Monday, 17 June 2013

Something 99.9% Of People Are Probably Wrong About

Can you think of an opinion held that over 99% of the UK (or US) population think is right, but that you’re 99% certain is wrong?  I’ll bet there aren’t many – but I do have one.  In this Blog I explained why your vote in a general election probably won't matter, and in this Blog I introduced a radical shake up of the political system to incentivise politicians to be better candidates and stronger MPs.  Here is another radical measure to consider – one that almost everyone thinks is right, but hopefully by the end of this Blog you’ll think might be wrong.  Politicians are always telling us that the more people that come out to vote in a general election the better it is for democracy.  If you ask around I think most citizens would agree with this under the pretext that more voters means better democracy, and better democracy means a better chance of a good Government.  I think they are right about the least important thing – that more voters means better democracy – but I think they are completely wrong about the most important thing – that better democracy means a better chance of a good Government – because it seems quite clear from where I’m sitting that the best chance you have of getting a better Government is by drastically reducing the amount of people who can vote. 

The logic of this is fairly straightforward (I’ll explain in a moment), but it does come with the correlative question of what is the most important thing for a society; to have a population where the majority of citizens are free to vote for what will probably be a worse Government (call it Option A), or a population where only the minority will be able to vote for what will probably be a much stronger Government (call it Option B).  I have a feeling that if I asked around I’d find most people would value Option A more highly, because they would believe that a fundamental right to vote is primary over the eventual quality of the MPs representing them. 

Here’s why I think they’re wrong.  The whole purpose of Government is to have representatives who are honest, hard-working, skilful, ethical, pro-active and dynamic in running the country and in constructing the most efficient policies with which to achieve these aims.  I’ll bet if you asked everyone in this country if those things are the foundation of our having a democratic system of election, you’d find unanimity in concurrence.  Therefore, consequently, if your primary goal is to attain this, then the number of voters leading up to this ought to be much less relevant than the importance of actually attaining this.  Anyone who disagrees with this is saying that they are more concerned about everyone’s right to vote than they are about the quality of the end result of that voting.  Is this rational?  In terms of economic analysis, I’d say definitely not.

Let me give an analogy to show how absurd I think this is.  Suppose there is an island with a King and 50 citizens.  The King employs the 50 citizens to build a 4 metre wall around the entire circumference of the island.  If they can build it in two years he will give them each £1 million.  If they fail then they only get £50,000 each when the job is complete.  Naturally some of the citizens – let’s say the fastest 10% - are much faster bricklayers than others; but it is worked out that if everyone works to their full capacity then the wall will be complete just before two years has passed.  But now imagine that the majority 90% complain and insist on introducing some kind of ‘Fair Bricklaying Policy’, meaning that the fastest 10% must slow down and lay bricks at the same pace as the majority to give all citizens equality of bricklaying.  Not only would we chastise the 90% for ensuring that the wall won’t be complete in two years, we’d also chide them for the absurdity of caring more about the ‘Fair Bricklaying Policy’ than they do about the overall goal of completing the wall within two years.

In real life terms, the completion of the wall and the successful payment is equivalent to having a selection of representatives in Parliament who are honest, hard-working, skilful, ethical, pro-active and dynamic in running the country, and the insistence on everyone’s need to vote is equivalent to the ‘Fair Bricklaying Policy’.  The ‘Fair Bricklaying Policy’ is a handicap to the minority that can be most influential in reaching the two year wall completion target, and the ‘everyone’s need to vote’ ethos is a handicap to the target of having a good selection of representatives in Parliament, because the best way to get a bunch of strong MPs is to have fewer people voting.

The sad fact is that everyone who votes knows that their vote is almost certainly going to make no difference to the outcome of any constituency election (even the tight seats are won by margins of hundreds, or at the very least, tens).  Every prospective MP knows this too, so their incentive to be honest, hard-working, skilful, ethical, pro-active and dynamic is much less than it should be, and hence, voters’ research and analysis concerning the best candidates is also much less diligent than it should be.  Of course, you may object that there are already decent, hard-working MPs in the country – but that’s not the point – the point is we are not maximising the probability of having even better MPs (and right across the board too).  To use that objection is a bit like arguing that putting up with a toothache is no bad thing because at least it saves us a trip to the dentist. 

To see why the incentive isn’t currently maximised for the prospective MP or for the voter, consider a job interview scenario.  You and one other colleague are going to read the applications and then interview eight candidates for a job, and then appoint one of them after some rigorous background checks.  But suppose that before you even got the first application you were told that the decision will no longer be made by just the two of you, but by the two of you and another ninety eight people who work for your firm.  With 100 people now making the decision, the importance of your own personal involvement is now greatly diminished, as well as the chances that your diligent research and analysis will impact the overall outcome.  In short, you have much less reason to put in the concentration and effort that you would if there were just two of you making the final decision.

This is very much what it is like in the voting world – most people know nothing or virtually nothing about the candidates in their constituency, and so they vote without much research and analysis, and give no incentive for the political parties to field high calibre candidates, nor for the candidates to work hard to impress the electorate.  As a voter, if you know all this, you have much less incentive to conduct a rigorous study of economics, political policies, jurisprudence, home affairs, international affairs, or an in-depth study of personal abilities of those hoping to represent you.  In fact, not only are most people relatively ignorant of these things – it is actually the case that having ignorant voters is even worse than if you selected candidates through an entirely random process, because ignorant voters tend to be swayed by biases that one would not see in a random selection process.  For example, they tend to underestimate the benefits of free market economics, they tend to undervalue immigration, they tend to overvalue national interests, they have scantier regard for those in third world countries, and they are more likely to believe that prices of goods and labour market salaries are determined by corporate venality rather than supply and demand (to take a few of many more examples). 

The only way to vastly improve the quality of our MPs is to improve the quality of the voters – and the only way to improve the quality of the voters is to drastically reduce the number of them, and then give those that are selected randomly the time and resources to rigorously research and analyse the candidates before them.  Here’s what I’d suggest.  Reduce the number of voters in each constituency to 200 people chosen at random (to ensure a proportional representation of sexes, ages, ethnic backgrounds, income groups, religious beliefs, political views, education, and so forth) and have each of them accompany the political candidates to a location in which they stay for a week, ensuring the time, resources and intellectual and emotional capacity to question the MPs, give and solicit feedback, and test the candidates’ political calibre before casting their votes at the end of the week (the benefits of the outcome would more than pay for the financial costs of this, and some of the offsetting savings will occur by not having to employ polling clerks throughout the country on election day).

You may worry that this will disenfranchise most of the other citizens that don’t get to vote – but there’s no reason to think this.  At the start of play, everyone has exactly the same chance of being selected, and everyone in the country (both those selected and those not) will be secure in the knowledge that the people who are going to represent them in Parliament will have been chosen with the utmost rigour and analytical scrutiny by the most conscientious citizens in the country.  That cannot be as disenfranchising as the current system in which every single person that votes knows that that vote will have the same use as if they’d stayed at home. 

All that said, the bottom line is, even if the system I proposed is a superior system for improving the calibre of our MPs (which seems logically unimpeachable to me), it might still instinctively be the case that our present less effective voting system is a pearl of great electoral price from which it is too emotionally and psychologically costly to depart (even if it is the least economically rational).  It might be, in fact, that the instincts of the 99.9% are wrong on this one.  It wouldn’t be the first time that we human beings have assented to a less-rational view in order to placate ourselves emotionally and psychologically.  Or perhaps placating ourselves emotionally and psychologically ‘is’ sometimes our most rational recourse.  I’ll leave you to decide on that one.  Finally, at the very least I hope to have given exhibition to one of the many Knight-isms by which I try to live my life – this one being:

Do not fear to formulate and express a view that departs from the security of consensus - for every view held consensually was once held by no one, and may one day be held by no one again.

* Picture courtesy of