Political equality in a large group
October 29, 2009
This post is aimed at being the first part in a long-delayed “attempt to embark on” “a methodical analysis of the set of possibilities for achieving political equality”.
Part 1: Optimal decision-making, group rationality
… in which it is argued that groups, in an ideal setting, can achieve rational decisions. Group decision making constrained by practical circumstances should therefore be designed so as to produce decisions that approximate the decisions that would have been made under ideal conditions.
It is sometimes asserted that groups cannot form good policy. When such notions are expressed by the less educated, they are are attributed to the authoritarian sentiments of the unsophisticated. When such ideas are proposed by the educated, they are considered evidence of hard-headed realism. Elite speakers often mention Arrow’s “impossibility theorem” (what Arrow called the ‘General Possibility Theorem’) and claim that it “shows” that group rationality is impossible.
It is regularly observed that such claims are greatly overblown (e.g., chapter 2 of Majid Behrouzi’s Democracy as the Political Empowerment of the Citizen) – that the theorem is based on a very specific conception of group decision making whose validity and relevance are very circumscribed. In particular, it is based on the notion of “the individual” within the group as an atomic rational entity, who arrives at its decisions (or preferences) rationally. In fact, it is quite natural to see an individual as an entity that has to balance multiple, often conflicting, preferences. Thus, the individual is performing the same task that the group decision making mechanism is supposed to be performing. If the group cannot act rationally, neither can the individual.
The criterion for the feasibility of rationality cannot, therefore, be individual vs. group. It seems that the appropriate measure of the feasibility of rationality in decision making is the availability of time and motivation to investigate the circumstances and considerations that are relevant to the decision and to act in accordance with the findings. When a single person is involved, those circumstances and considerations are those of that person. When a group is involved they are of all the members of the group. A hurried or uncaring person would arrive at a decision that is much inferior to that of a group that has the leisure and motivation to optimize its decision, for a rational decision requires allocation of appropriate time, resources and effort.
Under ideal conditions, a person, or a group, as large as it may be, can consider a situation and arrive at the appropriate – rational, optimal – decisions. Such conditions would include the time and motivation to assimilate all the relevant information, to consider all the relevant interests, suggest all the feasible alternatives and arrive at a decision. Under such conditions, the decision maker (a person or a group) is not constrained by any pre-existing rules (since these may be changed by the decision making process), while deadlocks and cyclic preferences pose no more of a problem for a group than they do for the individual.
In addition, under ideal conditions, political equality can be introduced by simply adding a requirement of symmetry among all the members of the group, since under ideal conditions there would be no significant barriers to the existence such a symmetry.
The problem of decision-making under realistic conditions is therefore that of approximating decision making under ideal conditions. It is a problem of allocating power and resources and inducing motivation in such a way as to produce decisions that are as close as possible to those that would be the result of decision making under ideal conditions. This problem is not trivial under a wide variety of circumstances, but it grows more acute when decisions are to be made for and by a large group of people, since the ideal conditions become more and more unrealistic as the size of the group grows.
The problem of democratic decision making in a large group under practical conditions is that of approximating the decisions that would be taken by a large group of political equals under ideal conditions. It is interesting to note that since the quality of the approximation is measured in terms of the fidelity of its decisions rather than the fidelity of its process, no assumptions about political equality are built into the form of the approximating practical democratic decision making mechanism. It is conceivable that a mechanism (such as an elections based system) that involves certain political inequalities would yield decisions that better approximate the ideal democratic decision-making mechanism than would any practical mechanism that introduces no such inequalities (e.g., some form of a pure referenda-based system).