Representative democracy awesomeness hypothesis

post by taw · 2009-06-18T03:02:37.973Z · score: 0 (11 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 13 comments

I have hypothesis that utility maximization is always a second order process - there's always some underlying selection process with its fitness, and only because it promotes traits that make agents agents act in a way that best approximates utility maximizing, adaptation executers seem to us like utility maximizers.

Now let's apply this to political systems:

There are also some hints how to design better representative democracy:

I used to think that direct democracy would be a major improvement relative to what we have now, but this analysis suggests that representative democracy (with small bits of direct democracy thrown in) should work much better.

13 comments

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comment by MichaelVassar · 2009-06-18T10:23:33.318Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To me, it seems pretty contrary to historical evidence to think that the best way to prevent the populace from revolting is with good conditions rather than, say, with secret police or with eternal war or pseudo-war (the health of the state).

The idea that policies that promote short-term economic performance promote well-being in the long term is also rather odd.

Where is the line between a dictatorship and a single party regime? Between representative democracy and single party? How do you evaluate Japan, China (under Mao and today), and other interesting test cases?

What does your model predict about anarchy? About many-layered representative democracy? About federalism vs. centralization?

I don't see how your hints follow from your model. What's 'well-being' anyway, and why can't elites simply respond to demands for easily falsified signals like ideology and let it wash out? Doesn't this select against non-pragmatic elites?

comment by taw · 2009-06-18T16:01:18.061Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Historical evidence seems to be that there were very few successful revolts in spite of thousands of years of people living in near-Malthusian conditions.

The model suggests that in multi-layer democracy the layer considered by voters to have the most influence will counts and spill to lower and higher layers. I predict that in Europe swings in subnational and European Parliament elections both largely depend on who's in power nationally, not on candidates' platforms specific to those layers. This seems to be the case. I also predict that swings in American subnational elections will follow national swings too.

According to the model well-being is primarily economical, difficult to falsify, and people don't care about ideology much. In countries where they would, selection for better elites would be weaker.

There's no strict line between dictatorship and single party regime - it depends on to what degree elites that are setting the policy can lose based on their economic performance. In some single party regimes dissatisfaction by party members could remove and replace the leaders, in others party members other than leadership don't have much power.

comment by conchis · 2009-06-18T11:21:54.287Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In direct democracy with most important decisions being taken directly by voters, there's no selection process - so they will be as unsuccessful as dictatorships. This is extremely surprising prediction to me, but remarkably bad economic performance of California seems to confirm this.

I'm gonna go ahead and call confirmation bias on this one. You might be right, but I think we need more clearly defined metrics of "success" and a larger sample to draw sensible conclusions here; not just the first confirmatory example that comes to mind. Switzerland has a fair amount of direct democracy, and its extent varies between cantons. Maybe that could provide a useful test?

(Does ancient Greece count, or was the franchise too restricted?)

Nitpick: Do you reckon you could clean up that introductory sentence? I had to read it at least three times before I could parse it.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-06-18T04:47:21.502Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The main problem with this analysis is that the "Bread and Peace" model you refer to applies pretty specifically to Presidential elections. Congressional (and probably all/most state level) elections are not necessarily determined by this (and indeed, I'm not convinced presidential elections are determined by this). This is particularly true when you look at high incumbency rates and the fact that seniority = power. Moreover, it centers around short-run well being with clear term limits (for presidents) - a president may be willing to make bad long-run decisions to get a second term. Much worse, if he's in his second term and the economy is going poorly, if this model is correct, then he's going to lose anyway, so he has an incentive to make the economy as bad and hard-to-fix as possible so that his opponent will fail and his party will win the next round of elections.

It's an interesting theory, but I'm not sure it fits the facts, and I'm not sure it suggests that indirect democracy is nearly as good as it is. Though it may be better than direct democracy, if only because of bargaining costs.

Also, on the note of California, the problem is not precisely that it has too much direct democracy, it's that it is too difficult to raise taxes. This is admittedly largely due to a single ballot measure, but it seems wrong to say that the problem is direct democracy when it would be more precise to say the problem is pretty much Prop 13). My theory is that it's simply dumb to allow any constitution to be amended by less than a 2/3-3/4 vote (which would also, conveniently, nullify Prop 8).

comment by taw · 2009-06-18T05:13:30.685Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The entire post is based on hypothesis that models like "Bread and Peace" hold widely in most modern representative democracies. It would be delightful confirmation of my theory if it turned out it holds in successful ones (like Western Europe), and doesn't in unsuccessful ones (like Latin America).

As for the problems you mention. Even though president cannot run for third term, his VP or someone else from his party is likely to continue his policies, so the mechanism still works. As far as I can tell, presidential elections and national party preferences in congressional elections follow the same patterns, so if "Bread and Peace" holds for one, it should hold for the other. Incumbency preferences might weaken the signal, but as long as incumbents from successful parties have significantly higher changes than incumbents from unsuccessful parties, the mechanism works. Even if it only holds in swing districts, as long as safe districts are equally distributed between two parties.

California constitutional amendments are not really constitutional amendments in traditional sense, just a way to pass legislation by popular referendum. In theory requiring supermajority for referenda would be a source of a massive status quo bias, what would be extremely undemocratic.

comment by JGWeissman · 2009-06-18T05:41:23.189Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

California constitutional amendments are not really constitutional amendments in traditional sense, just a way to pass legislation by popular referendum. In theory requiring supermajority for referenda would be a source of a massive status quo bias, what would be extremely undemocratic.

California has a system for passing legislation by popular referendum. At least in the case of Prop 8, the use of the amendment process instead was to bypass challenges to the legislation's constitutionality. If we required a supermajority for amendments, but not ordinary referendums, it could stop the abuse of the amendment process to pass what should be ordinary legislation, subject to constitutional limitations.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-06-18T07:42:07.910Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I may be mistaken, but making it a constitutional amendment also makes it much, much harder for the legislature to alter it. If there's a thing called a "constitution," especially in the US, it's generally both different and superior to mere legislation. The point of constitutions is to ensure status quo bias; there's something undesirable about changing fundamental parts of your government when public opinion shifts by a few percentage points, as is likely to be the case with an amendment to repeal prop 8 in the next few years.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-06-18T06:29:31.301Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Libertarian idea of free competition between political systems never existed, so there is no need to discuss it.

Competition between political systems is not as big a factor as it could be, but it is not ignorable. People and companies move, or threaten to move, on account of political systems and specific policies. You don't think this affects things?

comment by taw · 2009-06-18T07:13:43.241Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to the hypothesis that utility maximization is always a second order effect, it won't affect policy unless it can make the current government lose. So what's actually optimized here is not any kind of efficiency, but ability to deal with interest groups that can affect government's chances of winning with money and votes - I would say their power is mostly going to be detrimental to the results.

Also, as far as I can tell companies "threatening to move" or "moving" are almost entirely about tax avoidance, and active legislation to handle this (so that profits generated in the country stay taxed in the country) would pretty much get rid of the issue. Other than companies moving labour intensive production to countries with cheaper labour, which theoretically doesn't hurt the country at all.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-06-18T14:23:10.915Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to the hypothesis that utility maximization is always a second order effect, it won't affect policy unless it can make the current government lose.

I absolutely think the movement of people and companies can make "the current government lose," often for better, sometimes for worse.

Also, as far as I can tell companies "threatening to move" or "moving" are almost entirely about tax avoidance, and active legislation to handle this (so that profits generated in the country stay taxed in the country) would pretty much get rid of the issue.

No, this issue will never be eliminated, nor would we want it to be. Moving often means profits are no longer generated in the same place - this needn't be just a paper change. Nor taxes the only thing that matters, people and companies also move based on the regulatory regime and provision of public goods.

Other than companies moving labour intensive production to countries with cheaper labour, which theoretically doesn't hurt the country at all.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-06-18T06:14:55.363Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If people vote for reasons not related to improvement in their well-being, like for ethnicity, religion, or ideology, it weakens the signal.

Voters are often uninformed about how policy affects their lives. Furthermore, why should they choose how to vote based on who would implement good policies? Their vote won't be decisive. See Bryan Caplan's essay on the Myth of the Rational Voter

Robin Hanson: Politics isn't about policy

comment by taw · 2009-06-18T06:57:16.452Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, but you completely missed the point. "Bread and Peace" model assumes voters don't try to predict the future at all, and simply vote for the currently ruling party if their past performance in the last term was good, and vote for the opposition if they were bad. This seems to be true empirically.

I postulate that this will put selection pressure and promote policies that work. That can be tested empirically too, quite easily even, as it predicts that countries with stronger "Bread and Peace" based voting patterns will be more successful economically.

Voters actually caring about policy and voting based on what they think will work, as opposed to voting based on what was proven to work the last term, are detrimental to the results in this model.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-06-18T15:47:52.540Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The "Bread and Peace" model may yield decent predictions of election results, but we still must consider aspects of politics that are not well captured in this particular model. The selection pressure you describe is real enough, but it is hardly the only thing that affects policy and politics, as the links I provided describe.