Daniel Little reviewed Jon Elster’s new book and summarized it thusly:
The fundamental point that Elster takes from Bentham is that institutions should not be considered in terms of their ideal functioning, but in terms of how they will function when populated by ordinary people subject to a range of bad motivations (self-interest, prejudice, bias in favor of certain groups, …). This is the point of “security against misrule” — to find mechanisms that obviate the workings of venality, bias, and self-interest on the part of the participants.
This is a good idea in theory, and focusing on “ordinary people” was enshrined into the law in the mid 1800s in what became known as the “average man” or “reasonable man” standard. The problem is that it is hard to model “ordinary people”. For example most police officers get off scott-free after shooting unarmed civilians because juries are persuaded that a “reasonable policeman” would feel scared and shoot, but this legal standard adds up to mean that we have unreasonably many civilians getting shot by police.
One of the problems with the Public Choice Economics programme is that it tends to model people as excessively greedy and selfish. Too much emphasis on selfishness tends to create a society that normalizes and reinforces that kind of ethos. One outcome of this kind of attitude is a reduction in efficiency. For example, public officials are so constrained in negotiating infrastructure bids to avoid any possibility of corruption that they cannot use good judgement to select the best quality contractors and that is a reason why US infrastructure costs are much higher than in other countries. For-profit companies must rely upon a lot of altruism from workers toward the company because they cannot specify every possible contingency in an employment contract, nor can managers monitor everything and even if they try, it soon becomes excessively costly. Public institutions and non-profits should create institutional structures to try to encourage even more altruism than for-profits already do because it is easier for humans to feel altruistic about a public mission of service than about maximizing profits for private owners.
Most of the literature on voting theory in Economics centers around utopian ideas like Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem that are completely useless for improving how real democratic institutions function for ordinary people, so Elster’s goals are a movement in the right direction. There are many simple ways to improve our democratic institutions to make them more democratic. And democratic is exactly what medianism is in the political realm. A democracy that does not give power to a minority to rule over that majority is always making medianist political decisions. In coming days I will post some simple ways to make our democracy more medianist, that is, to make it more democratic. Kenneth Arrow was a genius, but his clever work on voting theory was too utopian and it actually moved political thinkers away from working on making voting work better because it distracted them into utopian rabbit holes. His Nobel-Prize-winning work is often interpreted as concluding that the only rational political system is a dictatorship! I kid you not. Too bad he did not use more of his genius as a force for good. Instead of saying that rational democracy is “impossible,” he could have worked at improving the flawed democratic institutions that rule most of the countries of the world. Even ordinary people of mere median intellect can think up many pragmatic ways to make voting more democratic, so Arrow really wasted his talents.
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