Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 2)

Part 1 is here.

The two arguments presented below pin the problem with elections on the voters.

4. The masses are rationally ignorant. Therefore any system that relies on their judgement would not function well. Sortition does not rely on mass judgement.

According to this argument elections present a variety of choices to the voters, with some of these choices being on the whole materially better than others as measured by the interests and values of the voters. The voters, however, each knowing that the impact of their vote is tiny, are too selfish (or more politely, too busy taking care of their private business) to spend the time and effort to determine which candidate or party are better than others. Instead they hope that others would do the work for them, and in this way they would save the effort of figuring out which alternatives are the better ones but at the same time they will enjoy the good outcomes of other people’s choices. But since everybody, or at least the large majority of voters, follow the same calculation, almost everybody is uninformed and as a result when they arrive at the voting booth, they often select poor alternatives.

All this sounds very sophisticated and has the stamp of approval of the economists and rational-choice theorists. The argument suffers, however, from at least two severe problems. First, the assumption that the electoral alternatives present to voters a meaningful choice is theoretically problematic. Since the electoral choice is between elite factions, the range of choice must be severely limited. The factions of the elite all share certain elite values and interests that any of them will promote if and when they are in power. The promotion of those values and interests is often made at the expense of the values and interests of the general population, making the policies pursued by government – regardless of the elite faction in power – detrimental to the general population.

This issue in itself would, while not contradicting the rational ignorance argument, render it irrelevant. Even if in some way or another the voters were to become highly informed and thus able to choose the best option among those on the ballot, this would not materially affect the quality of electoral government. Thus rational ignorance does not play a noticeable role in generating the poor outcomes of electoralist systems.

But is there even a reason to think that voters are suffering from rational ignorance, or, what is more to the point, that they would suffer from rational ignorance if there were meaningful choices to made at the ballot box?

Voters may be rationally ignorant about particular candidates or the details of policy pursued by various officials and parties but they do know their own situation – indeed, democratic ideology asserts that they are the ones who know their own situation best. They can determine, and they do determine naturally and on an ongoing basis, whether their situation has been improving or worsening. They may of course be “wrong” (in the sense of changing their mind in retrospect), but in general it is their own judgement that is the best indicator of whether public policy has been set and executed well – according to their own values and interests – or not.

Thus, voters should be able to “throw the bums out” when their situation deteriorates and leave the “good one” in power when their situation improves. If they keep choosing poor quality candidates we must conclude that either there are no good candidates to vote for or that the voters are not simply rationally ignorant but that they are too stupid to know what’s good for themselves.

5. The allotted will make better policy than the elected because they will not need to pander to the voters.

This argument takes the idea of blaming the voters a step farther. According to this argument, the voters are not only ignorant or apathetic, they are in fact stupid enough to support policies that are detrimental to their own well-being. If this argument is to be believed, the elected would prefer to enact policy that serves the public, but due to electoral considerations, knowing that implementing such good policy would make them unpopular, they are incentivized to enact popular policy that leads to poor outcomes.

This again, relies on the notion that people – in this case the individual voters – are unable to represent their own interests. The voters, it is claimed here, actually prefer poor policies to good ones.

17 Responses

  1. These two arguments implicitly contradict each other. If, as you suggest, the principal way voters can tell whether politicians are doing a good job is by seeing how their own lives are going right now, and they vote on that basis, politicians have a very strong incentive to pursue policies that improve voters’ situations in the near-term (before the next election) at the expense of their long-term interests. And this appears to actually be the case – most obviously in the case of climate policy, but there are many other high-impact examples, such as housing.

    The other factor you neglect is that not everybody votes purely according to how their own life is going – probably only a minority do – but according to a variety of ideologies about how to vote responsibly. Even when they do, they must choose an opposition party to vote for, which is not a choice they can make based purely on how their own life is going. Rational ignorance and (what you don’t mention) media power therefore cannot help but have an influence on voter choice – and, as a result, on politicians’ power- and status-seeking actions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On the topic of climate change, is Yoram suggesting that Tony Blair’s claim that he could not bring in a tax on aviation fuel as he would be kicked out at the next election just a lie? My impression is that global warming is largely an elite preoccupation and that a referendum on the UK’s net zero commitment might well overturn government policy (as nothing the UK does will make any difference and voters are unlikely to be swayed by notions of post-colonial guilt). Yet the assumption by XR, Macron etc seems to be that CCC and similar forums will buttress the case for the climate “emergency”. As Oliver says, the problem is primarily protecting the interests of future generations.


  3. I’m always surprised when conservatives, who tend to be invested in projection of power overseas, international cooperative-coercion schemes such as NATO, and the outsize power of creative (private-sector) leadership to grow and develop economic sectors, turn around and say ‘Nothing the UK can do can make a difference to climate change’. We could be using the might of our military alliances to put the squeeze on fossil fuel producers around the world, in order to secure our sea borders from the encroaching ocean. We might produce only 1% of global emissions, but with a policy of aggressive foreign intervention, coupled with industrial leadership in producing zero-carbon alternatives, we could cut far more than that, all while strengthening British businesses. Why is that not the conservative position?


  4. My concern was not the position of Conservative politicians so much as whether UK citizens are prepared to foot the bill (especially as nobody knows how big it will be).


  5. Read on:

    They are not necessarily scientists, even not intellectuals or wide-scope students of reality. They will be ordinary citizens and need only everyday common sense.
    Thus it will be necessary to make all the advisory help from scientists and others, available to them, any time, on any occasion.


  6. Oliver,

    > politicians have a very strong incentive to pursue policies that improve voters’ situations in the near-term (before the next election) at the expense of their long-term interests

    Do they? Poor dears, so torn between their innate wishes to do good (of which the Sunday Times never tires of reminding us) and the harsh reality of the nearsightedness of the voters (of which the Sunday Times never tires of reminding us).

    It is such a wonder that (supposed) improvements of voters’ short-term situations always come at the expense of their long term situations. Somehow opportunities for implementing popular policies that improve voters’ both short-term and long-term situations never exist. Such a shame.

    > a variety of ideologies about how to vote responsibly.

    And those ideologies blind those poor simpletons who cling to them to their own situations and make them undermine their own values and interests by voting for the wrong candidates over and over and over – such miserable misguided fools.

    Oh, the burden we, democratically minded elites, have to shoulder.


  7. Oliver,

    Don’t worry, after a few more sarcastic barbs you will soon join me on Yoram’s blacklist and become completely ignored. The common thread to Yoram’s posts is that they are 99% ideology (dressed up as syllogistic reasoning) and 1% evidence.

    >Somehow opportunities for implementing popular policies that improve voters’ both short-term and long-term situations never exist.

    Yes that’s true — the climate emergency being a case in point.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yoram,
    These are arguments AGAINST the common myth underlying the notion that elections facilitate rule according to the popular will. The “rational ignorance” analysis does not insist that voters ARE ignorant… only that there is no rational basis for spending any time becoming informed about election matters, since one vote won’t make any difference. However, as a matter of FACT, virtually ALL of us are VERY ignorant about issues and candidates in most races. Unless significant time and effort is committed to studying things, how do I know if raising tariffs on computer chips will make me better or worse off (or which candidate favors that)? Do I even know the names of the candidates who are opposing my incumbent state representative, let alone what policies they advocate? However. Yoram is correct that the issue of rational ignorance pales once we consider that many (or probably most) candidates have no intention and/or no ability of enacting the policies they discuss in their campaigns.

    The belief that voters know their own interests (without a major effort to learn and understand unintended consequences, etc.), and can thus at least throw the bums out, is common, but also confused. Aa an example, at the outset of the Great Depression, in the U.S., the right of center politicians were seen to be n charge, so they were thrown out and replaced by Roosevelt and the Democrats. Meanwhile in Germany, the left-of-center parties were seen to be in charge, so they were thrown out and the Nazi Party took their place. The same perception of self-interest and lack of politician accordance resulted in opposite outcomes. Throwing the bums out is not in any sense self-governance. Another example that Achen and Bartels point to in their book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” is when a spate of shark attacks along the New Jersey coast severely hurt the coastal tourist economy, those towns defeated most of the incumbent politicians in the next election, while the towns away from the coast that had not suffered economically, re-elected incumbents. Nobody argued that shark attacks were the result of bad policy by politicians, but when the economy turns bad, incumbents lose.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Terry,

    I agree with the obvious points about the inability of voters to determine correct policy on particular questions and that “throwing the bums out” is a very limited form of expressing ones values and interests.

    It seems to me, however, that you are not engaging with the argument I made.

    Let’s make the argument a bit more explicit. Let’s assume the following:

    1. Voters periodically have the choice of continuing with existing decision makers or picking a group of other decision makers,

    2. Among those alternative groups there are some which, if voted into power, would improve the situation of voters.

    3. Voters know when things are going well for themselves.

    My claim is that under these assumptions, if the voters follow the rule of “throwing out the bums” then they would keep getting rid of “bad” groups and will sooner or later vote a “good” group of decision makers into power. At that point, the voters will be happy with the outcomes and will stick with that group and see their situations improve over the long term.

    The fact that this outcome is not occurring indicates that one of the 3 assumptions does not hold. My argument is that the reason for this is that assumption 2 does not hold. Those who promote the rational ignorance idea are in fact arguing that assumption 3 does not hold.


  10. BOTH 2 and 3 are often false. But there is another piece as well. The short-term vs. long-term problem impinges on both 2 and 3.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. >Those who promote the rational ignorance idea are in fact arguing that assumption 3 does not hold.

    They are more interested in empirical research showing that most voters are indeed ignorant regarding many political issues, than deductive syllogisms.


  12. Terry,

    The principle of distinction implies that #2 is generally false.

    However, to believe that #3 is generally false, one must reject the democratic principle that people are the best judges of their own values and interests. The notion that they are not is the classic elitist-guardianist position. According to this position, the public needs enlightened rulers that will be the ones who determine – even against the public’s judgement – what serves the public well.

    As for long-term vs. short-term: This is again just a variation on the elitist-guardianist position. In fact, the reason that voters are often unwilling to make short term sacrifices is not that they are short sighted, but rather than they are, quite rightly, suspicious of the elected rulers. There is really no reason for the public to think that short term sacrifices that are demanded of them would lead to long term gains for them, or that the same long term gains could not be made without sacrifices by the public – since the elites control such a huge part of the resources of society, it seems more reasonable to expect them to make the sacrifices.


  13. Yoram:> The principle of distinction implies that #2 is generally false . . . #3 is generally false . . . the elitist-guardianist position

    It’s ironic that someone who earns his living as a data scientist believes that the problem of democracy can be resolved with the tools of propositional logic philosophy, whereas a political theorist like myself advocates an experimental approach (testing the relationship between sample size, obligation, mandate and representative outcomes).

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Yoram,
    About “3. Voters know when things are going well for themselves.”

    The word “voters” implies without careful examination, but rather off-the-cuff opinion. My assertion that this is not valid does NOT imply the need for a superior guardian-elite solution. Mini-publics solve this problem, allowing ordinary people to examine, listen, inquire and discover the trade-offs, risks, and manipulative distortions they had casually accepted. To evaluate one’s condition, one needs to know more than just how things were yesterday compared to today. One needs to know other options… how good COULD things be in comparison to how they are, and how bad might things have turned out, etc. The absolute BEST possible recent decisions may mean things are worse today than yesterday, but have averted far worse outcomes, etc., etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. > To evaluate one’s condition, one needs to know more than just how things were yesterday compared to today. One needs to know other options…

    The question of whether one’s, say, deteriorating condition was in any particular case caused by “bad” decisions by the government or by objective difficulties that no decision could have handled better is indeed far from trivial. In fact, even when it comes to determining whether one’s condition has improved or deteriorated, things may not be simple to determine in any particular case – things that look like improvements may turn out to have far reaching problematic implications.

    However, the emphasis here must be on “in any particular case”. The democratic assumption must be that the situation where most people are mistaken about what’s going on in general and in the large scheme of things – whether the question is about outcome (improvement vs. deterioration) or about causes – is an exception to the rule. The alternative – that most people generally don’t know what’s going on or why – necessarily leads to the guardianist position.

    Imagine, for example, that we have a perfectly democratic, sorititon-based system. For this system to be able to function it must enjoy the support of the population at large. If we assume that people do not understand what’s going on, if they can’t tell that the system serves their values and interests, why would they prefer this system to any other system?


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