Cognitive Democracy
May 24, 2012 1:39 PM   Subscribe

"Here’s a paper we’re working on, which argues that we should (for some purposes at least), think of markets, hierarchy and democracy in terms of their capacity to solve complex collective problems [and] makes the case that democracy will on average do the job a lot better than the other two ways..." Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi on a cognitive approach to democracy (pdf). [via]
posted by daniel_charms (12 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Try Democracy. It's statistically validated! Better than the other two leading brands!
posted by No Robots at 1:56 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

Interesting, I love deliberative democracy and demarchy, which this apparently supports.

In general, there are surprisingly good results obtained by simply sitting people down to discuss something or even making them watch a real debate. Demarchy is for example the idea that large juries make less corrupt decisions than politicians, yet jurors are almost as informed as professional politicians if they're actually interacting with a real debate. You could use ordinary representative democracy to select the advocates who argue in front of the jury perhaps.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:12 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Its a good thing then that the actual system is where a hierarchy of big market players pay lobbyists to have laws written to benefit them.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:22 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

They don't seem to address how the problem is identified in the first place, or how to democratically apply the solution once it's reached.

For example in the current government, when boiled down to a simplistic view the problem is not equally understood as "the debt ceiling will be hit soon", but rather one side sees the problem as "government is too big" and the other sees it as "government needs to help its citizens", so there's no unified problem the two parties involved in, regardless of the size of the group, so no consensus can be met until they can agree on the problem they're trying to solve. Certainly, once you get a heterogenous group with different self-interests to identify a common problem, the likelihood of reaching a common solution is significantly greater. Until that point, this approach to democracy is a bit weak.

Then, certainly, once the group agrees to the solution, everyone will fulfill their part equally and without complaint or neglect, right? Reaching a solution is one thing, applying the solution and then seeing the results is the bigger issue.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:35 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

[, 4]
posted by kliuless at 2:46 PM on May 24, 2012

Direct link for the via, not that it adds much.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:55 PM on May 24, 2012

As usual, no definition of markets, hierarchies, or democracies. Readers get to bring their own biases, I guess.
Groups with high diversity of internal viewpoints are better able to identify optima than groups composed of much smarter individuals with more homogenous viewpoints.
The idea that if you get a larger group of people together you have a greater chance of identifying the best "peak" in terms of outcomes makes intuitive sense, but any such discussion should at least acknowledge countervailing arguments about the group decision making, such as the phenomenon of group think.
With this in mind, we ask whether divergent macro-institutions are better, or worse at solving the complex problems that confront modern economies and societies. Institutions will tend to do better to the extent that they both (i) bring together people with different perspectives, and (ii) share decision-making power relatively equally.
I note that there is no "(iii) actually produces better outcomes to the complex problems". The paper assumes that if you have the first two, then you will have a greater chance of getting the third. This is a big assumption, to put it lightly.
Democracy, then, is committed to equality of power; it is also well-suited to exposing points of view to each other in a way that leads to identifying better solutions. This is because democracy also involves debate. In competitive elections and in more intimate discussions, democratic actors argue over which proposals are better or worse, exposing their different perspectives to each other.
If our undefined democracy has elections, this presumes that there is some sort of hierarchy in to which people are being elected. But how does that sit with point (ii)? Is the entire argument that democracies are the best way to select who will fill positions in a hierarchy? What does this do with solving complex problems?

Furthermore, the assumption that the diverse viewpoints in a debate will share decision-making power relatively equally is laughable. An agenda with money has significantly more decision-making power than an agenda without money in a democratic debate.
This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems.
Presumably just writing "actual democracies do not achieve political equality" would rather undercut the paper's argument.

The paper's central thesis was never tested - there was no description or explanation of how a democracy is better at solving the complex problems that confront modern economies and societies. Instead, the paper fills the pages by repeating "groups are better at identifying solutions than individuals". Even if this is correct, just because an undefined species of macro-institution is good at identifying a solution, it does not follow that the macro-institution can implement the solution or the solution identified will be the optimal one.
posted by kithrater at 4:33 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I liked this paper, interesting and ambitious, offering food for thought. A lot of the objections are actually addressed in the paper, if one reads carefully enough.
posted by polymodus at 4:04 AM on May 25, 2012

Of course, if we move towards a system of representation in which voter participation declines and candidates are more likely to win if they appeal to the passionate and non-centrist portion of the electorate that is more likely to vote, and is therefore relatively homogenous, then the whole premise of democracy being effective because there is a debate among relatively diverse populations starts to break down. And when the disproportionate power of lobbyists and well-funded activist PACs overwhelms the power of the voters, then that other premise of the principle of political equality begins to go as well.

Sorry. I'd like to idealistic about democracy but feeling a little cynical these days.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 4:18 AM on May 25, 2012

A lot of the objections are actually addressed in the paper, if one reads carefully enough.


On a related note, when it comes to developing solutions to complex problems, some public policy thinkers are informed by what have come to be known as wicked problems. The study around wicked problems is much less optimistic than the paper in terms of the ability of institutions to even properly define and understand wicked problems, let alone find and implement an optimal solution.
posted by kithrater at 7:52 AM on May 25, 2012

There are several clear problems with current representative democracies, including :

- First-past-the-post voting creates two-party systems that reduce voter's choices permitting small groups to wield enormous power. We should replace our voting systems with ranked proportional systems like IRV that more accurately assign each party's seats count to its real popular support.

- Representatives themselves become a nexus corruption faster than term limits replace them. Why trust representatives? Juries are infinitely less corrupt. Juries learn the details behind a particular bill as well as representatives too, probably often better since the representatives ignore the details themselves.

I've found that confusing or flighty sounding anarchist theory, like this post, are usually academics, or other theoreticians, attempting to address the hard question : How might we propose laws without representatives?

I'm thrilled that people discuss that hard problem, but frankly that's distant future stuff. Our immediate goals should be stuff that Just Works (tm) like ranked proportional voting and legislation/veto by jury trial.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:20 AM on May 25, 2012

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