Pluralistic: Ostromizing democracy (04 May 2023)

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Ostromizing democracy (permalink)

You know how "realist" has become a synonym for "asshole?" As in, "I'm not a racist, I'm just a 'race realist?'" That same "realism" is also used to discredit the idea of democracy itself, among a group of self-styled "libertarian elitists," who claim that social science proves that democracy doesn't work – and can't work.

You've likely encountered elements of this ideology in the wild. Perhaps you've heard about how our cognitive biases make us incapable of deliberating, that "reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments."

Or maybe you've heard that voters are "rationally ignorant," choosing not to become informed about politics because their vote doesn't have enough influence to justify the cognitive expenditure of figuring out how to cast it.

There's the "backfire effect," the idea that rational argument doesn't make us change our minds, but rather, drives us to double-down on our own cherished beliefs. As if that wasn't bad enough, there's the Asch effect, which says that we will change our minds based on pressure from the majority, even if we know they're wrong.

Finally, there's the fact that the public Just Doesn't Understand Economics. When you compare the views of the average person to the views of the average PhD economist, you find that the public sharply disagrees with such obvious truths as "we should only worry about how big the pie is, not how big my slice is!" These fools just can't understand that an economy where their boss gets richer and they get poorer is a good economy, so long as it's growing overall!

That's why noted "realist" Peter Thiel thinks women shouldn't be allowed to vote. Thiel says that mothers are apt to sideline the "science" of economics for the soppy, sentimental idea that children shouldn't starve to death and thus vote for politicians who are willing to tax rich people. Thus do we find ourselves on the road to serfdom:

Other realists go even further, suggesting that anyone who disagrees with orthodox (Chicago School) economists shouldn't be allowed to vote: "[a]nyone who opposes surge pricing should be disenfranchised. That’s how we should decide who decides in epistocracy."

Add it all up and you get the various "libertarian" cases for abolishing democracy. Some of these libertarian elitists want to replace democracy with markets, because "markets impose an effective 'user fee' for irrationality that is absent from democracy.

Others say we should limit voting to "Vulcans" who can pass a knowledge test about the views of neoclassical economists, and if this means that fewer Black people and women are eligible to vote because either condition is "negatively correlated" with familiarity with "politics," then so mote be it. After all, these groups are "much more likely than others to be mistaken about what they really need":

These arguments and some of their most gaping errors are rehearsed in an excellent Democracy Journal article by Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier, and Melissa Schwartzberg (Mercier's research is often misinterpreted and misquoted by libertarian elitists to bolster their position):

The article is a companion piece to a new academic article in American Political Science Review, where the authors propose a new subdiscipline of political science, Analytical Democracy Theory:

What's "Analytical Democracy Theory?" It's the systematic study of when and how collective decision-making works, and when it goes wrong. Because the libertarian elitists aren't completely, utterly wrong – there are times when groups of people make bad decisions. From that crumb of truth, the libertarian elitists theorize an entire nihilistic cake in which self-governance is impossible and where we fools and sentimentalists must be subjugated to the will of our intellectual betters, for our own good.

This isn't the first time libertarian political scientists have pulled this trick. You've probably heard of the "Tragedy of the Commons," which claims to be a "realist" account of what happens when people try to share something – a park, a beach, a forest – without anyone owning it. According to the "tragedy," these commons are inevitably ruined by "rational" actors who know that if they don't overgraze, pollute or despoil, someone else will, so they might as well get there first.

The Tragedy of the Commons feels right, and we've all experienced some version of it – the messy kitchen at your office or student house-share, the litter in the park, etc. But the paper that brought us the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons, published in 1968 by Garrett Hardin in Science, was a hoax:

Hardin didn't just claim that some commons turned tragic – he claimed that the tragedy was inevitable, and, moreover, that every commons had experienced a tragedy. But Hardin made it all up. It wasn't true. What's more, Hardin – an ardent white nationalist – used his "realist's" account of the commons to justify colonization and genocide.

After all, if the people who lived in these colonized places didn't have property rights to keep their commons from tragifying, then those commons were already doomed. The colonizers who seized their lands and murdered the people they found there were actually saving the colonized from their own tragedies.

Hardin went on to pioneer the idea of "lifeboat ethics," a greased slide to mass-extermination of "inferior" people (Hardin was also a eugenicist) in order to save our planet from "overpopulation."

Hardin's flawed account of the commons is a sterling example of the problem with economism, the ideology that underpins neoclassical economics:

Economism was summed up in by Ely Devons, who quipped ""If economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn’t go and look at horses. They’d sit in their studies and say to themselves, ‘What would I do if I were a horse?’"

Hardin asked himself, "If I were reliant upon a commons, what would I do?" And, being a realist (that is, an asshole), Hardin decided that he would steal everything from the commons because that's what the other realists would do if he didn't get there first.

Hardin didn't go and look at a commons. But someone else did.

Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel for her work studying the properties of successful, durable commons. She went and looked at commons:

Ostrom codified the circumstances, mechanisms and principles that distinguished successful commons from failed commons.

Analytical Democratic Theory proposes doing for democratic deliberation what Ostrom did for commons: to create an empirical account of the methods, arrangements, circumstances and systems that produce good group reasoning, and avoid the pitfalls that lead to bad group reasoning. The economists' term for this is microfoundations: the close study of interaction among individuals, which then produces a "macro" account of how to structure whole societies.

Here are some examples of how microfoundations can answer some very big questions:

  • Backfire effects: The original backfire effect research was a fluke. It turns out that in most cases, people who are presented with well-sourced facts and good arguments change their minds – but not always.

  • Rational ignorance: Contrary to the predictions of "rational ignorance" theory, people who care about specific issues become "issue publics" who are incredibly knowledgeable about it, and deeply investigate and respond to candidates' positions:

Rational ignorance is a mirage, caused by giving people questionnaires about politics in general, rather than the politics that affects them directly and personally.

  • "Myside" bias: Even when people strongly identify with a group, they are capable of filtering out "erroneous messages" that come from that group if they get good, contradictory evidence:

  • Majority bias: People are capable of rejecting the consensus of majorities, when the majority view is implausible, or when the majority is small, or when the majority is not perceived as benevolent. The Asch effect is "folklore": yes, people may say that they hold a majority view when they face social sanction for rejecting it, but that doesn't mean they've changed their minds:

Notwithstanding all this, democracy's cheerleaders have some major gaps in the evidence to support their own view. Analytical Democratic Theory needs to investigate the nuts-and-bolts of when deliberation works and when it fails, including the tradeoffs between:

  • "social comfort and comfort in expressing dissent":

  • "shared common ground and some measure of preexisting disagreement":

  • "group size and the need to represent diversity":

  • "pressures for conformity and concerns for epistemic reputation":

Realism is a demand dressed up as an observation. Realists like Margaret Thatcher insisted "there is no alternative" to neoliberalism, but what she meant was "stop trying to think of an alternative." Hardin didn't just claim that some commons turned tragic, he claimed that the tragedy of the commons was inevitable – that we shouldn't even bother trying to create public goods.

The Ostrom method – actually studying how something works, rather than asking yourself how it would work if everyone thought like you – is a powerful tonic to this, but it's not the only one. One of the things that makes science fiction so powerful is its ability to ask how a system would work under some different social arrangement.

It's a radical proposition. Don't just ask what the gadget does: ask who it does it for and who it does it to. That's the foundation of Luddism, which is smeared as a technophobic rejection of technology, but which was only ever a social rejection of the specific economic arrangements of that technology. Specifically, the Luddites rejected the idea that machines should be "so easy a child could use them" in order to kidnap children from orphanages and working them to death at those machines:

There are sf writers who are making enormous strides in imagining how deliberative tools could enable new democratic institutions. Ruthanna Emrys's stunning 2022 novel "A Half-Built Garden" is a tour-de-force:

I like to think that I make a small contribution here, too. My next novel, "The Lost Cause," is at root a tale of competing group decision-making methodologies, between post-Green New Deal repair collectives, seafaring anarcho-capitalist techno-solutionists, and terrorizing white nationalist militias (it's out in November):

Hey look at this (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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