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Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

I’ve started a new blogging gig at Learn Liberty, a project of the Institute for Humane Studies. I’ll be putting links to these posts here. My posts there will have the benefit of an editor, which is probably something I need.

The first is on partisan rationalization and why epistocracy may not save us after all – a suitable topic after this election, no? Here’s the lede:

Highly informed voters are also highly biased. That’s a serious problem for democracy, but also for any other system of political decision-making in big groups.

Two new books, Against Democracy by Georgetown moral philosopher Jason Brennan and Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Princeton University political scientist Christopher Achen and Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels, deal intellectual hammer blows to the political system so many of us take for granted: democracy.

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Recently I finished reading the book Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone. I also assigned part of it to my Ethics & Economics Challenge students. It’s a fun and informative read, draping heavy-duty political science in engaging story-telling. (My post at e3ne.org on the topic is here.)

The book’s central thesis is that the American electoral system is irrational, and that range and approval voting methods provide obviously superior alternatives to the plurality rule for “single-winner” elections. Along the way, Poundstone discusses the Arrow Theorem and why it provides no obstacle to making a comparative judgment among voting rules.

Arrow’s impossibility theorem says that no social choice rule (method for coming up with a social preference ordering over possible alternatives) can satisfy the criteria of non-dictatorship (no one person can make the decision for the whole group, irrespective of the preferences of the rest), universal domain (no preference orderings are simply ruled out of order), Pareto optimality (if everyone prefers X to Y, so should the group), and independence of irrelevant alternatives (changing your relative ranking of X and Z shouldn’t affect your choice between X and Y). In simple language, the Arrow theorem says that there’s no such thing as a “will of the people”: only individuals have preferences.

Poundstone takes issue with that interpretation of the theorem, arguing that the “independence of irrelevant alternatives” criterion should be relaxed or removed. In essence, Poundstone believes that we can make interpersonal comparisons of utility (utility as cardinal, not just ordinal), and that once we do so, we can come up with some social choice rules that are objectively superior to others, because they result in more aggregate human welfare.

The assumption of cardinal, interpersonally comparable utility lies behind the case for range (or score) and approval voting as alternatives to plurality rule. The former methods are said to result in less “Bayesian regret” when used either sincerely or strategically. For instance, plurality voting leads to the “spoiler effect” (Nader causing Gore to lose to Bush) and lots of tactical voting (Nader supporters voting Kerry instead). Sometimes it can even result in victory for a candidate that would lose by a majority to every other candidate, or simply fails to choose the candidate that would beat every other candidate (Poundstone discusses how Stephen Douglas likely would have won a pairwise majority vote in 1860 rather than Abraham Lincoln).

From page 239 in the Poundstone book comes this graphic based on plausible simulations of different elections under various voting rules:

Bayesian regrets under alternative voting rules

Bayesian regrets under alternative voting rules

Lower scores here are better, and thus you can see that range voting leads to overall least “regret” when voters are sincere. When voters are 100% strategic, range and approval tie (fully strategic range voters simply cast strategic approval-like votes: full marks to their favorite and the preferred candidate of the two with the best chance of winning, none to the rest).

Of course, the whole exercise depends on the notion that you can sum up regrets across voters. In some parts of life, we make rough-and-ready interpersonal comparisons of utility. When we speak of those “less fortunate,” we clearly have in mind the idea that the poor are less happy than the rich. The possibility of empathy seems to require a view that others are “more or less similar” to ourselves, including in their capacity for happiness. At the same time, the possibility of individuality seems to require that we acknowledge that others are “in some ways quite dissimilar” to ourselves. I can’t know what’s best for you, because your happiness has a large idiosyncratic, unmeasurable component.

Where does that leave us? The Bayesian regret calculations, it seems to me, give us good reason to favor range and approval voting over the current system, simply because in the absence of any other numeraire for making cost-benefit calculations of policies, the assumption of interpersonal comparisons of happiness, with everyone capable of the same amount of happiness (no utility monsters), is better than the alternative of throwing up our hands. But we still can’t get away from the fundamental insights drawn from the Arrow theorem: that only individuals have preferences and act on them, and that trying to maximize social welfare at the expense of respect for individuality is not only possibly unjust, but also irrational.

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Many scholars (for instance) have noted a trend around the world of greater decentralization, at least on certain dimensions. Many non-federal, unitary states have tried to devolve some spending and decision-making authority on local or regional governments. Virtually every democratic government nowadays at least feigns some interest in decentralization.

Yet what strikes me is how little decentralization there has been, especially in the developing world. Some developing democracies that are sometimes described (or describe themselves) as “federal” or “semi-federal” include Mexico, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela (before it went authoritarian some time in the 2000s), South Africa, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iraq, Nepal, and Nigeria. Yet none of these countries, other than Mexico, affords its constituent state or regional governments autonomy commensurate with that found in federal and semi-federal “Western liberal democracies” like Spain, Canada, the U.S., Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Australia, and Italy. For instance, in Brazil, states do not have exclusive powers, and the federal government may overrule any state law with its own legislation. In India, the federal government may suspend state governments from operating at all and impose “President’s Rule.” Of all developing democracies, only India, Mexico, and Brazil routinely allow subcentral governments to raise significant revenue through autonomous taxation policies. (I count 9 Western democracies with such fiscal autonomy.)

Some of these developing countries are both huge and ethnically and regionally diverse, India and Indonesia most notably. One might think that these governments would have even more reason to decentralize than would the governments of comparatively homogeneous Western democracies. Therefore, the relative lack of decentralization in developing countries remains a puzzle.

One explanation might be the smaller talent pool in developing countries. Decentralization might not be feasible because uneducated or politically unsophisticated local officials require close supervision from a small cadre of Western-educated central administrators. While this explanation might have some weight in very poor democracies like Mali (before the recent coup), it likely does not apply to the majority of the cases just mentioned. If the talent pool in developing democracies were desperately shallow, then small developing democracies should have little state capacity plus all the adverse sequelae political scientists typically attribute to state weakness. Yet many small democracies in the developing world have performed fairly well: Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad, Botswana, Mauritius, and Namibia, not to mention Slovenia and the Baltic republics in central and eastern Europe. There is no obvious positive relationship between country size and economic or political performance in the developing world.

Furthermore, many of the cases just mentioned do boast significant decentralization along some dimensions. For instance, India and Indonesia lack a unified internal market, allowing local and state or provincial governments to impose trade barriers on products from other regions. This is an economically perverse form of decentralization and one that has been nearly stamped out in the West, apart from certain discriminatory government procurement regulations. In addition, many developing democracies feature significant decentralization of expenditures: local and regional governments control significant budgets, but those budgets are funded by central grants, and most policy authority lies with the center. This set of policy choices is also likely economically perverse, as “vertical fiscal imbalance,” whereby subcentral governments depend heavily on grants or mandatory revenues from the center, tends to encourage fiscal irresponsibility. In Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s, provincial governments established their own banks, which were forced to lend money to those governments, leading to repeated fiscal crisis.

Another explanation might be that there is something about the Western liberal tradition of political philosophy that encourages decentralization. Many developing democracies fit within the category of “illiberal democracies,” where majorities use their political power to trample the rights of minorities. Sri Lanka might be just such a country, where the Sinhalese majority has repeatedly refused to countenance significant autonomy for the Tamil minority, and the central government fought a brutal civil war against Tamil rebels, complete with vast numbers of civilian killings and other human rights violations.

There may well be something to this explanation, but there are also hazards. As Vito Tanzi noted (PDF), demand for decentralization rises with size of government. A nightwatchman state can afford to be centralized because no one really cares about who controls it. Developing countries have bigger governments than Western democracies, not in the government spending as a share of GDP sense, but in the sense that the distribution of resources in such societies is more elastic with respect to the distribution of political power. So demand for decentralization should be higher there. True, the constraint might instead be supply: the views of political leadership in such societies. But then why the “perverse” decentralization in some countries?

To examine the extent and form of decentralization in developing democracies, I have, with the help of University at Buffalo Ph.D. student Govinda Bhattarai, developed a new dataset of regional self-rule in consolidated democracies worldwide. The coding scheme extends that introduced by Liesbet Hooghe, Gary Marks, and Arjan Schakel for Western democracies and various postsocialist European countries. Without going into details here, I will simply note that we coded the scope of policy powers of subcentral governments, the scope of taxation powers of subcentral governments, the local electoral accountability of subcentral officials, and the ability of the central government to veto subcentral laws.

Using those indicators, I then construct two higher-level, multiplicative indices of economic self-rule and political self-rule. Economic self-rule takes into account political self-rule as well as the tax autonomy of subcentral governments. Economic self-rule ranges from 0 (none) to 48 (maximum). Political self-rule ranges from 0 (none) to 16 (maximum).

The scatter plot below shows regional self-rule on the economic (Y axis) and political (X axis) dimensions in 2006, the latest year for which data on regional self-rule in the Hooghe, Marks, and Schakel dataset are available (our data go to 2010, however). Each observation in this plot is a type of region: either a particular region with its own autonomy statute (like Aaland in Finland or Scotland in the UK), or a type of regional government with the same autonomy arrangement (like states in the U.S. or in India).

economic & political self-rule(You can click the image to get a better view.)

Look at how few (more…)

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Dani Rodrik, the political scientist’s favorite economist, argues for a limit to globalization in his recent book Globalization’s Paradox. The LSE EUROPP blog has a nice little summary of the book’s argument:

  1. Markets require a wide range of non-market institutions (of regulation, stabilisation, and legitimation) in order to work well and remain socially sustainable.
  2. These institutions do not take unique forms, in the sense that ultimate goals such as efficiency or stability can be achieved under a variety of designs and blueprints.
  3. Different societies, organised around their own states, have patently different needs and preferences regarding the shape that market-supporting institutions can take.
  4. A world that is sufficiently responsive to democratic preferences will therefore be one of institutional diversity and heterogeneity rather than institutional harmonisation and convergence.
  5. Since institutional diversity inhibits the global integration of markets by raising transaction costs across jurisdictional boundaries, a world that is sufficiently responsive to democratic preferences will also be one that falls short of full globalisation.

The idea is that it is desirable to have different countries have different regulatory schemes, but full globalization demands complete harmonization of regulation in order to minimize transaction costs. Exporters and investors want to face the same regulations abroad as they do at home. Some of the premises of the argument are incorrect, but I actually agree with the conclusion for different reasons. First, the problems with the premises.

Premise #1 is disputable to some extent. It’s stated broadly enough that these “institutions” could be social or governmental, and the governmental institutions could be nothing more than enforcing appropriate rules of appropriation and exchange. Yet I suppose Rodrik means something more by the statement, as illustrated by his example of financial regulation. The sparer those institutions within which markets need to be embedded, the more harmonization is possible and desirable even if the rest of the argument is right.

Premise #3 is deeply problematic. It’s just not appropriate to speak of societies having “preferences,” and it’s even more naive to think of democracy as somehow translating those preferences into law. If the only reason for retaining national economic sovereignty is that the latter might permit different “societies” to enact their “preferences” into law, then the case is very weak.

My argument for an outer bound to globalization would be more contingent. Taking everything into account, the scales seem to tip against harmonization when: 1) different national approaches can give us better information about what works, rather than enshrining a subpar approach into law, 2) regulatory arbitrage allows better rules to develop, ultimately yielding harmonization but not through a centralized process, 3) smaller polities are less likely to be influenced by “insider” interest groups than some multilateral institution tasked with harmonizing regulations, or 4) citizens perceive globalization as a threat to sovereignty that they value, and therefore respond to harmonization attempts with a stronger backlash against globalization more broadly (Rodrik does address this last consideration in his book). Sometimes multilateral harmonization is justified and sometimes not; it depends on the balance of considerations. For instance, harmonizing customs rules, as was agreed recently by the WTO trade ministers in Bali, seems harmless.

Ultimately, I think Rodrik is pushing on a string. There is little risk that harmonization will go “too far,” given the extremely decentralized nature of global economic governance. And I disagree with Rodrik that globalization has gone about as far as it needs to go, and now requires defense from its own advocates. For instance, the West can do much more to repeal agricultural trade barriers that kill poor people around the world.

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John Sides has a short but interesting post on 538 today looking at surprisingly strong public support for technocratic limitations on pure democracy. A few months ago I floated the idea of multiple voting as a way of overcoming, partially, the baleful effects of voter irrationality. Technocratic management would be another way to do it. These sorts of proposals seem to be unexpectedly popular. Voters generally don’t think highly of other voters’ intelligence.

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Glenn Greenwald highlights the fact that the Obama Administration is doing something about the Bahrain regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy protestors… by selling the government more weapons.

Does anyone really think US intervention in Libya is about human rights?

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Political scientist John Sides has contributed an interesting guest post to FiveThirtyEight, in which he reviews the evidence that social class influences the way Congresspeople vote. In particular, Congresspeople are unlikely to come from working-class backgrounds, and class seems to affect voting at the individual level. If Congress had the same mix of class backgrounds as the general American public, they would in general be slightly more liberal.

My first reaction was: I wonder how much of this reflects IQ. Intelligence makes people think like economists and also increases people’s income and probably shifts class background toward mentally intensive occupations.

My second reaction was: Assuming the result stands, do we want Congress to reflect the same background as the American public? Should everyone be represented equally? It’s not obvious to me that they ought to. I’m on record here as supporting limiting in some way the right of government employees and contractors to vote. Even if you don’t share my libertarian proclivities on public policy, however, a slightly upper-class-tilted public policy regime might be desirable for straightforward reasons of stability. In a pure democracy that is strictly responsive to the median voter, businesspeople and professionals might become alienated from democracy itself. That may sound like a bit of a stretch for the United States, but not for many countries around the world where upper-class opposition to democracy has entrenched electoral fraud, clientelism, or military supervision of civilian authority.

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