MIT(4): Democracy

Prof. Charlie had written a book on democracy that I thought would be good to read and comment on with respect to rationality because it would show that I’m interested in Charlie’s work, thereby laying the foundation for future conversions, and it would help to establish connections between individual cognition and group-level politics, which seemed reasonable since I was taking the course for political science credit. Also, according to the rumors among the graduate students in the department, this work was the basis for his tenure decision. So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I began Charlie’s book, which was — in a word — terrible. Charlie was an advocate of extreme democracy, which appeared to be part of the “workable socialism 2.0” literature.

Charlie’s primary idea was that tradition socialism was problematic due to an over centralization and an over-reliance on centralized planning due to Hayek’s critique in The Road to Serfdom and his later work on complexity. So his solution was, instead of having subject matter experts or property owners make decision, have people vote on all important issues. The problem was I had just moved from California and had seen the ballot initiative process up close and first hand. There were so many ballot questions that were confusingly worded and there was so much confusing advertising that even an MIT student who was very interested in politics had trouble understanding what to vote for, so what chance did the average voter have? Moreover, the ballot initiatives were not all independent: sometimes they impacted each other, so how to reconcile to ballot initiatives if they passed and worked at cross purposes? Finally, it seemed to me that extreme democracy as practiced in California, given the importance of advertising and media-based information channels, which meant that the illusion of democracy reduced, yet again, to establishment politicians controlling the outcome, the functional equivalent to central planning. This pertains to human cognition because economists assume that people are able to take in almost limitless information, synthesize it, and make informed decision. The problem is that this  view of rationality is flattering but unsupported by evidence. Experiment psychology, in contrast to economics, finds that people are boundedly rational, and there are well-known and predictable limits to the way  people process information, and those limits are in fact reached quite quickly. In other words, the fundamental assumptions of economic rationality were not true.

I figured that Charlie must have thought these issues though — after all, he was an Ivy League-trianed, big time, tenured MIT professor — so he must know what he’s doing, right? So I wrote up a critique of Charlie’s extreme democracy work not because I thought I was correct but because I didn’t understand how he could have reached the conclusions he did, so I could state my argument as clearly as I could, then he could see I was interested and what I was thinking, and he could correct me and suggest some reading and we could go from there. However, while this seemed logical to me, that’s not the way it worked out.


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