The Electric Commentary

Monday, November 03, 2008

Pre-Election Reading

Before you step into the booth tomorrow, I'd recommend picking up a copy of Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter, and James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. (They complement each other nicely, as the former draws heavily on the latter.)

Much of the bad policy-making in America can be blamed on the two-party system, in my opinion. Surowiecki convincingly argues that groups make bad decisions under the following scenarios:

Too homogeneous

Surowiecki stresses the need for diversity within a crowd to ensure enough variance in approach, thought process, and private information.


The two-party system takes a plethora of different views based on many perspectives and countless areas of expertise (and a bunch of garbage) and boils it down into two fairly similar parties, and forces a diverse crowd to select between them. This destroys the advantages of having such a diverse populace, and turns one of America's greatest strengths into a huge weakness.

Too centralized

The Columbia shuttle disaster, which he blames on a hierarchical NASA management bureaucracy that was totally closed to the wisdom of low-level engineers.


Parties tend to dictate position from the top down focusing on a few major issues while ignoring the practical value of said policies. As economist Robin Hanson frequently says, "politics is not about policy."

Too divided

The US Intelligence community failed to prevent the 11 September 2001 attacks partly because information held by one subdivision was not accessible by another. Surowiecki's argument is that crowds (of intelligence analysts in this case) work best when they choose for themselves what to work on and what information they need. (He cites the SARS-virus isolation as an example in which the free flow of data enabled laboratories around the world to coordinate research without a central point of control.)
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA have created a Wikipedia style information sharing network called Intellipedia that will help the free flow of information to prevent such failures again.


Having only two parties presents a black/white divide with no shades of gray available.

Too imitative

Where choices are visible and made in sequence, an "information cascade"[2] can form in which only the first few decision makers gain anything by contemplating the choices available: once past decisions have become sufficiently informative, it pays for later decision makers to simply copy those around them. This can lead to fragile social outcomes.


Information cascades can be good or bad, but in the realm of politics they are almost always bad. Perhaps the finest example of an information cascade takes place in the primaries. Ideally when aggregating data, in order for the group to be as smart as possible you want the members of that group to express their opinions as close together in time as possible. This preserves independence, and allows the group to contribute all of its local and personal knowledge free from influence. The primaries take the opposite approach, and collect the opinions of voters at periodic intervals over a long period of time. States that vote earlier have the ability to remove options from those who vote later, thereby creating a cascade, where each early state that a candidate wins makes it more likely that that they will win the next state, even if that state is vastly different demographically, which in turn makes it more likely that the candidate will win later and later states.

The simplest thing that America could do to increase the quality of politicians is to institute a national primary.

Too emotional

Emotional factors, such as a feeling of belonging, can lead to peer pressure, herd instinct, and in extreme cases collective hysteria.


"Obama is a Muslim! A Communist Muslim! Who hangs out with terrorists! And kills babies!"

If anyone says any of this to you, back away slowly and avoid eye contact, and note that not only does this person have the right to vote, but they are also MORE likely to vote than a normal sane person.

The two party system kills independence and diversity. The primaries destroy much of democracy's info-aggregation powers. The sport-team like mindset in which winning is more important than policy drives people to vote out of emotion instead of logic.

Maybe democracy is the worst system except for all the others, but there are ways to improve it. Until then, expect more of this.

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