such decisions voluntary.

Otherwise, we’re talking about even fewer people making decisions for everybody else. Voting is already skewed in favor of those with means and formal education; this proposal would exaggerate that skew. At some point we might as well be France or Japan or China, depending on which selection process creates the best class of elites – the academies in France, the mega businesses in Japan, the party system in China, or maybe the civil service exam of historical China.

The true flaw in democratic government is not that ill informed voters distract the system from optimal policies, but that more often than not there is no policy that is optimal for everyone. Policies are rigid and do not bend with times, and tend to solve perceived problems of the past rather than the present or future. And policies are biased in favor of decision makers and against minorities or the disempowered, particularly poor, foreigners, migrants, youths, and religious or ethnic sub groups.

Rather than trying to gather power to smart people for them to make decisions, it would be best to decentralize the decision making process so everybody can find their own optimal solutions.

Nathan W February 26, 2013 at 2:36 pm

One question: what percentage of Americans believe Barak Obama is Muslim?

Rationalist February 26, 2013 at 4:39 pm

What percentage of Americans can spell their president’s name correctly?

Barack Obama

Arthur March 1, 2013 at 10:58 am

I think Hanson’s “Vote on Values, Bet on Believes” is superior in every way to this policy.

You will never be able to correct for preferences of “competent” people over “incompetent” people with your system.

Your system has a lot of assessments problems. Hanson’s system does not have this problems, and is much more flexible, allowing for people to participate especially in areas where they have “competence”. This would be very difficult to implement in your system.

To be fair your system seem a little bit more acceptable to people. But, I mean, I doubt anyone will be implemented even in a small way during my lifetime. No reason to compromise. We can aim higher.

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