Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Sheep vs Wolves

Yesterday I went to see Judge Posner debate Prof Jamin Raskin on democracy and the Constitution. I did not know this, but there is nothing in the US Constitution that guarantees citizen's right to vote. Posner argued that there are two poles of thought on what democracy is/should be: deliberative democracy where people educate themselves on the issues, debate with an open mind, and then vote for the common good, and essentially democracy as spectator sport, where "wolves" fight it out in the political arena (less bloody than them fighting it out in the field) and if the "sheep" get bored to tilling the field, they can go and watch for a couple of innings. Posner said that this view was clearly better descriptively, but was also better normatively as regular folks are bad at making decisions and so a system where everything was decided by plebiscite would be burdensome, fractious, and error prone. Raskin's view was more usual -- he preferred "top dogs" and "underdogs" and saw the democratic process as a dialectic where progressives slowly improved people's lives through democratic change.

My main reaction was that Posner is a really really funny guy, while Raskin is just angry. Being angry is not attractive. Since everyone (except maybe Raskin, and those who think deliberative democracy is a viable idea) knows debates never change anyone's mind, being funny is probably a good strategy.

The behavioral economics class I'm in with Richard Thaler has many convincing examples for why people are bad at things like probability and statistics,etc. which he argues means they do not behave like the classical rational economic actors. My take is that in a market, people have an incentive to study the issue and correct their biases, while in a political system, where you vote your identity, biases will go uncorrected and lead to wrong decisions. Watch me pull numbers out of thin air to buttress my case: the US spends $140,000 to save each life in highway accidents, but $2,000,000 to save each life from nuclear power. Public policy, therefore, has chosen to save fewer lives over more lives (or, if you prefer, kill more people over kill fewer people). Hardly an optimal social outcome.

Nobel prizewinning economist Ken Arrow showed how no democratic system can produce truly democratic outcomes, and given the inherent biases we all carry, it's very hard to design a system where decisions are made by those who enjoy all the subsequent benefits and pay all the subsequent consequences.


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