Politics 4/23/00

Politics, written 4/23/00

What I am going to ramble about today is politics. Its place, its function, and what could make it better.

I've been pondering this for a bit now. Some of it was from participating in the voting on various propositions early in March here in California. Some of this was instigated by watching the primary campaign proceed (and then, end). Some of it has come up in a few e-mail discussions I've been involved with. And some of it is just cuz I think I know better than the Supreme Court, Congress and the President about how to run this country :)

Let's start with reality and work from there. On March 7, California's voters went to the polls to decide several issues at the state level. Among these were bonds for clean water, the decision whether to allow gambling on Indian reservations, whether to increase the penalties on juveniles for gang-related offenses, and whether to change the rules on suing insurance companies. Wanting to be a responsible voter, I went through my voter packet, reading pro and con arguments for each proposition, reading the forecasted impacts, etc. But I really didn't have the expertise to make a decision on many of these issues. I ended up deciding on several issues based on which of the pro or con arguments used less exclamation points, less words in ALL CAPS, and less stridency. This seemed to jibe well with my gut reaction anyway.

But it felt wrong. Here I am, a relatively educated, intelligent person, and I didn't really have any basis from which to be making these decisions. Who was I to be deciding public policy that would affect millions of people?

I guess the whole point of democracy is that the millions of people who are going to be affected make the decision. But does this really make sense for public policy decisions? If I were ill, I wouldn't want a million people to decide what's wrong with me, I'd want one qualified doctor. If my car's broken, I could probably figure out what's wrong with it by asking hundreds of people, but it'd be a lot faster to ask somebody who really knows cars. If society's broken, should this method change?

And, no, this isn't just bitterness because everything and everyone I voted for lost :)

I'm going to interject a point from the book I'm currently reading: Power and Prosperity, by Mancur Olson. "The effort to inform ourselves and participate in the debate is much more costly to us individually than the benefit that would come to us individually from our efforts to reduce the distortion. Thus, it is rational for us to remain ignorant. At the same time, the narrow interests who reap the benefit of all of our individual contributions (through taxes, higher prices, or whaever the particular policy distortion produces) will always have high-powered incentives to organize and importune the government, ignoring the damages to broader society." (Footnote 6, Foreword).

I'm no constitutional scholar, but it seems to me that the Constitution was set up to provide exactly this sort of intermediary. We elect Representatives and Senators to go make decisions for us in Congress. Theoretically, in a presidential election, we do _not_ elect the president; we elect electors (the electoral college) who then meet to select the president.

But now that people have grown dissatisfied with their representation in Washington, we are moving towards a direct democracy, where the people vote directly on how to run the country. We've been moving in this direction for a while, with the growing tendency for politicians to make decisions based on the polls. And in a growing number of states such as California, we have direct democracy to decide policy questions.

I'm torn here. On the one hand, I'm all for more involvement and more responsibility. On the other hand, does it really make sense for anybody who is 18 or older to be involved with making decisions that have extended ramifications? Especially in this age of media bombardment, where most of their awareness of a particular issue depends on the amount of money that the sponsors of it are willing to spend on advertising?

I should note here that I tend to be an elitist, and tend to have a pretty low opinion of the general public's decision-making capacity. Then again, when I look at the highest-rated shows on television, I think I'm pretty justified in doing so :)

I don't really know the answer. So I'll move on.

Another question I've been pondering is the role of government. We have a very large, bureaucratic government here in America that sets the standard for appropriate behavior. I had a long discussion recently about how law correlates with morality: Do people behave morally because of the law, or is the law a reflection of the people's moral choices? I tend to believe the second. People behave in a way that they think is right, regardless of what the law says.

When the disparity between the people's morality and the law grows too large, something has to give, because eventually the cost of maintaining a policy in the face of people's wishes grows too large for the policy to be worthwhile. For instance, I feel that the American government is getting near this point in the War on Drugs. The government is attempting to destroy the supply by giving billions of dollars to Colombia to create crack drug-fighting units, without doing anything about the demand from their own people. When a large portion of society uses drugs without feeling it is wrong, perhaps it is time to listen to the will of the people and modify the law accordingly. The cost of the mismatch between law and reality has grown large - I don't know the exact statistics, but I have heard some crazy numbers about how many people are in jail for doing or selling drugs. And the cost is manifested itself in the judicial system being clogged with drug cases, prisons being filled with drug offenders to the point where violent offenders have to be let go to make room, etc. Not to mention the aforementioned billions being spent by the government directly on the War on Drugs.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting way to look at law. It's an organic thing, growing and changing in response to the needs of the people that use it.

So besides reflecting the will of the people, what should the government be doing with itself? It spends a lot of time and money on shaping social policy - both directly through laws, and indirectly through government subsidies, tax writeoffs, etc.

After being browbeaten by a couple people, I think I've been convinced that government does have a role in creating an equal playing field. When there are gross inequities in opportunity, that prevents a society from benefiting from all of its members. From the point of view of efficiency alone, this is stupid. To say nothing of the moral arguments that everybody deserves an equal chance.

I do have some problems with this though. Regardless of how equal the playing field is made, some people are going to do "better" than others (remember, I'm an elitist). Some people will always point to this and say that this indicates that the playing field is not equal - because equal opportunities should create equal results. This is a tough question - I kind of glancingly address it in a rant about gifted education that I once wrote.

I've decided to send this ramblings out as is. I had planned to explore "ideal" versions of government, including my starry-eyed view of anarchy, but I think I'm going to hold off on that until I finish the book I'm reading now, the Mancur Olson book quoted above. This is a book where an economist is studying the incentives which encourage people to go from unformed tribes, to autocracies, to democracies, steadily creating wealth all along the way. It's giving me a lot to think about, and I want to process it a bit before ranting more about politics.

Ah, what the heck, I'm going to leap onwards anyway. So this starry-eyed view basically comes from my time at TEP. Sure, we had rules, we had formalized methods of resolving disputes, but to a large extent, TEP "functioned" as an anarchy. When stuff needed to be done, volunteers could generally be found. There were house offices, but there was no pay, no incentive for people to serve other than a desire to keep the house functioning. There were basically no responsibilities so necessary that one couldn't weasel out of them. And yet, most of the time, people met their responsibilities: they cooked in teams, they did their work assignments, they paid their housebills, all of which had notable exceptions, but it mostly worked.

But I think this only worked because TEP was small. There were social feedback mechanisms at work that placed peer pressure on those who slacked. This objection was verbalized in a book called How We Believe, by Michael Shermer, a review of which is available from my book page. He mentions a factoid that 150 is about the largest size that a human community can be where everybody knows everybody else, such that social checks and balances can have an effect. This seems to deliver a killing blow to any idea I might have had about extending this to a larger society.

I wonder, though. I have this vision of everybody having their close communities. But not everybody has _identical_ communities - there are overlaps everywhere. Could the connections between groups be built strongly enough that informal social feedback would have the desired civilizing effect?

What we have now, at least in America, is a tremendous hierarchical bureaucracy which is too big and too slow to really be effective. And the problem is that as the country gets bigger, the hierarchy needs to get bigger, and more bureaucracy needs to be put in place to handle the greater hierarchy, etc. At some point, which we may have already reached, it becomes so big that adding more people actually makes it less able to do its job. Yes, I'm stealing this from Frederick Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month, where he notes that adding programmers to a late project actually makes it later, because of the start-up costs of integrating them into the project, and the higher coordination costs of having more people involved. I could easily see how something like this could happen in government.

So I'm trying to envision another way. I'm having vague thoughts of a self-organizing government, similar in principle to how complex systems are often formed by individual pieces doing very specific actions. Several theories of consciousness depend on this idea, notably Minsky's Society of Mind, where each individual actor is simple, but their combined effect is very complex.

I think there should be some way to organize things from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. I think that some version of this rational anarchy could work, where people took responsibility for themselves, and for those close to them. I think that the interlocking webs of relationships would provide the necessary building blocks to spread this nation-wide.

Of course, I haven't figured out any specifics, but what the heck.

This actually applies to another topic near and dear to my heart, the whole shenanigans at MIT with regard to community. I remain convinced that if MIT really wanted a better community, it should have built upon the building blocks that it already had, rather than trying to start over from scratch. What it had were many tightly-knit communities that didn't interact with each other. If they had worked at breaking down the boundaries between the communities, and increasing the communication between them, I think an MIT-wide community would have been achieved at far less cost than trying to create one whole-sale from scratch. But I'm way biased on that point.

Anyway. I've had this thing in my hands for too long. I need some outside thoughts, somebody else poking and prodding at my ideas to jolt me out of my ruts and get me thinking again. Dialogue is where I learn the most about what I really think. So I'll send this off to y'all and hope to hear what you think.

Back to the ramblings page.

Eric Nehrlich's WWW home page / nehrlich@alum.mit.edu