*Securities Against Misrule*, the new Jon Elster book

by on July 16, 2013 at 3:08 am in Books, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

The subtitle is Juries, Assemblies, Elections and the book focuses on the very Nordic concern of how to make better political decisions within a democratic framework.  Elster thinks that social choice theory presents insoluble dilemmas with ranking outcomes, so we should focus on improving how political decisions are made.  It’s all about “preventing the prevention of intelligence.”  He promotes secret voting, public deliberations, incorporation of diverse opinions, waiting until passions have subsided, and various methods of running better jury trials.  The influence of Bentham here is paramount, albeit a lesser-known Bentham, that of his own tract Securities Against Misrule, among other writings.

I found this one of the most stimulating social science books so far this year, and it has Elster’s impressive intelligence, breadth and clarity.  But I see many points quite differently, so I will pass along a few issues that come to mind:

1. I worry about the standard philosopher’s comeback to Elster’s proceduralism.  If we cannot very well judge or compare outcomes, how ultimately are we supposed to evaluate procedural changes?  Furthermore the theory of the second best suggests that procedures which “sound good” may not in fact lead to better outcomes.  We get stuck rather quickly.

2. I don’t myself find aggregation problems to be insuperable.  We all know that Norway is a great place, and cardinal information will get us over the usual Arrow problems , a’la Sen (1984).  A lot of the rest is what I call details.  Without intending any bias against explicit norms of rational discourse, the more fundamental question is how a country can enjoy the luxury position of debating such matters peacefully in the first place.  Ask Egypt.

3. If I think about the historical decisions which I consider wise and important, they very often are based on a certain amount of Machiavellianism, rather than on the standards for an ideal speech community.  The ratification of the U.S. Constitution is one obvious example.  Might Elster’s proceduralism work best at the micro level, when embedded in a broader realpolitik framework that already gives some Machiavellian control to “the good guys”?

4. Elster never considers markets or betting (apologies to Carow Hall) as mechanisms for preference revelation, though at one point he evinces skepticism about vote trading.

5. The idea of giving more influence to smarter people also is not on the table (see p.85 for a brief discussion, and also the bottom of p.5).

6. There is occasional talk of the private sector, such as the stipulation that Norwegian corporate boards appoint 40% women.  Yet there is no systematic discussion of how private companies or private non-profits run meetings, conduct elections, obtain board consensus, or otherwise reach decisions.  This point is not unrelated to #5.  I’m not suggesting government can be “run like a business” but it is odd to write as if private sector experience with decision-making is irrelevant.  It is those procedures which have to pass some kind of market test.  So more Hayek, less Habermas.

7. At the end of the day, the losers in these dialogues will suffer under coercion and the winners will exercise power.  This limits what kind of upfront discourse is possible.  I wished for this topic to receive more attention.

Elster has been writing excellent books for over thirty years, and you can buy this book here.

Andrew' July 16, 2013 at 6:00 am

3. Aren’t some of the historical decisions that are unwise and importantly bad the product of some amount of Machiavellianism? Do 11-year-old-boys collecting firewood get a say in our CIA/NSA/Drone program? For that matter, do we? Hell, does Obama?

Hoover July 17, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Perhaps all significant decisions are the product of some amount of Machiavellianism. If you call a meeting to decide what to do, it’s alleged to be wise to arrange things so participants choose the course of action you have in mind.

Roman P. July 16, 2013 at 6:37 am

5. There is probably no direct link between the IQ, or any other measure of intelligence, and the ability to make solid, common-sense judgements.
For example, I had a professor who taught chemistry in my university; she was doubtlessly skilled and knowledgeable. She invented some interesting technics for purifying semi-conductor materials and her knowledge of chemistry was basically top-notch. But she believed in the memory of water – bad emotions and bad music somehow changing the interaction between the molecules of H2O.
This is, of course, anecdotal, but smart people certainly suffer delusions, misconceptions and behave irrationally too.

CBBB July 16, 2013 at 7:18 am

It’s not just this – having smart people making decisions doesn’t neccessarily lead to overall good outcomes simply because the smart people might just be out for themselves. Too often on this blog smart is used as a synonym for good moral character.

Alexei Sadeski July 16, 2013 at 8:41 am

If anything, it seems plausible that the reverse is true; that dumber people would make better political decisions. Perhaps they are less likely to be confident in their own judgements, and thus less likely to act rashly.

Luis Enrique July 16, 2013 at 9:01 am

yes, I find the Simpsons episode in which the nerds takeover Springfield to be curiously underrated

Nathan Goldblum July 16, 2013 at 9:50 am

Luckily, empirical research is in progress: http://goodjudgmentproject.com/blog/

And yes, there is a certain tendency to equate “smart” with “good” – which might be a relic of old Socrate.

Willitts July 16, 2013 at 10:43 am

Dumber people make better political decisions?

Detroit.

People who don’t know what they don’t know are the most dangerous people to have making political decisions.

CBBB July 17, 2013 at 2:46 am

“People who don’t know what they don’t know are the most dangerous people to have making political decisions.”

This could also describe very smart people too – hubris is hubris but I think you tend to find it more in the very smart.

Rahul July 16, 2013 at 9:11 am

That anecdote seems an outlier. I agree with your sentiment to some extent but normally top-notch people are irrational about other areas outside their specialization. e.g. The Physics Nobel Laurate who wrote that paper bolstering homeopathy. or perhaps Chomsky the linguist on war (arguably). Or Krugman the economist on public policy (again arguably).

It’s hard to be a Chem whiz and yet believe bad music affects H2O. Or to be a geneticist and not believe in evolution. etc.

Willitts July 16, 2013 at 10:41 am

Please don’t perpetuate the myth that devoutly religious people are ascientific Bible literalists. The extremists on both sides of this “debate” tend to get the spotlight. The vast majority of educated Christians hold a harmonious belief in both Creationism and Evolution. Medieval monks breeding grapes, dogs, or horses probably understood the practical aspects of genetic selection without cognitive dissonance about God’s hand in creating the universe. On the other hand, many elitists who carry the banner of evolution assert that there is no God and no intelligent design with no evidence to support their claim. Atheism is a religious cult. I have no scorn for agnostics except for atheists who claim to be agnostic because it sounds more tolerant.

Rahul July 16, 2013 at 10:50 am

Where did I imply that “devoutly religious people are ascientific Bible literalists”? I’m confused.

In fact, I think one can be devoutly religious, believe in evolution and be a good geneticist all at once.

Willitts July 16, 2013 at 11:42 am

Sorry Rahul, I think I intended to respond to someone else’s post. Or maybe it was on a different blog. :)

Patrik July 16, 2013 at 11:28 am

Well, I know a PhD physicist (I am one myself) who believes that emotions can ‘travel’ between people without them being in the same room. He even has some theory about how the emotions get imprinted on electromagnetic waves. Go figure.

Rahul July 16, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Physics PhD’s (not all) have a propensity for physics related crack-pottery.

There’s something about Quantum Mechanics etc. that brings out the worst parts of those souls predisposed to flawed wacky theories.

Tracy W July 17, 2013 at 4:15 am

Emotions can travel between people without them being in the same room, imprinted on electromagnetic waves. Telegraphs were the first technology to achieve this feat, but they’re hardly the only one.

Go Kings, Go! July 16, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Also, Irving Fisher = smart/stupid. I had thought the “idea of giving more influence to smarter people” peaked among high schoolers, declined during college and was finally extinguished after the first year in a career job. I’m skeptical of most objective, accepted measures of intellect (mainly because I scored pretty high and that can’t be right).

“Historical decisions” should be made ancient Persian style (HT: Herodotus): The decider convene, discuss while getting drunk and decide when fully hammered and redo the same the next morning when sober. Only if drunk/sober deciders both approved the subject action did they proceed. (Apologies Professor Cowen, but I don’t trust people who can’t drink.) This advice proves I’m not very smart and shouldn’t make historical decisions.

Urso July 16, 2013 at 12:30 pm

“I had thought the “idea of giving more influence to smarter people” peaked among high schoolers, declined during college and was finally extinguished after the first year in a career job.”
Totally accurate in my experience.

FC July 16, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Kasper Gutman would approve.

TGGP July 16, 2013 at 7:06 pm

You are arguing with an anecdote. Scholars on IQ like Gottfredson & Gordon have found that it positively correlates with performance in every task other than vegetable picking and skill other than rhythm & facial recognition. But a more relevant scholar for how groups of people can come together to cooperate is someone loyal MR readers should already be familiar with: Garrett Jones.

Roman P. July 17, 2013 at 2:01 am

I sadly know only too many people who despite being intelligent exhibit irrational behaviors and support irrational ideas. Besides, if we started to disenfranchise (and weighting votes is just a softer form of it), when do we stop?
It’s probably rational to prevent voting by mentally ill persons; after all they can’t be trusted with making important decisions if they are crazy. Alright, what’s next? Why not disenfranchise people with personality disorders? Psychiatric research from Gannushkin and to the modern criminology all say that not only such people have problems with interpersonal communications, they are just irrational in general and exhibit major problems with setting goals and reaching them. There are a lot of people with personality disorders, but alright, let’s discriminate against them.
Who’s next? Altemeyer’s research on right-wing authoritarian personalities shows that if you test some sample of population for authoritarian traits (and right-wing leanings), then the more authoritarian half is always more irrational and prone to unmotivated social aggression. It’s quite common-sense that some crazy neighbor who froths at mouth at the mention of kikes, faggots and libs has something wrong with his head, but now it turns that even pretty moderate people on the right (and some on the left) are irrational and can’t be trusted with important decisions. Now GOP takes a major hit, but society still soldiers on with separating the worthy.
But then who? The poor? The uneducated? The gullible? The quirky? The old? The young? Democracy we have started with slowly whittled down to technocracy at best, autocracy at worst. I’d end this lengthy comment by proposing something like ‘Democracy for all!’ or ‘Democracy is a sham, let’s institute some autocrats to rule!’, but I don’t trust myself with rational decisions of this scale.

Jason Brennan July 16, 2013 at 9:08 am

Some issues with the above three comments:

1. Dunning-Kruger effect: Less competent people tend to be overconfident–and the less competent you are, the more overconfident you are. Highly competent people tend to be underconfident.

2. Voters, at least, are sociotropic, not selfish.

3. Smart people can have stupid ideas, but that doesn’t mean they are *more likely* to have stupid ideas than low IQ people. So, for instance, the Wildman and Wildman 1974 study found that high IQ people were significantly less superstitious than low IQ people.

4. Many studies find that ideology changes with political knowledge. High knowledge people have systematically different policy preferences from low knowledge people, and these differences are *not* explained by demographics or self-interest. See, e.g., here: http://faculty.las.illinois.edu/salthaus/Publications/althaus_1998_apsr.pdf

There is a vast empirical literature on each of these issues, so it would be best to form your opinions in light of this.

Urso July 16, 2013 at 9:41 am

Is #1 an accurate description of D-K? I thought that it suggested that smart people would be overconfident as to things outside their core competency, because they know they’re smart and so they assume they know more about it than they do?

Willitts July 16, 2013 at 11:54 am

Pretty much describes Krugman.

Ted Craig July 16, 2013 at 11:25 am

Points 3 and 4 are actually cultural. And the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive fallacy, not a law of physics.

y81 July 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

I haven’t read the book, but surely our system of judicial review does give more influence to smart people, no? And the judges who ride herd on the democratic process virtually represent the entire cognitive elite.

Rahul July 16, 2013 at 9:46 am

Not so much in the US. Lots of judges are elected. Not particularly cognitively elite.

FC July 16, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Data, please.

On a Bayesian wager, I’d gladly replace the SCOTUS with my county’s elected judges.

Willitts July 16, 2013 at 10:27 am

Not really. Most judges are those who couldn’t earn an honest living in the private sector.

The best legal scholars are judges, but not all judges are legal scholars.

Willitts July 16, 2013 at 10:24 am

“Norway is a great place.”

Yes, a social welfare state works when you have one of the lowest population densities on the continent, a homogeneous population, and an enormous endowment of one natural resource.

Put Norway’s government in charge of Detroit and see how well they do.

Rahul July 16, 2013 at 10:52 am

All those critiques don’t change the fact that Norway is indeed a great place. :)

Willitts July 16, 2013 at 11:52 am

That’s undisputed except by those who hate snow.

My point is that the outcome in Norway is dominated by factors other than its political structure. It is similar in many ways to Alaska, Kuwait or Dubai in that the citizens are homogeneous and the economy relies heavily on a single resource and sovereign wealth. They all lack demographic diversity and the problems attendant with it. They all lack economic diversity which makes them subject to extreme highs and lows depending on the price of one good. I object to the inference that it is a successful social welfare state; it’s a trust fund baby.

Aslak July 16, 2013 at 11:59 am

Except that the Norwegian economy does not depend on oil to the same extent as Kuwait or Alaska. Although the economy is showing signs of Dutch disease, Norway still has a significant non-oil economy with companies like Yara, Telenor, Norsk Hydro an extremely successful aquaculture and seafood industry as well as a wide variety of shipping and maritime companies.

Take away the oil and you’re left with an economy that looks a lot like the other Scandinavian countries in terms of wealth. Which is pretty good.

revver July 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm

care to elaborate on: “those who hate snow”.

mike July 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm

‘care to elaborate on: “those who hate snow”.’

It’s the new mandatory term for African-Americans, now that African-American has acquired a racist connotation.

Ak Mike July 16, 2013 at 4:53 pm

You are quite wrong about Alaska lacking demographic diversity, if by this you are speaking of racial and ethnic diversity. The state non-white population is about 37% of the total. Anchorage is by far the largest community with nearly half the population of the entire state, and its school population is 55% non-white. The school district reports the five most common foreign languages spoken at home by its students are Spanish, Hmong, Samoan, Filipino, and Yupik (an Eskimo language).

On the other hand, you are right about dependence on a single resource, largely because nearly all the land is owned by the government.

Nathan Goldblum July 16, 2013 at 11:47 am

Denmark’s pretty swell as well. That country has negligible natural ressources and a more normal pop. density. But still, the population is rather homogenous, although not as homogenous as Norway’s.

Rahul July 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Cracks are beginning to show in Scandinavia, especially Denmark though.

I’m not sure, if in ten years, we can talk about the unblemished Nordic success story with the same enthusiasm as we do now.

Nathan Goldblum July 16, 2013 at 1:51 pm

The problems of the Nordic states are exaggerated. Basically, the economies are healthy, although Denmark does have a bit of a productivity issue (wages have been rising too fast during the 2001-2007 period). Denmark only has 7,3% net government debt.

Ted Craig July 16, 2013 at 11:18 am

5. I see two problems with this.

The first is, how do you measure this? Harry Truman, for example, as probably very smart, but he would be written off as an ignorant hayseed today because he lacked a college degree. Smart is great, but more often it is becoming confused with “attended the right school.”

Also, smart people today often live lives completely cut off from average folks, which hinders their ability to make workable decisions.

William Newman July 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Ted Craig wrote “Harry Truman, for example, as probably very smart, but he would be written off as an ignorant hayseed today because he lacked a college degree.”

Like Bill Gates?

It might be true that Truman would’ve been locked out of the early stages of a conventional political career by not having a degree, so that he couldn’t build a record to point to. But if you have a record to point to, after a decade or so of accomplishment, people generally have the good sense not to point to your lack of degree. My memory is that around the 10-year mark grouchy people were saying things like “nerdy” about Bill Gates, same as they said about some other folk with college degrees; I’m pretty sure I never heard “ignorant” or “hayseed.”

Nathan Goldblum July 16, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Gates scored 1590 on the SAT and entered Harvard, where he devised an algorithm for pancake sorting that held the speed record for over 30 years, before dropping out to pursue his computing adventure. Those qualifications are hardly comparable to those of a Southern haberdasher; not to degrade Truman, but whereas he didn’t shine before his political career, Gates had already accomplished some neat things before Microsoft.

Tyler Fan July 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Seems interesting but I’m looking for more of a starting point/survey in the philosophy of economics. Can anyone recommend one? Seems like economists — between Arrow’s impossibility theorem, theory of second best, different theories of efficiency etc. have looked at utilitarianism more rigorously than the philosophers. I’m curious about the sort of philosophical assumptions that contemporary economists work under in regards to utility. Is there some sort of unified theory or is at all ad hoc?

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Brian July 17, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Elster book is based on a social science and economic behavior approach. Tyler’s comments come from the ‘pure economist’ approach. Combine the Elster book with Calculus of Conscent and/or Schelling Micromotives/Microbehavior and you’ll have an almost complete picture.

Tom T. July 17, 2013 at 11:21 pm

“The influence of Bentham here is paramount”

I initially read this as “the influence of Batman….”

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