Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thought experiment on direct democracy

I plan on writing a post on populism (the rallying cry of idiots) in the next day or two, but I'm making good progress at work and don't want to get too distracted. I did want to post a quick thought experiment about direct democracy that I came up with this morning, though, while thinking about the topic.

I have always taken it as a truism that direct democracy is inferior to representative democracy, but the only "evidence" I usually cite is, "Look at California!" It's also true that direct democracy facilitates the tyranny of the majority, but there is more to it than that. It turns out this was discussed quite a bit yesterday during the Prop 8 trial in California, where they had discussed the polarizing effect, but I have another thing to add. I have a thought experiment that shows that even if representatives blindly adhere to the will of the people, it is still superior to direct democracy. This is because a representative is a single conscious entity capable of planning and decision-making, while a population of voters is no such thing.

Consider a hypothetical government that has a budget of $10 million to spend on a certain type of program. There are three candidate programs, each of which cost $5 million. They are all pretty good programs, and as a result, 60% of the population would like to see program A enacted, 70% would like to see program B enacted, and a whopping 80% are in favor of program C. In an idealized representative government, the representatives realize they can maximize their votes by enacting programs B and C, while still maintaining a balanced budget. But in a direct democracy, all three programs have the support of the majority, all three are enacted, and the government is now $5 million in the red. (Hmmm, sound like California?)

Sure, you can argue that "someone" should decide that the ballot propositions should include "A and B", "B and C" and "A and C" as alternate choices, but who's deciding that? The people putting together the petitions? And you think those folks are going to be more successful than petitioners who just say, "Let's put C on the ballot!" (which, recall, enjoys the support of 80% of the population)?

Direct democracy is ass for so many reasons. The only reason it survives in the form of ballot initiatives and the like is because of idiot populism. Which I will rant about soon...


  1. "In an idealized representative government, the representatives realize they can maximize their votes by enacting programs B and C, while still maintaining a balanced budget."

    Not so fast. There's way too many variables in the equation to draw any conclusions. This makes at least one or more unsupported assumptions and over-simplifications:

    One possible assumption is the total overlap of all people in favor of all three programs. That is, it may assume that people in favor of B includes all people in favor of A, plus some others, and the people who are in favor of C includes all people in favor of B, plus some others.

    It does not address what will constitute a satisfied voter. Can a voter be happy (enough to re-elect the representative) with only one of their desired programs being enacted (if they favor more than one), two desired programs, or will they vote for the candidate that proposes to enact all desired programs when elected?

    It is possible for 100% of the population to be in favor of either A or B, but only 80% in favor of C; will A & B get more votes? (see below)

    This also ignores the positions the populations may have on programs they are not in favor of: Are they strongly opposed to the enactment of those programs or merely not in favor of them? depending on how the support for the three programs breaks down, if 80% are in favor of C, but those people in favor of C that are also not in favor of B are actually opposed to B under any circumstances, and the people in favor of B but not C are opposed to C, enacting programs B & C may not work out so well; you may only have 50% of the population in favor of both B & C, and the other 50% opposed to one or the other enough to vote for the other guy.

  2. This is why, in the sentence of mine that you quoted, I used the word "idealized". :) Obviously this scenario is overly simplistic -- I merely intend it as a model that illustrates in plain terms how a representative can discern second-order interactions that a simple majority can not.

    In fact, you are sort of proving my point... the more complexity you add to the scenario, the poorer the idealized direct democracy does in comparison to the idealized representative democracy.

    When you talk about being strongly opposed vs. "not in favor", I do think you illustrate one of the weaknesses of representative democracy, i.e. an uncompromising constituency can have a disproportionate voice. If, in the idealized model, we add a new program D that costs $10 million and only 20% of the population supports, but that 20% will not under any circumstances vote in future elections for a representative that voted against D (while supporters of A, B, and C would only be somewhat less likely to vote for a representative that did not support their choice), then it might work out that the representative would not enact A, B, or C, preferring instead to spend all the money on the program that appeals to the single-issue D supporters. In that scenario, neither the idealized direct democracy nor the idealized representative democracy perform particularly well (either they go over budget with popular programs, or blow all their money on unpopular programs).

    And of course none of this says anything about whether the popular programs are any good. I just mean it to illustrate how direct democracy is structurally unable to make second-order tradeoffs.

  3. Yes, I mean to start my comment with something like, "While I agree with your point....", but forgot to include it.

    Hot button issues do really muck things up: Gun rights/gun control, abortion, etc tend to be all or nothing issues for some people, all other issues be damned.