Friday, November 25, 2016

Chesterton’s Fence and Democracy

Among those passages that resonate with those of a conservative temperament, one of my favourites has to be Chesterton’s Fence.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Do not, in other words, argue from a position of ignorance. It is not enough to know what you dislike about some existing arrangement. You have to know its strengths, especially those which might have justified the policy’s existence. This is the engineer’s version of the Ideological Turing Test. You need to be able to make the best case possible for the existence of the status quo. Only then will you know what is being given up.

As I have written about in these pages before, I find the democratic process to be ridiculous. It seems incredibly unlikely that this is the optimal way to govern a country, but since it’s been imbued with a religious and moral sheen, not many people are able to think seriously about the possibility of getting rid of it, let alone what might replace it (other than braindead answers like ‘tyranny’). As a result, there is extraordinarily little experimentation with genuinely different forms of government.

So we know what we don’t like. But we have to pass the Chesterton Critique. Do we know why democracy, at least in its modern incarnation of the civil service state, works as well as it does? Do we know what aspects we might be losing? This is especially important, because we need to know what kind of traits to try to include in a replacement system. Or if it’s not possible to include all the benefits, we need to know what should be included in the costs column of any reform.

Now, this is different from the Ideological Turing Test, because we are not asked to give the answer that its supporters will give. This is likely to be faulty and delusional. Rather, we want the engineer’s answer, like Maine. We want to know what defense Machiavelli might make. We want to know, in other words, not the democrat's defense of democracy in America. We want to know the reactionary’s defense of democracy.

Here is one answer. I propose to make another.

Democracy holds out the fig leaf of minor, token power to all citizens. Individually, you have a voice. “Your voice matters!”, it cries out. Of course, everyone knows that individually their voice doesn’t matter, but collectively perhaps their voices do matter.

That is the fiction. I, and Moldbug, suspect that the people’s voices collectively don’t matter that much. The permanent civil service and the rest of the cathedral hold most of the levers of power. We are, of course, about to see this idea tested in the Trump Presidency. I forget who exactly wrote this (apologies!), but if Trump wins and proceeds to rule, then Moldbug was wrong. It’s entirely possible, and something on which I’m agnostic (though my best guess is that it won’t happen).

But let’s take the Moldbug hypothesis for now. Voting collectively doesn’t matter. Why might it be useful to keep this mechanism in place?

One trick that the makes of air conditioners for office buildings figured out a while ago is that people have endless fights about the temperature of offices. At almost any temperature, some people find it intolerably cold, and others are roasting. But oddly, people got much happier when they had entirely fake thermostats installed. My office has one. There’s a temperature dial you can fiddle with, and even a button you can press that causes a light to come on for 30 seconds, just to show that it’s hooked up to something, if not actually the air conditioner. On further reflection, it's preposterous. What exactly is this button meant to do? Is it an 'on' button? If so, do I need to press it every 30 seconds, because it keeps going off.

But having these buttons and thermostats there makes people feel like they’re able to do something. It channels their complaints and rage, which previous would have been directed at each other, management, facilities and whoever else, into fiddling with a harmless switch, which they never quite know if it actually does anything or not. Even if they suspect it doesn’t, periodically they’ll fiddle with it, because why not try anyway? Maybe it's the mysterious button, perhaps I need to press it in addition to fiddling with the thermostat. Your voice matters for office temperature!

Voting for candidates in an election is the fake air conditioner switch of the political world. Instead of throwing rocks at the police, or burning down the capital, or plotting a coup, people keep fiddling with their individual political thermostat. This channels their energy into harmless pursuits. But it also increases actual satisfaction, even given the current policies! Often, people aren’t able to accurately perceive the world around them, so may not even know exactly if things have changed. But if they can do something, and see some minor visible effect in the world around them, such as the thermostat being higher or one of “their guys” in charge, they feel happier.

But viewed in this light, it’s easy to see that not all forms of voting will be equally successful at generating this pattern. A key part is that the choice space of actions must be fairly crude, and the measurement of consequences rather difficult. Direct democracy, such as through ballot initiatives, is very destabilizing in this regard. When citizens can form their own specific formulations, firstly they demand quite specific things (“No gay marriage in California”), which are easy to tell if they’re not being implemented. As a result, when the powers that be decide that the peasants’ games have gone too far, they must be explicitly cracked down on, when judges remind people who is actually in charge. Do that too often, and people might figure out that the thermostat isn’t actually connected to anything.

But if you only give people a periodic choice every four years, and they only get one single ‘A or B’ choice placed in front of them, AND their choice is only to launder what they want done through the will of a president or prime minister, who may or may not have been sincere, may or may not have just changed his mind after voting, may or may not have had enough support from within his own party… well, it suddenly becomes very hard to show definitively that the voting didn’t make any difference.

And so the system is stable. Dissent is channeled into harmless outlets, and it stays there because nobody can every quite prove that the outlets are indeed harmless.

But even more than that, there’s a genius that comes from the nature of voting itself. Specifically, it’s a participatory act. And not only that, it’s costly. You have to get off your butt, drive to the primary school, and fill in the damn form.

Cognitive dissonance being what it is, people who have wasted their time filling out a form will convince themselves that the form is actually a really important practical and moral act. Otherwise, why have I been doing it for so long, wasting my time on it? In other words, by making the action slightly costly, people are even more likely to tell themselves absurd stories about how voting can actually change the world.

Now, this is something that is harder to achieve in a monarchy. The King explicitly wants it known that he is in charge. If you dislike the King, stiff $*** – he’s the King, and you’re a peasant. Now, with a sufficiently stable power structure, this is okay. But it means that the peasants have to obey out of either a) inherent loyalty and love for the ruler, and/or b) fear of punishment. Do these right, and they should be enough. But there’s an extra insurance policy of having a system that fools some fraction of the potential mob into thinking that they either ARE already in charge, or can be if they just sit patiently and keep pressing the right button every four years.

Sovereign corporations offer people a different bargain – you can’t choose how the country is run, but you can choose if you want to stay. This may well be fine too.

Again, none of this means that we shouldn’t ditch democracy. We just should know what we’ll be losing, and ponder if there's any way to replicate it in what we'd like to create.

The second large benefit I can see is what I think of in my crude financial terms as the analysts consensus forecast problem, or the wisdom of crowds. Suppose every analyst observes the true earnings estimate with some independent error term. Then the average of many analysts will be more accurate than any individual analyst.

Now, you might think that I am arguing that the average person will be wise in what policies to implement, but that is not my purpose at all. Unlike the analysts version above, not all electors are equally informed about policy. If many of your analysts are morons, you probably want to exclude them entirely.

So what are voters actually good at knowing? Pretty much only one thing – whether their life has gotten crappy recently, or whether it’s improving. They may know something of the specific cause, or they may not. They are unlikely to have much useful to add about how things need to change. But if you just want to find out how the overall realm is going, a vote is not a bad option.

Think of voting it as a button labeled ‘Throw the Bums Out’. By voting for the incumbent, they’re saying they’re happy. By voting for the other guy, they’re not. Not only do you get information about the aggregate answer to this question, but with exit polling, you can approximately figure out who was unhappy, which might tell you why.

The problem for a king is that this kind of knowledge is dispersed over the whole kingdom. It’s the standard central planner’s problem, and why you want to rely on prices. Think of voting as like a very crude version of average opinion for the ‘Do things need changing?’ question.

Of course, viewed from this angle, what we really want is just an opinion poll. And ideally we'd like to ask a lot more detailed questions, rather than just one. Perhaps something more like the census. But if there’s one thing the Trump election showed, it’s that people sometimes falsify opinions to pollsters, especially when they have to answer in person. The trusted anonymity of the polling both means you get a) genuine answers, even if they’re misguided, and b) avoid the sampling error from limited polling.

Now, you definitely don’t want this kind of voting mechanism hooked up to the actual levers of power. But it’s the kind of information that a genuinely benevolent leader would want to collect in some form or another. It doesn’t need to look like voting, but something to achieve a similar effect is probably useful. It helps solve the hubris that comes along with absolute power – when you feel you’re a genius, and all your underlings are sycophants, how will you actually find out if your policies aren’t having the intended effect? Turns out it’s not so easy, until one day you're on the palace balcony giving a speech, the peasants start jeering, and suddenly the jig is up. Woe be to the leader who forgets to find out the real opinions of his peasantry.

These are surely not an exhaustive list. Out of the two broad classes, I think the ‘harmless outlet for dissent’ is considerably more important. But it’s a problem worth pondering.

‘Tear Down This Wall!’ makes for great rhetoric. But it should be the last stage of a lot of reasoning.

1 comment:

  1. To the Anonymous commenter whose comment I deleted, I'm happy to have links submitted, but please keep the language at a level that won't offend my mum. Who, as it turns out, is actually a reader. I would have just edited it out, but Blogger doesn't let me do that. My apologies.