Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘democracy’

Social choice Brexit, 2: The survey

Last week I suggested that it could very well be that a second Brexit referendum would stumble into Arrow’s paradox, with Remain preferred to soft Brexit, soft Brexit preferred to no deal, and No Deal preferred to Remain. I wasn’t expecting rapid confirmation, but here it is, from a poll of about 1000 British adults:

Social choice Brexit

The discussion over a possible second Brexit referendum has foundered on the shoals of complexity: If the public were only offered May’s deal or no deal, that wouldn’t be any kind of meaningful choice (and it’s absurd to imagine that a Parliament that wouldn’t approve May’s deal on its own would be willing to vote for the fate of Brexit to be decided by the public on those terms. So you’re left with needing an unconventional referendum with at least three options: No deal, May’s deal, No Brexit (plus possible additional alternatives, like, request more time to negotiate the Better Deal™).

A three-choice (or more) referendum strikes many people as crazy. There are reasonable concerns. Some members of the public will inevitably find it confusing, however it is formulated and adjudicated. And the impossibility of aggregating opinions consistent with basic principles of fairness, not even to say in a canonical way, is a foundational theorem of social-choice theory (due to Kenneth Arrow).

Suppose we followed the popular transferable vote procedure: People rank the options, and we look only at the first choices. Whichever option gets the smallest number of first-choice votes is dropped, and we proceed with the remaining options, until one option has a first-choice majority. The classic paradoxical situation is all too likely in this setting. Suppose the population consists of

  1. 25% hardened brexiteers. They prefer a no-deal Brexit, but the last thing they want is to be blamed for May’s deal, which leaves the UK taking orders from Brussels with no say in them. If they can’t have their clean break from Brussels, they’d rather go back to the status quo ante and moan about how their beautiful Brexit was betrayed.
  2. 35% principled democrats. They’re nervous about the consequences of Brexit, so they’d prefer May’s soft deal, whatever it’s problems. But if they can’t have that, they think the original referendum needs to be respected, so their second choice is no deal Brexit.
  3. 40% squishy europhiles. They want no Brexit, barring that they’d prefer the May deal. No-deal Brexit for them is the worst.

The result will be that no deal drops out, and we’re left with 65% favouring no Brexit. But if the PDs anticipated this, they could have ranked no deal first, producing a result that they would have preferred.

So, that seems like a problem with a three-choice referendum. But here’s a proposal that would be even worse: We combine choices 2 and 3 into a single choice, which we simply call “Leave”. Then those who wants to abandon the European project entirely will be voting for the same option as those who are concerned about the EU being dominated by moneyed interests, and they’ll jointly win the referendum and then have to fight among themselves after the fact, leaving them with the outcome — no-deal Brexit — that the smallest minority preferred.

Unfortunately, that’s the referendum we actually had.

Hannah Arendt on referenda

I decided it was about time to reread The Origins of Totalitarianism. I was pleased to come across her description of the role of referenda, which I have often thought of in the context of recent UK history, but whose origin I had forgotten:

The mob is primarily a group in which the residue of all classes are represented. This makes it so easy to mistake the mob for the people, which also comprises all strata of society… Plebiscites, therefore, with which modern mob leaders have obtained such excellent results, are an old concept of politicians who rely upon the mob.

I was also pleased to see this comment about Jules Guérin, the founder of the French Ligue Antisémite:

Ruined in business, he had begun his political career as a police stool pigeon, and acquired that flair for discipline and organization which invariably marks the underworld.

I think that is all the demonstration required for my honesty and good character.

“When it becomes serious, you have to lie”

I wish I could think of some witty way to frame this, but some comments just have to speak for themselves. I’ve been reading the latest book by my favourite economic historian, Adam Tooze, who has moved from the financial history of the Third Reich and the First World War to examine in his new book the financial crash of 2007-8 and its aftermath. I’ve never had much time for those who see the EU being run by arrogant anti-democratic technocrats. But then we have this remark by Jean-Claude Juncker, then prime minister of Luxembourg and acting chair of the Eurogroup, now president of the European Commission:

Monetary policy is a serious issue. We should discuss this in secret, in the Eurogroup …. If we indicate possible decisions, we are fueling speculations on the financial markets and we are throwing in misery mainly the people we are trying to safeguard from this …. I am for secret, dark debates …. I’m ready to be insulted as being insufficiently democratic, but I want to be serious …. When it becomes serious, you have to lie.

I guess the best you can say is, this is macho posturing of a tax-evaders’ shill trying to show he’s tough enough to sit at the top table of power politics.

In the long dark night of the European soul, even a Luxembourgish prime minister dreams of being Metternich.

More democracy, more guns

I’ve long been suspicious of John Dewey’s celebrated aphorism “The solution to the ills of democracy is more democracy.” It’s brilliant, of course. Pithy. The frisson of paradox and a nugget of truth. But what seems like more democracy — for example, referenda — can be an autocrat’s best tool. There is a subtle slight of hand here, since the first “democracy” in the sentence is the currently existing realisation of democracy, while the second is presumably ideal democratic principles..

Now we see the same logic in the gun debate in the US. The gun lobby has been refining the argument for decades, from “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” to “If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” to “The thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. We’ve now boiled it down to the essence, which — though they haven’t yet quite formulated it this way — is

The solution to the ills of guns is more guns.

Maybe we need to recognise that the solution to the ills of democracy is careful thinking about the tradeoffs involved in creating a sensible policy to tackle some of the most negative features of the current situation without creating too many new problems, and then rethink it after the effects have become more clear. Which is, I admit, less pithy than Dewey’s version.


The new Athens

Reports from Theresa May in Brussels

Speaking on Thursday night, the prime minister said both sides needed an “outcome that we can stand behind and defend to our people”, hinting at the political difficulty she would have in selling a deal that involves handing over a large sum to the EU.

Translation: We made unrealistic promises to our people. Now it’s up to you to fulfill our promises. In the name of democracy.

As I recall, another European leader recently tried to reject financial demands from international organisations by appealing to the spirit of democracy and the results of a popular referendum. I wonder how that one turned out?

Harold MacMillan famously compared postwar Britain to the Ancient Greeks:

These Americans represent the new Roman empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.

I guess, after the last dreams of empire fade, the British establishment can still grasp for the hope of becoming the new Athens.

Fascist alarm in Germany

There’s a lot of breast-beating, inside and outside of Germany, about the right-wing nationalist AfD getting more than 12% of the vote and taking seats in the Bundestag. I find much of this commentary overwrought. It’s not just the rhetoric that tries to make the AfD into the second coming of the Nazis, such as this from the Telegraph:

The far-Right could return as a force to be reckoned with in Berlin politics for the first time since the Second World War.

Almost identical lazy rhetoric appears all over the place, such as this from NPR:

It’s the first time since the Second World War that a party professing such xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views has been voted into the Bundestag.

I dare say that the previous time they are alluding to, the problem was not that the far-right was “a force to be reckoned with” in Germany. It’s a bit like if you were writing an article about the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and called it “the most significant nuclear incident in Japan since the Second World War.” (I suppose they could have made it worse by calling this instead “the second time since the First World War” that the far-Right was a force to be reckoned with.) (more…)

Final salute

This photograph from Helmut Kohl’s memorial service in Strassburg immediately struck me as bizarre. Normal by now for America, but bizarre. Does any other democracy — not a totalitarian state or banana republic — have its leader going around playing soldier like this? Of course, the German military people and honour guard who accompanied the coffin to the burial in Germany saluted, but that’s their job. If I remember correctly, it was Reagan — who limited his military service to making propaganda films in Hollywood — who introduced this custom. And I remember very clearly how Bill Clinton was mocked, at the beginning of his presidency, for his supposed incompetence in saluting. He learned, and it’s no surprise that he wants to show that he can still do it. But seeing it on the international stage like this highlights how inappropriate it appears.

Comey of errors

After the November US election I agreed with many commentators, who said that Comey really should resign for his failures of judgement or (depending on who you’re listening to) malfeasance with regard to the Clinton email server investigation, that it would provide partisan satisfaction for Democrats for him to be forced out, but that it was essential for the nation for him to stay in office as an independent check on the president’s authoritarian impulses. Some said he has the most secure job in Washington, since Republicans and Democrats both wanted to keep him, albeit for very different reasons.

Apparently not.

We’re used to thinking of scandals as something that will damage the politicians involved if and when they come out, possibly driving them from office. But that’s not always how it works. That isn’t even really the fundamental dynamic. Hidden criminality by people in power locks them in a death struggle with the rule of law and the system of honest democratic politics. Only one can survive. If the politician has weak support, or self-doubt, or respect for democratic norms then it’s like a moon in Jupiter’s gravitation — for all intents and purpose we can just say it’s the massive planet (the constitutional system) acting on the small body. But it can be more like a black hole interacting with a star: Both are perturbed, and until they get close you can’t judge how massive the black hole is. (more…)

Fly me to the moon

In a democracy, what should be the relationship between leaders and the people? Last year Michael Gove famously offered a populist defense of Brexit against the dire warnings of economic experts: “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Donald Trump has obviously had great success with his idiosyncratic mix of doomsaying (“American carnage”) and pollyannaism (e.g. “You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost—and it’s going to be so easy”).* The vaguely conspiratorial premise — the spirit of “How to do it!” — is that our problems are all very simple, but elites are attempting to buttress their favoured position by making them seem complicated. (more…)

Tag Cloud