Who Wants Thick Democracy?

Last night I heard the author talk on this book: The Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate. The audience was mostly DC policy wonks and related academics. The talk and responses to it made me realize that most policy folks, and most ordinary people as well, don’t actually like democracy that much. Let me explain.

In a democracy, candidates run for office, and the ones with the most votes win. Winners set new policies and oversee government agencies that set more policies. Prior to the vote, a limited number of issues come to the attention of voters, including candidate positions on future acts and incumbent past acts and related outcomes.

A basic fact about modern governance is that the number of issues that can gain salience in elections is only a tiny fraction of the number of policy decisions governments make. So a key question about democracy is whether and how voters can influence that vast dark matter of unseen policy decisions. How can voters, who see only a few dashboard knobs, effectively control the vast complex machinery that is a modern government?

In a “thin democracy” the answer to this question is “They can’t.” Instead, many government officials have a lot of what Bryan Caplan calls “slack.” Such officials make choices according to personal preferences, constrained mainly by physics, budgets and the choices of other officials. Here it is the set of people willing and able to take government jobs that control most of the dark matter of government policy. Government is good or bad depending these people, their cultures, and the institutions they use to organize themselves.

In contrast, in a “thick democracy” many voters collect themselves into complex organizations to monitor and lobby government actions. Such “interest groups” collect detailed preferences from members, study government acts and plans in detail, advise officials in person on preferred act details, and advise voters on candidates to reward or punish in elections. Such organizations let voters escape personal limits on how much detail they can manage.

Because thick democracy requires voters to join complex organizations managing detailed info, this scenario is subject to big agency failures. Many things can go wrong between voter input and pushing particular policies to particular officials, and agents in the mess in the middle tend to make things go wrong in their favor. Some organizations will thrive and others collapse due to basically random factors.

More importantly, we have little reason to expect that different kinds of people with different kinds of issues would have remotely similar influence through this process. In a thick democracy, influence depends greatly the complexity of your issue, the ease of monitoring relevant actions and outcomes, the trustworthiness of your agents, the quality of your members, the incentives that members can impose on each other, and the availability of preexisting organizations to build on.

Today the strongest best organized kinds of groups in our society are firms. They can impose strong incentives on members, they are already arranged to minimize agency failures, and the issues they care about are especially simple and easy to monitor. So thick democracies give firms big advantages over other interest groups. In fact:

Corporations and their trade associations now spend about $2.6 billion a year in reported [US] lobbying. … That … is about 34 times the total lobbying spending for all labor unions and groups representing public and consumer interests. (more)

Maybe one could find ways to greatly suppress this firm advantage. But that would hardly give everyone else equal influence. Because influence in a thick democracy depends on complex management of incentives and info, it gives big advantages to those who happen to be better organized.

One might hope for a third approach of “compressed democracy”. In this scenario, we would find ways to compress most of what we care about in the high-dimensional variation of government policy into a small number of summary statistics. These few summaries might then fit into the small set of issues that voters can notice in an election, letting voters control government without complex interest group organizations.

This might work via “retrospective voting”, if voters would just focus on reelecting incumbents only when their personal lives had gone better than expected, and if incumbents cared about little else besides reelection. This approach might also work via agreeing on and measuring a “national welfare” number, such as I proposed in futarchy. But so far voters have shown little interest in such approaches.

At the meeting last night, it seemed to me that most policy wonks and related academics preferred the thin democracy status quo wherein people like them and the students they train have most of the power over the dark matter of hidden policy. And I’d guess that most voters mostly agree with them. Yes, a few “activists” are eager for a thick democracy fight, seeing themselves as especially well organized for such fights, at least without “unfair” corporate competition.

But most people can’t be bothered, and aren’t particularly optimistic about what a thicker democracy would produce. Voters already get lots of status via appearing to be in control. Thicker democracy might create an orgy of rent-seeking activity, and for what? Not that voters would fight it if it were the status quo. But they see the current mostly-thin democracy status quo as reasonable. Just as we accept priests deciding most detail in religion, docs deciding most details in medicine, soldiers deciding more details in war, and teachers deciding most details in schools, we accept government officials deciding most details in government. If the rest of us get bothered enough about something, we can demand to have it done our way. But for everything else, we let someone else figure it out.

I’m not saying that this status quo is in fact the best form of government. I’m just saying I can understand why we see little inclination to change it.

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  • JW Ogden

    One might hope for a third approach of “compressed democracy”. In this scenario, we would find ways to compress most of what we care about in the high-dimensional variation of government policy into a small number of summary statistics.

    This combined with un-bundling might be better than what we have. Gov. does so much now that it makes and our current system is not set up well for that. Wouldn’t is be better if we picked executives by function i.e. a benevolence executive, and elderly affairs execute, etc.

  • Joshua Brulé

    …agreeing on and measuring a “national welfare” number, such as I proposed in futarchy. But so far voters haven’t showed much interest in such approaches.

    Why not?

    I can think of a number of plausible sounding reasons: too abstract of a concept for people to think of the (hopefully quite positive) consequences of having such a number available, too difficult to come up with good metrics, too “weird” for people to want to associate with.

    But none of these reasons sound very convincing to me.

    I’d love to have a good national welfare number around and I find myself just… confused as to why we don’t have one yet.

    • IMASBA

      You really don’t find it a very convincing argument that it’s too hard to come up with a metric that’s measurable against reasonable costs and that everyone would agree on?

  • Greg James

    I think that a large part of the problem comes from voters and politicians arguing about implementation rather than outcomes. Even when they agree on outcomes (medical care should be accessible while costing as little as possible, ISIL is bad, the US should have well-maintained transport infrastructure), voting on implementation means that these issues still turn into religious wars.

    Taken in concert, these represent opportunity cost and unintended consequence problems far beyond the capacity of voters to reasonably solve. Even compression requires reduction of the problems according to what the compressor thinks are relevant statistics; it’s not bias-free.

    I would rather see voters deal with the prioritization e.g. health > education > growth vs growth > defense > health, and leave implementation to the bureaucracy. And demand the bureaucracy measure to see if their implementation is achieving the desired outcome.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      If voters give priorities and the bureaucracy claims to just implement those, as checked by a measurement, how can voters tell if bureaucracy is doing as it claims without looking at a lot of details?

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Democracy necessarily places before citizens problems they cannot reasonably solve.

      While much as been made recently about the difference in “values” between folks with different politics, the most important political questions aren’t about fundamental priorities. They involve difficult theoretical problems. Folks who downgrade health expenditures don’t do so because they think health is less important–certainly, at least, that’s not the only reason.

      • Greg James

        While it current does place those problems before voters, there’s nothing inherent in democracy that says it’s necessary. Rather than trying to adjust/educate/train voters to the problems, I’d rather adjust the problems to the voters.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The inherent factor that makes it impossible to democratically limit decision-making by the masses to questions of value-based priority is the practical inextricability of normative and factual considerations.

        Homo hypocritus conceals its normative positions in an analytic garb.

  • Silent Cal

    I would argue that people do form judgments about which politicians they trust more with the dark-matter decisions by assessing broad traits, like traditionalism vs. progressivism, or militarism vs. pacifism. It’s hard to argue this process is optimal, but a descriptive account of our democracy should account for it.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Aren’t these just some of the few issues that are salient in elections?

      • Silent Cal

        At least in folk models, you can predict most decisions by knowing the candidate’s values. I bet if you take typical voters, explain an issue they hadn’t thought about to them, and ask which candidate will handle it better, they’ll have an explanation ready as to why their preferred candidate will.

        In other words, people think they’re already in effectively compressed democracy.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Ideology can predict many things about the visible issues that appear in elections. It is much less clear that it predicts much about the many dark matter policy details.

      • Silent Cal

        We can distinguish three separate measures:

        -People’s reported belief that they can predict candidates’ decisions on non-salient policy details.
        -People’s willingness to bet on those predictions.
        -The accuracy of those predictions.

        I’d expect the first to be high. Now that I think about it, the second might be a better measure, and I’m not sure how high it would be. If it were high, that would indicate an honest belief that there is effective compression.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        There’s honest belief among the masses that compression is effective. (Even most OB commenters so far think so.) Robin’s analysis of the problem points to that belief being a democratic illusion.

        Ideology, being 85% rhetoric, tells little about the issues that count. (Of course, I would deny this about my ideology.) Who would predict (on ideological grounds, that is) that the super-anti-communist Nixon would have negotiated the U.S. defeat in Vietnam; the liberal JFK would have come closest ever to causing nuclear war; or that the liberal Obama would have appointed the bankers to police themselves, etc?

        Examples probably aren’t too convincing if one isn’t already convinced, but (in my view) ideology serves more to conceal than reveal. (See “Why ideology types and the political spectrum match: The theory of ideological concealment.” — ( http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2013/07/153-why-ideology-types-and-political.html )

      • IMASBA

        My counterpoint would be that at the time they were elected even those politicians themselves didn’t think they were going to do those things. We can’t expect any democratic system to cause voters to know the politicians better than the politicians know themselves.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Since politicians are extremely self-deceived people, your premise would have pessimistic implications for thin democracy.

        I’m for thick democracy–where you don’t rely so much on predicting politicians because the masses have more direct access to the levers of power. (Leaving aside how to obtain them.) Robin is too dismissive when he argues that inequalities would remain even if the power of the firms were curtailed. Of course they would, but they’re dwarfed by today’s specific power inequalities.

      • IMASBA

        I’m for limited thick democracy as well. I just thought it was a little spurious to claim that compression barely exists only because sometimes a politician decides to do something that goes against the ideology the ran on (party discipline greatly restricts such behavior for anyone who isn’t a president, in parliamentary systems that would be everyone and oftentimes there isn’t much of a choice).

  • charlie

    This seems like a good first cut at this question, that is not informed by anything that has been written since Mancur Olson.

    For example: “Some organizations will thrive and other collapse due to basically random factors.” Didn’t Olson list a bunch of non-random factors that matter (e.g. costs of organizing, ability to channel private goods to group members)? A subsequent generation of people like Shepsle added another layer of complexity to these answers as well, I think.

    Within this framework, you can also start to look at how some firms can coordinate to have influence on democratic outcomes (e.g., milk producers) and others cannot (tennis shoe producers).

    Some
    organizations will thrive and others collapse due to basically random
    factors. – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2015/04/who-wants-thick-democracy.html#disqus_thread
    Some
    organizations will thrive and others collapse due to basically random
    factors. – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2015/04/who-wants-thick-democracy.html#disqus_thread
    Some
    organizations will thrive and others collapse due to basically random
    factors. – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2015/04/who-wants-thick-democracy.html#disqus_thread

  • https://dndebattbetyg.wordpress.com/ Stefan Schubert

    Good post.

    “A basic fact about modern governance is that the number of issues that can gain salience in elections is only a tiny fraction of the number of policy decisions governments make. So a key question about democracy is whether and how voters can influence that vast dark matter of unseen policy decisions. How can voters, who see only a few dashboard knobs, effectively control the vast complex machinery that is a modern government?”

    Good question. I think it’s important, though, to distinguish between means and goals, and facts and values. What’s important in a democracy is that policies reflect voters’ values or goals. It is not at all important, in my view, that policies reflect voters’ factual beliefs about the best means to reach those goals. If experts know a better and less expensive path to the voters’ goals, that path should be taken.

    This ties to evidence-based, cost-effective politics, which we urgently need. Ideally, politicians would state all of their goals explicitly, and then have to prove that that all of their policies are the most cost-effective ways to reach those goals.

    Another related point regards the notion of “issues”. How many political issues are there – 10 or 10 000? This obviously depends on how finely you individuate “issues”. Say that you individuate them very finely, and that one issue is “Should we build an airport in Town X?”. In such cases, the goal – that we should/should not build an airport – is presumably just an instrumental goal, which may or may not take you closer to more fundamental goals, such as higher GDP, enhanced commmunication, improved environment, etc.

    The fewer issues we have, the smaller the problem you’re pointing to becomes. If we manage to reduce politics to a small number of basic value issues – everything else just being a matter of policy-wonk calculation of how to best implement the voters’ views on those issues – then it seems that the scope for special interest groups to influence politics in an undemocratic way becomes severely limited.

    Could that be done? I don’t know. It seems hard. But certainly, I think you could go further in that direction than we are today.

    My points are obviously similar to Greg James’s.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The government might claim that there are only a few key value issues and the rest is implementation details based on expert-known facts. But how are voters to check and assure this claim, without somehow getting into the details?

      • https://dndebattbetyg.wordpress.com/ Stefan Schubert

        They can’t, that’s true. What I want to avoid is, however, for government officials to have slack, especially regarding value issues. If policy is determined by a combination of voters’ preferences on these key issues and evidence on what means best allows you to implement those values, there is no slack. Granted, it might be very hard to reach that point, like I said, but that’s the idea.

      • IMASBA

        It’s the job of the legislative branch (especially the opposition), activists, journalists and relevant professionals (for example scientists and doctors for issues of public health and pollution) to get into the details, in other words a lot of people who are not part of the government do try to keep tabs, one way or another. Heck, even the civil service itself employs a significant share of the population. Pure thin democracy does not exist, partly because of all those groups of people. Then there are international treaties that constrain the actions of most countries. In capitalist countries it’s also very difficult for the government to learn crucial facts about the world without any private actors knowing as well.

        Sure, a government might run classified programs that voters never wanted, but as soon as these take up more than a minute fraction of the budget cracks start to form, if only because the political opposition or some rival program wants to use that part of the budget for their own purposes. Some things do not require a lot of money to get a huge impact (for example PRISM), but in practice they’re not as secret as often thought (the budgetary and legal wiggling room being great enough for something like PRISM to exist was known, its existence suspected, but this never managed to go viral in the media, partly because many voters don’t really care that much about it).

  • IMASBA

    “A basic fact about modern governance is that the number of issues that can gain salience in elections is only a tiny fraction of the number of policy decisions governments make. So a key question about democracy is whether and how voters can influence that vast dark matter of unseen policy decisions. How can voters, who see only a few dashboard knobs, effectively control the vast complex machinery that is a modern government?”

    A lot of that dark matter isn’t really dark. Because of the existence of political parties and political tribes many stances on issues that could logically be entirely separate are in practice correlated in candidates when they’re part of an overarching party ideology, and it is that ideology that voters base their choice on most, which is not even irrational.

    After an election voters can still protest or strike when they feel they’ve been betrayed. Also there’s the need to get reelected. In systems without a strong president and with coalition governments you can actually have a government fall because of nonviolent protests and strikes.

  • Peter David Jones

    ” Corporations and their trade associations now spend about $2.6 billion a year in reported [US] lobbying. … That … is about 34 times the total lobbying spending for all labor unions and groups representing public and consumer interests”

    In view of which, I would modestly propose that left wing bias in academia and the media is a necessity, since it is the only force capable of balancing the conservative bias of corporate lobbyists.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      It isn’t at all clear that conservatives tend to be pro firm.

      • Peter David Jones

        It’s not clear that the media are all anti firm, but that doesn’t stop the tide of complaint against them.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        That’s really irrelevant to PDJ’s point. What you’d need to deny is that liberals tend to be anti-firm. [Actually, I might deny this, but it’s a harder case.]

      • Peter David Jones

        The standard rhetoric against academic and media bias tacitly assumes either that all institutions should be unbiased, or that all opinion formers should be. But the idea that all institutions should be unbiased is absurd, since you are never going to have a military that is 50% pacifist, or a business sector that is 50% anti capitalist. The idea that the business sector isnt in the opinion formation business is itself only true in that corporate lobying is a more direct means to the ultimate end of influencing policy.

        But if you have a variety of institutions with a variety of natural biases, then you overall balance is achieved naturally.

      • Dain

        Well if any institution ought to at least TRY to be unbiased, it’s universities. No one really expects it of Michelin Tires, whose modus operandi precludes meditating broadly on social affairs.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Well if any institution ought to at least TRY to be unbiased, it’s universities.

        GMU is the only secular university I’m aware of that has officially rejected this premise. [Perhaps the rationale is compensatory–but that supports PDJ’s thesis that overall balance is what’s important.]

      • Peter David Jones

        Have the universities any hope in succeeding at being (perceived as) unbiased in an environment where evolution and GW are seen as loaded issues, not scientific fact?

      • DescartesWorld

        But the point is firms are pro conservative

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        That isn’t at all obvious.

      • DescartesWorld

        I guess it depends on how you look at it. On CNBC they take it as an article of faith that of course stocks will go up if the Republicans win the latest election.

        So CNBC think it”s obvious

      • DescartesWorld

        The easiest way to track it would be to follow the money-where does most of the money go? Usually it’s the GOP though no doubt the Dems have figured out how to be competitive in the arm’s race in recent years.

      • DescartesWorld

        Or put it this way: what would you need to see to agree that it is obvious?

    • Dain

      I applaud you for actually stating what’s really going on in the left-wing mind. Michelle Goldberg had a similar take on her article documenting the rise of “illiberal liberalism” on campuses.

      (Of course this is where the mostly online force known as paleoconservatives complain that capitalism isn’t conducive to social conservatism. And they’re right.)

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        To the paleoconservative, capitalism is the lesser evil to the alternative, social engineering.

      • Peter David Jones

        The left wing are really thinking [doom laden chords] “balance is good”?

  • Daublin

    Do we have to believe that there’s any possible way for democracies to work well? I see a lot of energy directed into trying to design a government that, for the first time ever in history, will be highly effective at promoting human progress. Maybe, though, we should think of it more as a disease, and something where we should contain the damage as much as possible.

    Maybe the U.S. has succeeded despite its government, rather than because of it. If so, then a “thick” democracy is likely better than a thin one, just because it disperses the power base. Best of all, though, is a general acknowledgment that there’s no panacea to be found in putting the right people in Washington. There’s also no need for there to be.

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