The Fundamental Problems Of Democracy

Democracy is inherently wracked with problems. Some of these have been mentioned before, some might be obvious, but I primarily hope to produce a checklist against which to judge any further governmental designs.

There are 6 fundamental and hard to patch problems with democracy:

  1. Long to non-existent feedback cycles for political actions
  2. Incentives to destroy people’s belief-forming faculties, or what I call full-spectrum weaponization
  3. Reduced incentives to do the right things to get status on both top and bottom
  4. Inherent need for everyone to model other people’s thoughts is not stable even in theory
  5. Incentives to alter demographics are not necessarily consistent with long-term survival
  6. Incentives to create perceived fragility lead to real fragility
1. Long to non-existent feedback cycles for political actions

Short feedback cycles are great for both productivity and addiction. You write some software, it instantly breaks something, you fix it, it works, you feel great. The same pattern makes video games addicting. You make a good or a bad decision, and you find out the result at the end of the game, which occurs shortly after the decision. The point is that learning and getting stuff done happens a lot faster if something, preferably reality, shows you to be right or wrong as quickly as possible.

What is the feedback mechanism for democratic decisions? Say a vote takes place every couple of years and a politician is elected. You might get some information about whether that politician fulfills his promises. You won’t get a whole lot feedback on whether his votes, policies, or decisions were any good for another couple years. You may not even be capable of assessing the feedback at all and assigning proper blame and praise to the right actors. Historical counterfactuals are tough, and it’s very easy to deny or twist any statement about them. Even on a shorter scale, how many people have predicted that the stock market will come down under Trump? How many of them mentioned their surprise, instead of claiming that the economy was already doing well?<

The democratic feedback cycle is one of slowest cycles. Do we even expect people to somehow get better at this over time? Or to put it another way, we might expect an average human to learn to democracy well after about 100 elections. Or 1,000. Or never, less optimistically.

2. Full-spectrum weaponization

If somebody is poor because every month a local gang comes and takes all their money, giving that person extra money will not help. In fact, it can hurt by giving the gang a bigger incentive to search your house and beat you harder. This could be especially hurtful if the gang wasn’t interested in you until the money came along. Of course, results may vary based on how much money you give, whether security is around, if this information is public, etc.

Full-spectrum weaponization is the idea that in a democratic system parties have every reason to weaponize every aspect of society and engage in epistemically destructive warfare aimed at people’s minds to extract votes. As such, people will remain powerless even if you hand them some small amount of decision-making ability such as voting because they will draw a bigger gang of people, such as the media, politicians, or anyone else who gains from swaying the vote. This can leave the voter worse off because parties and other operatives will use whatever techniques necessary to obtain the vote. These techniques almost always have a side effect of implanting false beliefs or memories and otherwise reducing one’s reasoning ability. Again, just like in the money scenario, your results may vary.

Many people might complain that democracy is bad because a vote has a small chance of changing things. The problem here is not that the vote grants too little power and has a small chance to change things. Rather, the problem is that the vote grants any power at all, thus attracting the occultists of the Cathedral to strip you of it. While they are at it, they might as well strip you of everything else, including the ability to say no to sex, or the ability to make any rational decision without relying on cached thoughts.

This is a problem in non-democratic countries as well, but a bit less so. Obviously left-wing one-party states did their fair share of gaslighting, as well. The less competent the government is at running the country, or the more anti-realistic the idea on which the country is built, the more it must rely on disinformation to keep the population docile, and the worse the cognitive burden of existing in said country.

The modern Chinese government needs to convince you to love the Chinese government. This isn’t a hard task for a semi-competent government and doesn’t have that many cognitive side effects. The parties in America need to convince you to vote for them and/or hate the others. First, there are two main parties feeding you lies. Second, the main side effect is a far stronger dis-unity. It’s safe and easy to love Big Brother when everybody loves Big Brother. Obviously, keep in mind China has had an awful experience with a leftist singularity as well.

However, it’s still quite dangerous to exist in a space where half the people hate the other half. This gets worse as the state power increases, since the votes become more valuable.

3. Reduced incentives to achieve power on both top and bottom

If you are or ever were a libertarian, certain things might be obvious to you: progressive taxation and redistribution reduces incentives. If you get free money, then what’s the point of working? Also, if your marginal tax rate is 80%, then what’s the point of doing additional work? Both the bottom and the top work a lot less than they would without the system in place.

The exact same mechanism is at work in democracy. If you get the extra power of a vote from simply being a human, then what’s the point of striving for more? Status is a zero-sum game, so the power granted to people in a democracy had to come from somewhere. It comes by reducing the power of some natural elites. Those more natural elites hit limits of their development in some way, and this reduces their own desire to work, as well. This becomes worse as state power increases, thus making votes more valuable.

In short, democracy is to power as socialism is to money.

4. Unstable modeling of other people

There is some leftish critique of Trump voters which goes along the lines of “how could they vote against their own interests?” If you do want a democracy, is it important for the individual voters to vote in their interest, or in the interest of the country? Think about this one for a second. How would we establish such a guideline if we even could?

Such a guideline would never be established, as it would deprive the Left of ammunition to complain when the opposite of leftism happens.

There is another observation sometimes made. Conservatives understand liberals. Liberals don’t understand conservatives. People have suggested a few explanations. Haidt mentioned that conservatives have more moral foundations than liberals. One idea is that liberal ideas are everywhere in the media, but conservative ideas are confined to a few media sources. A less charitable interpretations is that leftism destroys minds and souls.

However, both the self-interest dilemma and the misunderstanding of conservatives by liberals are both symptoms of the same general principle: you can’t expect average people to do full modeling of reality required to make democratic decisions.

So, each person makes a decision based on some factors. How are they supposed to predict the behaviors of 299 million other people? Statistical averages? Deep economic knowledge? Assuming they act the same way as them?

How does any of this work even in theory?

Long story short, it doesn’t. Not only does the average voter fail to properly model other people in any counterfactual decisions, they also fail to understand that they are failing to do so or that it can’t be done even in theory.

This isn’t meant to be a knock against average people, even though it might read that way. This is a theoretical statement that applies regardless of how smart people are. It even applies to societies full of emulations or some AIs.

The problem is the following: if you vote and vote carefully, you must be capable of simulating in your mind a better counterfactual outcome for a society. This requires some ability to simulate what would happen and how other parties could react to it.

Even a super-course simulation must account in some way that incentives might become different, that people could resist changes in a certain way. At the end of the day, it’s impossible to model people or other agents with a higher IQ than you. The average voter can’t model the above-average voters’ behavior and will necessarily make mistakes in their estimates. Depending on the severity of those mistakes, the results could diverge arbitrarily far from optimal. This gets worse as cognitive capacities diverge more widely between people.

This is such a fundamental issue that it doesn’t go away if you simply raise everyone’s IQ by 20.

What ends up happening is that the people might go as far as thinking: “how will this vote reflect on my local status?”, vote and move on with their day.

Even if we fix the problem of educating people to view others as independent moral agents, additional issues arise. Does the average voter understand how top tier companies pick people to work for them? Is this a situation worth government intervention?

For another example, I once asked a liberal: “What are some of the things that would actually happen if Bernie wins?” The response: “I can’t see the future and neither can you.” At least the first part was honest. They can’t properly predict the future, don’t know why they can’t do so, and most likely do not understand the fact that they even need to try.

You might think that certain voting systems make the cognitive load easier. While it’s true that approval voting is better for some notions of better, it still does not solve the problem of people being unable to model those smarter than them.

After all, what do you think will happen if we did an approval poll on establishing socialism in the U.S.? Be honest with me, comrade.

5. Incentives to alter demographics are not necessarily consistent with long-term survival

This problem is simple enough for popular culture to notice.

Poor immigration policy negatively alters demographics; however, there is more to this than immigration. When I mean demographics, I don’t just mean racial composition. I mean intellectual, spiritual, and other dimensions of reality.

So, if white people vote Democratic at a lower rate than black people, it is in the interest of the Democratic Party to cause white birthrates to be lower.

If certain types of crime are correlated with voting Republican, then the Democratic Party has incentives to increase the sentences for those crimes, effectively reducing the voting population. The opposite would be the case for crimes correlated with voting Dem. The Republican Party has the opposite incentive. This leads to yet another arms race. On the one hand, both parties could try to increase or decrease the sentences based on how well they predict politics. This might result in too many prisoners or too few prisoner or both (prisoners in for the wrong things).

If religious people vote Democratic at a lower rate than non-religious, it is the interest of the Democratic Party to destroy religion, both to weaken the opponent’s coalition, and to reduce beliefs that might be correlated with opposition to them.

If being college-educated pushes you in that direction, colleges will get extra subsidies.

And so on and so forth. In fact, any politically correlated demographic characteristic could be subject to the desire of a party to eliminate or reduce it.

There are couple of weird cases in this area. Those who tend to be pro-abortion lean Democratic, but the Democratic Party has not, to my knowledge, tried to play the game of being “pro-abortion” on the surface, while simultaneously encouraging their white supporters to have children. It’s not clear to me that this comes from a belief in the strength of their memetic warfare, a prediction of white people not mattering, or whether Gnon simply finding a way to assert his dominance after all.

At the end of the day, the will of the people stops meaning a whole lot when you get to control the make-up of “people.”

6. Incentives to create perceived fragility lead to real fragility.

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you have heard about this Russia thing. What the fuck are people even saying at this point? I don’t want to repeat nonsense, so let’s examine one facet of this “investigation.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress that some people from Russian IPs bought some ads on Facebook.

Are you telling me that that’s sufficient to influence an election?

Do you know what happens if you get a real enemy?

History is full of situations where one country wanted to interfere in the politics when they were in a fairly bitter struggle. In the World War I era, Germany gave aid to Lenin to destroy Russia’s governance and take it out of the war. Germany succeeded and helped usher in more than 70 years of abject misery. If elections are as easy to influence as the media makes it seem, this alone is an obvious argument against having democratic elections at all.

Let’s approach this from a simple system design perspective.

You are a manager in a large finance firm. Your engineers make systems that manage people’s money. A lot of money. Security is important to you, and you don’t want some shmuck to be able to compromise it with some bare-bones amount of capital.

If an engineer comes to you and says that a system that manages more than 14 trillion dollars of capital can be swayed with a $100,000 attack vector, you don’t need to know anything more.

It’s a bad system.

So, the problem isn’t that democracy is fragile enough to be influenced by small attack vectors. The attack vectors described before were large and required several generations to pull off. The problem is that losing the election can cause the losers, especially the Left, to question whether democracy has any credibility in the first place. Which, to be fair, isn’t much. However, this fundamentally implies there is always an incentive to attack the legitimacy of elections and ability of the majority to rule.

Even if the system was stable before, the incentive to make these attacks renders democracy unstable. Even if the system weren’t fragile to begin with (it is), there are a host of incentives to make it even more fragile than it already is to lower the opponent’s status for further elections and question their victory in the first place.

Trust me, I have already heard the Churchill quotes about democracy. I believe it went something like “Churchill says: if you rely on the quotes of great people instead of thinking, you’ll have a bad time.”

I might not be getting that quote exactly right.

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12 Comments

  1. “The modern Chinese government needs to convince you to love the Chinese government.”

    Didn’t Moldbug argue that a truly secure and competent government would not care what you thought?

    Reply

    1. Frederick Franz February 5, 2018 at 4:48 pm

      Well I think that his key argument was that non-democratic government will care about what you think but won’t have the incentive to lie and brainwash you into supporting them. There’s no Orwellian incentives and so the government is free to appeal to the people by trying to create the best society possible. To what degree the People’s Republic of China actually does that is still somewhat of an open question.

      Reply

  2. This is a generally well-written list; I think it’s important to formalize arguments like this from time to time, and you do good job of making them easy to grasp. You have a clear style which is often lacking.

    However, I take issue with point number 3. Firstly, there isn’t any convincing evidence that these “reduced power incentives” have had an impact on motivation. Au contrarie, there seems to be more power-jostling, patronage, and politicians than ever; if they were content with ‘their vote,’ we wouldn’t have swarms of prospective presidents parading around Iowa every four years, not to mention Deep State drones assiduously expanding their bureaucratic fiefdoms. Really the whole contention that people are insufficiently concerned with status seems fatally weak, given the constant virtue-signaling and extraordinary lengths to which many will go in its pursuit.

    But even if this claim were true, it isn’t clear whether it would constitute a drawback. That is, do we even want people to be concerned with maximizing power in the first place? Most traditional tales and writings on the issue tend to emphasize something to the effect of, “those most worthy of power are the ones least likely to desire it.” Think of King Arthur or Plato’s Philosopher-Kings. Plato even directly says that heroes like Odysseus would choose a “commoner’s life” if they could. One effect of an Aristocracy is that it explicitly takes power away from the most ambitious people, instead vesting it in a hereditary (or otherwise chosen) class irrespective of ambition.

    If democracy has a problem, it is an excess of status-seeking due to the need for popular approval, not a shortage of it.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I do think the culture is suffering from a distinct lack of caring and proper ambition. On the bottom we see examples such as people becoming obese, playing video games or letting themselves go in other ways. On the top we see a distinct lack of the elites using their wealth to improve their understanding of spirituality or governance. The middle is less affected by this, as predicted by the theory.

      What you are mentioning is an over-abundance of conscious status seeking among some people and I agree that this is in fact a problem and this is in fact related to point 2. So there are different groups to look at. There certainly are people in the media, academia and activism circles who are trying to seek an over-abundance of democratic power and are overly concerned with status. There is also a large group of people who have given up trying to get good jobs, raise families or take care of their health.

      In a healthy society, you would not need to consciously think about status, but there still be subconscious pressure for you to be healthy and wise because there is no power given to you for just being able to drag yourself to the voting booth.

      Reply

      1. I blanched at point 3 too, since it contradicts the whole concept of a Holiness Spiral. However, your clarification is interesting. You are saying that if people have status as an elector purely by reaching the age of 18 then there is less incentive for them to better themselves. To the extent that status is still positively correlated with self-betterment (and even today, being a successful family man is higher status than being a crack whore, though being a gay family man is better than both) this a drawback. It seems more like a critique of egalitarianism as an ethos than of the political engineering of a democracy, though, obviously, when one goes, so goes the other.

        Reply

  3. Thank you for a serious piece. I have comments for three of your issues.

    1. Length of cycle
    You write democracy, but I’m reading republicanism. When the Athenians voted to send the Sicilian Expedition, the matter was decided then and there. Direct participation might increase skill, but we don’t get that with our system today; we contract it out and walk away. Our problem appears to be the size of modern states, the complexity of administering them, and the electors’ inability to monitor these representatives. The technology that emerges to fill the gap, political media, ends up extracting a rent and becoming complicit in corruption.

    3. Incentives
    Democracy is a set of institutional alternatives that organize elite competition. I daresay our elites work harder and longer to keep their seats (rather than at the job to which they aspired) than at any other period in history. We have succeeded admirably at divorcing ability from job retention. Social power may be redistributed by democracy, but the little people gained so little that the major difference is in the form of the elite conflict. It’s less catastrophic now but maybe more expensive.

    5. Demographics
    This theory would predict higher stability for societies with many cross-cutting cleavages (leaving aside total diversity), as the elite factions find it more difficult to target their friends and enemies. Sounds good to me.

    Reply

  4. Good critiques of mass elections. But juries or electorates small enough for individual familiarity would mitigate all but #5 (an issue with any constitution [small “c” intended]).

    This is where I can’t go full NRx. Totally on board with “mass elections are a disaster”. Not convinced that 1787 didn’t figure out some good alternatives.

    Reply

    1. In Poland and the Holy Roman, ‘electing’ the king was restricted to the nobility and prince-electors respectively. There is no aristocratic separation which we can restrict the francise to to ensure that the best elect our leaders. I wish that we could find such an aristocracy, but it doesn’t seem we can get one back very soon.

      Reply

      1. I agree, tho the hre’s track record was pretty good. I’m not satisfied with my understanding of hre’s decline nor that of Venice.

        But by “electorates small enough” I was thinking more of the early House of Reps. The elected job wasn’t super cushy and the electorate mostly knew the candidates personally. It meant a lot of trash got elected but the trash more accurately represented common interests than today. This is how I want the one arm of government the founders actually envisioned as democratic. But yes, sortition or a mix may be superior.

        Reply

    2. This is a good point.

      Problems of democracy have more than one possible action item that could mitigate them.

      Examples include:
      – Only allow voting by white male property owners (just like back in 1787)
      – Vote allocation based on property (just like in proof of stake crypto-currencies or joint-stock corporations)
      – Citizenship as a privilege for either paying enough taxes and / or military service

      The exact mapping of how each proposal affects each problem is worth a post in an of itself.

      However, the meta-point is that “juries or electorates small enough for individual familiarity” sound adjacent to either a committee of world’s top CEOs or an aristocracy or a band of state-governor dictators. I am not you think the difference between your thoughts and “full NRx” actually is.

      Reply

      1. I’m not “full NRx” in that I see value in having mixed government with a lower house that represents non-elite contributions to the state. (Universal mass elections serve that function quite poorly, seems we have similar ideas on how to do better.) It’s my understanding that NRx is opposed to the division of power in that fashion.

        This is actually more “traditional” at this point for Anglo political cultures, and between Republican Rome, Venice, UK/US, the track record (while obviously imperfect, as history hasn’t ended) isn’t easy to dismiss.

        Reply

  5. Anyone who has read Machiavelli “The Discourses” will remember that, despite it many flaws, he actually does come out in favor of republican forms of government (as apposed to kingdoms, empires, etc.). This is because some sort of representation is necessary as corrective feedback for government policy. Sir Winston Churchill said much the same thing about democracy. That it is bad, but still better than any other kind of government.

    I think the problem with you guys is the obsession with trying to create the One Perfect System for all humans, when there is no such thing. You guys constantly bemoan the liberal-left for their belief that all humans are the same and that therefor their attempts to social engineer the perfect society are legitimate.

    Since we really are all different, is it not likely that different systems work better for different people and that it is flawed to think that there is a single perfect world-view (e.g. philosophy, religion, ideology) that is perfectly optimized for all human?

    Reply

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