*Securities Against Misrule*, the new Jon Elster book

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.


Comments for this post are closed