Saturday, January 17, 2015

What citizens may need to understand about democracy

I have been applying for grants that so far I do not get, but I have summarized the idea that I want to test, so I am putting the gist of it here, extracted from the last proposal submitted (in collaboration with David Rand at Yale).

Democracy is a human invention, a "design" that serves certain functions. But citizens do not understand it very well, and, as a result, they often fail collectively to take full advantage of what it can do. Here is what many people don't understand.

Political participation is cost-ineffective in advancing self-interest or the parochial interest of a small group, but is cost-effective in advancing the common good. The small influence that each citizen has over policy outcomes renders political participation nearly useless as a way of advancing self-interest (Downs, 1957). But this small influence is more than compensated by the large number of people potentially affected by these outcomes, if the citizen has sufficient concern for these others (Edlin, Gelman \& Kaplan, 2007, 2008). In terms of self-interest the expected benefit of a vote is proportional to 1/N, where N is the number of voters. But in a utilitarian calculation, which assumes some altruism (concern for others), the benefit of voting must be multiplied by N, assuming that only voters are affected by the outcome.  This multiplication cancels the dilution caused by being one voter among N. And the total benefit can be orders of magnitude larger if we think in terms of effects on those who do not vote, such as children, foreigners, and future people who do not exist. The larger the circle we consider, the more the effect of a vote is magnified, and, therefore, the more worthwhile it is to use ones vote (or other forms of participation) to advance our concerns for the good of others.

Imagine you are faced with a conflict. You believe that a proposal would be good for the world but bad for you. Should you vote for it or against it? Of course it depends on how good it is for the world and how bad it is for you. But even if it is very bad for you it is unlikely to be worth your time to vote against it, because the probability is very low that your vote would matter. On the other side, if it is reasonably good for the world, it would affect many people, and that could make it worthwhile to vote for it, if you care somewhat about all those people.

The same sort of conflict arises between self and nation, or nation and world, or present and future. "Nation" is an in-between case. But a proposal that harms your nation a little but helps the world a lot would still be worth voting for, again because the numbers matter. In many cases what is good for your nation is also good for the world. Nationalism, in which people promote the good of their nation regardless of the harm done to outsiders, is a form of parochialism.

Moreover, because government can coerce people to cooperate (behave in ways that benefit everyone rather than the self alone), the cost of supporting government in doing this, by voting, is much smaller than the cost of cooperating voluntarily. Because of this principle, people often vote to give government the power to make them and others do what they would not be willing to do if left to their own devices. For example, voters sometimes vote for tax increases but almost never donate money to the government.

If citizens around the world understood these arguments, they would still disagree on what constitutes the common good, but surely some of the current malfunctions of democracy could be mitigated.

The idea that government is a design to provide for the common good by solving social dilemmas (or providing public goods) is not widely understood; some people seem to think that government sanctions are never justified (except perhaps for military defense and property protection), or that government is a tool to be used for competition between parochial groups.

The idea that democratic government is a design to serve the common good should not be difficult to understand. Thus, failures of understanding can be attributed to failures of education.

It is apparent to anyone who follows the news that the idea of democracy is not on a smooth path to universal approval and success in bringing about the benefits of good government. The economic successes of some authoritarian countries (such as China) have given many people the idea that democracy is unnecessary, when, in fact, these are probably isolated lucky cases, contradicting the general result. A better understanding of how democracy works could lead at least to a little healthy skepticism about whether such authoritarian governments can continue to produce good results, or, alternatively, whether they will increasingly attempt simply to maintain power, whatever the costs.

Many countries seem unable to switch from authoritarian to democratic system, and this problem is often attributed in part to the necessity of cultural support for the idea of democracy itself. Part of this support may consist of the kind of understanding described here, in particular the idea that the obligation of a citizen is to help advance national interest rather than tribal interest or self-interest. (The potential conflict between national interest and world interest is not at issue here, since the formation of stable democracy in a nation is almost always in the world interest as well.)

Even long-standing and stable democracies seem unable to make democracy work as well as it should, as a result of such problems as polarization and "populism". Part of the substance of polarized conflicts involve understanding of what government can accomplish and why it is needed, and understanding of the limits of parochialism. And populism often involves a different sort of narrowness, namely, excessive attention to immediate effects at the expense of long-term effects.

Increased understanding of democracy could be the low-hanging fruit in attempts to improve the human condition by improving the functioning of government. If it results in changes in civics education, these are relatively inexpensive. Possibly the failures of democracy are the result of misunderstandings of how democracy should work, and correcting these misunderstandings even in a minority of citizens can have substantial effects on outcomes. Note that civics education does not happen only in schools but also in efforts at ``nation building'' through instruction and outreach, and through political communication more generally.


Downs, A. (1957). An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

Edlin, A., Gelman, A., & Kaplan, N. (2007). Voting as a rational choice: Why and how people vote to improve the well-being of others. Rationality and Society, 19, 293–314.

Edlin, A., Gelman, A., & Kaplan, N. (2008). Vote for charity's sake. The Economists’ Voice, 5, (6), article 6.