Can We Tame Political Minds?

Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth. (Archimedes)

A democracy … can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. (Tytler)

Politics is the mind killer. (Yudkowsky)

The world is a vast complex of interconnected subsystems. Yes, this suggests that you can influence most everything else via every little thing you do. So you might help the world by picking up some trash, saying a kind word, or rating a product on Yelp.

Even so, many are not satisfied to have some effect, they seek a max effect. For this reason, they say, they seek max personal popularity, wealth, or political power. Or they look for the most neglected people to help, like via African bed nets. Or they seek dramatic but plausibly neglected disaster scenarios to prevent, such as malicious foreigners, eco-apocalypse, or rampaging robots.

Our future is influenced by a great many things, including changes in tech, wealth, education, political power, military power, religion, art, culture, public opinion, and institutional structures. But which of these offers the strongest lever to influence that future? Note that if we propose to change one factor in order to induce changes in all the others, critics may reasonably question our ability to actually control that factor, since in the past such changes seem to have been greatly influenced by other factors.

Thus a longtime favorite topic in “serious” conversation is: where are the best social levers, i.e. factors which do sometimes change, which people like us (this varies with who is in the conversation) can somewhat influence, and where the effects of this factor on other factors seem lasting and stronger than reverse-direction effects.

When I was in tech, the consensus there saw tech as the strongest lever. I’ve heard artists make such claims about art. And I presume that priests, teachers, activists, and journalists are often told something similar about their factors.

We economists tend to see strong levers in the formal mechanisms of social institutions, which we happen to be well-placed to study. And in fact, we have seen big effects of such formal institutions in theory, the lab, and the field. Furthermore, we can imagine actually changing these mechanisms, because they tend to be stable, are sometimes changed, and can be clearly identified and concisely described. Even stronger levers are found in the higher level legal, regulatory, and political institutions that control all the other institutions.

My Ph.D. in social science at Caltech focused on such controlling institutions, via making formal game theory models, and testing them in the lab and field. This research finds that institution mechanisms and rules can have big effects on outcomes. Furthermore, we seem to see many big institutional failures in particular areas like telecom, transport, energy, education, housing, and medicine, wherein poor choices of institutions, laws, and regulations in such areas combine to induce large yet understandable waste and inefficiency. Yes institutions do matter, a lot.

However, an odd thing happens when we consider higher level models. When we model the effects of general legal and democratic institutions containing rational agents, we usually find that such institutions work out pretty well. Common fears of concentrated interests predating on diffuse interests, or of the poor taxing the rich to death, are not usually borne out. While the real world does seem full of big institutional problems at lower levels, our general models of political processes do not robustly predict these common problems. Even when such models include voters who are quite ignorant or error prone. What are such models missing?

Bryan Caplan’s book Myth of the Rational Voter gets a bit closer to the truth with his concept of “rational irrationality”. And I was heartened to see Alex Tabarrok [AT] and Ezra Klein [EK], who have quite different political inclinations, basically agree on the key problem in their recent podcast:

[AT:] Mancur Olson thought he saw … more and more of these distributional coalitions, which are not just redistributing resources to themselves, but also slowing down… change. … used to be that we required three people to be on the hiring committee. This year, we have nine … Now, we need [more] rules. … we’ve created this more bureaucratic, kind of rule-bound, legalistic and costly structure. And that’s not a distributional coalition. That’s not lobbying. That’s sort of something we’ve imposed upon ourselves. …

[EK:] it’s not that I want to go be part of slowing down society and an annoying bureaucrat. Everybody’s a hero of their own story. So how do you think the stories people tell themselves in our country have changed for this to be true? …

[AT:] an HOA composed of kind of randos from the community telling you what your windows can look like, it’s not an obvious outcome of a successful society developing coalitions who all want to pursue their own self-interest. … naked self-interest is less important than some other things. And I’ll give you an example which supports what you’re saying. And that is, if you look at renters and the opinions of renters, and they are almost as NIMBY, Not In My Backyard, as owners, right, which is crazy.… farmers get massive redistribution in their favor. … But yet, if you go to the public … They’re, oh, no, we’ve got to protect the family farm. …

[EK:] a lot of political science … traditionally thought redistribution would be more powerful than it has proven to be … as societies get richer, they begin emphasizing what he calls post-materialist values, these moral values, these identity values, values about fairness. (More)

That is, our larger political and legal systems induce, and do not fix, many more specific institutional failures. But not so much because of failures in the structure of our political or legal institutions. Instead, the key problem seems to lie in voters’ minds. In political contexts, minds that are usually quite capable of being reasonable and pragmatic, and attending to details, instead suffer from some strange problematic mix of confused, incoherent, and destructive pride, posturing, ideology, idealism, loyalty, and principles. For want of a better phrase, let’s just call these “political minds.”

Political minds are just not well described by the usual game theory or “rational” models. But they do seem to be a good candidate for a strong social level to move the future. Yes, political minds are probably somewhat influenced by political institutions, and by communications structures of who talks to and listens to whom. And by all the other systems in the world. Yet it seems much clearer how they influence other systems than how the other systems influence them. In particular, it is much clearer how political minds influence institution mechanisms than how those mechanisms influence political minds.

In our world today, political minds somehow induce and preserve our many more specific institutional failures. And also the accumulation of harmful veto players and added procedures discussed by [AT] and [EK]. Even so, as strong levers, these political minds remain gatekeepers of change. It seems hard to fix the problems they cause without somehow getting their buy-in. But can we tame politician minds?

This is surely one of the greatest questions to be pondered by those aware enough to see just how big a problem this is. I won’t pretend to answer it here, but I can at least review six possibilities.

War – One ancient solution was variation and selection of societies, such as via war and conquest. These can directly force societies to accept truths that they might not otherwise admit. But such processes are now far weaker, and political minds fiercely oppose strengthening them. Furthermore, the relevant political minds are in many ways now integrated at a global level.

Elitism – Another ancient solution was elitism: concentrate political influence into fewer higher quality hands. Today influence is not maximally distributed; we still don’t let kids or pets vote. But the trend has definitely been in that direction. We could today limit the franchise more, or give more political weight to those who past various quality tests. But gains there seem limited, and political minds today mostly decry such suggestions.

Train – A more modern approach is try to better train minds in general, in the hope that will also improve minds in political contexts. And perhaps universal education has helped somewhat there, though I have doubts. It would probably help to replace geometry with statistics in high school, and to teach more economics and evolutionary biology earlier. But remember that the key problem is reasonable minds turning unreasonable when politics shows up; none of these seem to do much there.

Teach – A more commonly “practiced” approach today is just to try to slowly persuade political minds person by person and topic by topic, to see and comprehend their many particular policy mistakes. And do this faster than new mistakes accumulate. That has long been a standard “educational” approach taken by economists and policy makers. It seems especially popular because one can pretend to do this while really just playing the usual political games. Yes, there are in fact people like Alex and Ezra who do see and call attention to real institutional failures. But overall this approach doesn’t seem to be going very well. Even so, it may still be our best hope.

Privatize – A long shot approach is to try to convince political minds to not trust their own judgements as political minds, and thus to try to reduce the scope for politics to influence human affairs. That is, push to privatize and take decisions away from large politicized units, and toward more local units who face stronger selection and market pressures, and induce less politicized minds. Of course many have been trying to do exactly this for centuries. Even so, this approach might still be our best hope.

Futarchy – My proposed solution is also to try to convince political minds to not trust their own judgements, but only regarding on matters of fact, and only relative to the judgements of speculative markets. Speculative market minds are in fact vastly more informed and rational than the usual political minds. And cheap small scale trials are feasible that could lead naturally to larger scale trials that could go a long way toward convincing many political minds of this key fact. It is quite possible to adopt political institutions that put speculative markets in charge of estimating matters of fact. At which point we’d only be subject to political mind failures regarding values. I have other ideas for this, but let’s tackle one problem at a time.

Politics is indeed the mind killer. But once we know that, what can we do? War could force truths, though at great expense. Elitism and training could improve minds, but only so far. Teaching and privatizing are being tried, but are progressing terribly slowly, if at all.

While it might never be possible to convince political minds to distrust themselves on facts, relative to speculative markets, this approach has hardly been tried, and seems cheap to try. So, world, why not try it?

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