Vote on values

I. A problem

I have heard pessimism lately about whether democracy can produce good decisions frequently enough to stop everything rapidly going to Hell. Primary concerns are that voters are ignorant and that voters are evil. Supposing voters are evil, arguably any good system of government should bring about Hell. However the ignorance seems like a real issue.

A popular response to all complaints about democracy is, ‘Well, what else are we going to do? Do you want dictatorship?’

I think this ignores the potential for mild variations on democracy. ‘Democracy’ is not very specific. Wikipedia lists a bunch of variations. I’d like to suggest a different one.

The basic problem I want to solve is that the people voting for policies (directly or indirectly) are ignorant about the likely consequences of policies.

But first I’d like to point out that this is a problem for everyone, not a conflict between an ignorant team and an informed team. That ignorant people vote for destructive policies is at least as bad for the ignorant people as it is for everyone else. That is, if people truly vote for bad policies due to ignorance, they would presumably prefer the outcomes that they voted against. 

II. A (hand-wavy) solution

My proposal is for people to vote on what they want to happen, and then for someone else to put in the hard work of figuring out which policies correspond to which outcomes. That is, to vote on values.

Robin Hanson suggested this in Shall we Vote on Values, but Bet on Beliefs? (2013), as a component of Futarchy—a system where people elect representatives to stipulate their values, and use prediction markets to judge which policies will satisfy those values. Robin is mostly excited about the prediction markets aspect, but I think the idea of separating out values from policies is important on its own. Prediction markets are but one thing a population might use to figure out what to do, once they knew what their group as a whole wanted. Arguably a pretty good thing, but still. Any kind of voting on values then doing something else about beliefs seems like it would have a number of benefits unrelated to prediction markets.

We can think of selecting policy as something like:

values beliefs policies1

Everyone has their own values and empirical beliefs. Everyone has to share policies. Values and empirical beliefs together determine the best policies. We basically want everyone’s values to be represented in the policies. It is not important that everyone’s empirical beliefs are all represented though—if we had a good way of just using the most accurate beliefs to bring about everyone’s values, the people with the least accurate beliefs would still be better off.

Usually the combining of values and empirical beliefs into policy recommendations happens within each person’s head. Then we aggregate policies, via voting on them directly or voting for representatives who agree with us on policy. Instead, we could aggregate values alone, and combine the aggregated values with empirical data gleaned some other way.

III. Good things

I claim this would achieve the good things about democracy—e.g. accounting for everyone’s interests, fairness, avoiding extreme evils, reducing reasons for conflict—at least not much worse than the current system, while mostly mitigating the problem that most people are ignorant or misinformed about most things.

I think there are also a lot of other benefits. Here are benefits of voting on values that I can think of:

  • More accurate sources of empirical belief. There are lots of better ways to get accurate empirical views than taking a national vote. The problem is often summarized as ‘people are stupid’ and ‘people are uneducated’, but even smart, educated people are probably very ignorant about the policies they vote on a lot of the time, relative to experts. It would just be an infeasibly huge amount of work to have informed views about the myriad policy questions a person has some tiny amount of political influence over.
  • Much less effort. Instead of every person in the country figuring out which policies lead to which outcomes (a very tricky problem), it only has to be done once. 
  • More efficient use of information. If everyone’s beliefs constitute noisy evidence about the true state of the world, and each person uses only their own beliefs to choose their favorite policy, most information that could be used for each choice about policy preference is not being used. If beliefs are aggregated in some way and and then applied to aggregated values, this uses all of the information.
  • More fairness to those with few resources. The status quo means that uneducated people are less likely to get the outcomes they want, because they are more likely to vote for policies that don’t support those outcomes, due to misunderstanding. This proposal should avoid that bias.
  • Less destruction from voting to express values. Arguably, most of the consequences of a person’s political positions are on friends’ and acquaintances’ perceptions of the person. So we might expect political choices to be partly optimized for signaling values and qualities, rather than for optimal policy consequences. If people voted on values rather than policies, this would superficially seem to make advertising your values and qualities more straightforward, and less destructive, because expressing your values is just what you are supposed to be doing. 

Several of these seem pretty big.

IV. Tricky things

There are also several obvious difficulties. A first difficulty is converting values into policies without the interference of the values of those people involved in doing the conversion. To put it less abstractly, if my nation decides that it values jobs a certain amount, and I am in charge of figuring out how to best create some jobs, and I don’t like people having jobs in forestry, you have to somehow stop me from just lying about whether forestry is a good place for creating jobs. 

While this seems hard to prevent entirely, there is already a lot of indirection between what people vote on and what happens in our current system. And probably this already biases outcomes far in favor of what intermediaries want. So the bar for improvement is not very high. I expect we could make a system of voting on values that was better than the current system in this regard. 

Another difficulty is that there isn’t a clearly good format for values to take while they are being voted on. Do you tick a box next to ‘people should be richer’? Probably not. Your vote would need to indicate how much some values are worth relative to others, and there are just a lot of things to value, and they don’t come in convenient units. Robin’s paper proposes a solution involving representatives, which at least demonstrates that this can be solved. I expect there are other ways to do it.

A related difficulty is deciding what kinds of things can be values. If you are going to aggregate everyone’s values, they will probably need to be in some common and easy to vote on format, which will probably restrict expressiveness. Again the bar for improving on the current system is not high however—choosing between two representatives whose level of agreement with your policy preferences is mostly explained by your being of the same species as them also probably reduces expressiveness.

There are probably also heaps of other problems that I haven’t thought of now. I’m mostly suggesting that this is worth thinking about, rather than presenting a detailed proposal that doesn’t have terrible problems.

V. Alternatives (that are worse)

Sometimes people suggest that citizens just not be allowed to vote unless they meet certain intellectual standards, such as basic knowledge of the part of the world they are voting about. This would have the dreadful downside that the people who know less about the broader world—perhaps because they don’t have the resources to invest in reading about such things—have their interests completely ignored. Yet people find such proposals perennially appealing. I think voting on values is the natural resolution to this conflict between wanting to represent the interests of people who are not deeply educated about all policy-relevant aspects of the world, without absorbing their empirical misunderstandings.

15 responses to “Vote on values

  1. Combining values with empirical beliefs to produce policies seems super tricky if you don’t want it to be manipulated. How would you do that part?

    • I don’t know how to do it without it being manipulated at all, but maybe without it being manipulated too much.

      Robin has one suggestion: prediction markets on the size of a social value metric conditioned on different policies being undertaken.

      Another kind of possibility is just having a bunch of people who professionally evaluate different policies on the value function, such that there are enough of them that they are guaranteed to disagree a lot. They write up their evaluations carefully, with some process for other people criticizing the evaluations.

      I’m just suggesting that it shouldn’t be that hard to make interference from other values between voting and implementing policies about as big a problem as it is now. Does that seem too tricky to you?

      • But the values that people vote for are often different than the values that people have. Voting is often about mood affiliation, virtue signaling and such, and can mask rather than reveal values. So the next tweak in the system would be to replace the voting ritual by some group of experts who accurately read the public zeitgeist, and then feed their findings to another group of experts who do their best to implement this true public will.

        At this point, a Chinese technocrat will pipe up and declare that this exactly describes the government of the People’s Republic. You may quibble, but from outside the systems might look pretty similar. You’re probably picturing far more transparency in the process of the public will expression, as well as the debate about the optimal implementation. But when it comes to matters of diplomacy, policing, war, and even certain public nudge policies, the public will is opposed to complete transparency. So if you *could* read and implement the public will without showing your cards to the world, you would arguably be able to govern even better. So why not do that? The answer should be obvious: we can’t set up the institutions that we can trust to do this *right* over the long term, because such bodies always collapse into corruption and dysfunction. You suggest that size and disagreement would help, and it would, but still you’re picturing a tiny portion of a country that hold all the levers of executive and legislative power, by virtue of their qualification as value-implementor. I’m sure the Chinese Communist Party has many internal mechanisms for keeping the worst corruption at bay, but can they ultimately succeed?

        I find it hard to imagine that the value-implementor technocrats could escape these corrupting mechanisms without building in a way for the public to unseat them. But then they’re no longer voting on values, they’re voting on people.

        Or maybe we could get around corruption by making the implementers into bots, who devine what we truly value by crawling Facebook and all the NSA data on us, and then implement policies based on maximizing our expressed values. That might make a neat setting for a fiction story, but can anyone imagine that story being anything but dystopian?

  2. There’s a better way. We now have the technical ability to allow everyone to vote on all issues whenever they want to – eternal referenda on all issues. The weight of their votes on different issues would vary though depending on their knowledge of those issues, so this would be tested whenever they vote by setting a little exam for them, and the votes of those who do best would carry much more weight, to the point that 1% of people who demonstrably understand the issue would be able to outvote the 99% who demonstrably don’t. With such a system, government policies would automatically change as the weight of informed opionion shifts, though with a delay mechanism to allow more people to get informed and have their say so that bad changes can be prevented. This system would allow people who want change to campaign on a specific issue and whip lots of people up to call for action by voting, but any votes by people who haven’t bothered to study the issue will count for very little, while those who do read up on the issue properly will be pushed into thinking for themselves and will likely vote the right way, but if they do vote the wrong way, the potential change in government policy will be made known to the rest of the population who will then be able to read up on the issue and vote to stop the change if they feel the need to. That would be the truest form of democracy ever put into practice anywhere. The idea that professional politicians know best is a nonsense – we just vote in temporary dictatorships which always have a mix of good and awful policies and they always mess up almost as much as they put right, and sometimes mess up more. The people need to be put in charge, but with experts given more weight, and my proposed solution allows anyone to become an expert on any issue that interests them and to wield real power by being an expert.

  3. Romeo Stevens

    This potentially seems like a case of an aether variable. Voters can’t bridge the is-ought chasm so foist it off on some other process. Said process is now where all the fretting about politics will swirl. People will mostly ignore the values voting in the same way we currently ignore many details of the civil service operations.

  4. I think that the ability to directly influence policy is a major incentive for voting. Voter turnout is often a problem, and you will have a hard time convincing people to vote without it.

    Additionally, people are often sensitive to revealing their values and may rather keep the reasons for preferring one policy over another to themselves. If you ask people what their values are, if they are not offended, they will answer according to an imaginary narrative instead of being truthful.

  5. Michael Wulfsohn

    My view is that the first point of concern in designing institutions should be to ensure wide distribution of power, and to apply checks and balances on the use of power. Living in developed democracies that manage to (very approximately) align policymakers’ political incentives with the common good, it’s easy to forget that most other issues are secondary, even the quality of most individual decisions. For example, there is statistical evidence that institutional quality is a huge determinant of countries’ per capita wealth, which differs by orders of magnitude between rich and poor nations, although the determinants of economic development are definitely disputed.

    Your post caused me to read up on prediction markets a bit. I’m not an expert, but I think there would be a real risk that relying on them for parts of the political process would throw the baby out with the bathwater, by focusing on quality of decisions at the expense of power distribution and constraints. For example, rich and powerful people might be able to influence which decisions are classified as values vs beliefs, potentially a very grey area. Also, policymakers who want their belief proposals to succeed would only need to make sure they appeal to prediction market participants, largely rich people and speculators backed by a lot of cash.

    I also wonder about the potential effects of the irrationality of investors, the self-fulfilling prophetic nature of markets, and the resultant herding behaviors (think boom/bust cycles). For example, if this system had been in place during the dotcom boom, what kind of foolish pro-technology sector policies might have been enacted?

    Apologies for the long response, but this did make me think :)

  6. I suspect that many people propose hacks like “citizens should not be allowed to vote unless they meet certain intellectual standards” simply because they assume it would make their faction win. And in many cases they are wrong, simply because they mistake “intellectual standards” for agreeing with them.

    On the other hand, this strategy could work for their tribe, because if they would succeed to seize power in the first “intellectual” election, they would have an opportunity to redefine the official “intellectual standards” and thus lock themselves in the positions of power.

  7. My preference would be to simply replace voting with spending. Let’s say that lots of people want to make alcohol illegal… again. Rather than go to the voting booth… we’d all go to a spending booth. Each and every participant would have the opportunity to put their own money where their mouth was.

    Personally, I drink alcohol… but not very often. Maybe one or two times a month. So I’d have to figure out how much enjoyment I derive from alcohol in a year. Maybe $100 dollars worth? I suppose that’s how much money that I’d spend in support of alcohol remaining legal for a year.

    Whichever side spent the most money would win. If the anti-alcohol side won, then I’d get my $100 back. Plus, I’d get my portion of the money spent by the anti-alcohol side. Let’s say that my consolation prize was $200 dollars. Essentially the anti-alcohol camp would be paying me $200 dollars not to drink alcohol for a year. This would be a pretty good deal for me considering that I only value it at $100 dollars.

    We can think of this as the Coasian solution to democracy.

    The problem with the Hanson solution is that the idea of “voting on values” is incoherent. Value is a function of sacrifice but voting doesn’t involve any sacrifice. Sacrifice/spending is the only way to effectively communicate values.

    For sure people don’t all have the same amount of money. Bill Gates has a lot more money than I do. Therefore… it would be beneficial to prevent Gates and I from trading with each other? It would be beneficial to prevent him from paying me $1000 to quit drinking alcohol for one year?

    With democracy one side is always worse off. But with coasianism, both sides would always be better off. This is because each participant would use their spending to communicate the least amount of money they would have to get paid in order to be better off.

    • Sounds like asking the 0.1% to decide everything for the rest us. I highly doubt we will be better off as a result.

      • We’d be asking the 0.1% to decide for the rest of us whether we go to war? Nope. We’d be asking each and every citizen how much they’d be personally willing to pay/spend/sacrifice for war/peace.

        Let’s say that I’d be willing to pay $1000 for peace. This means that I’d be willing to accept no less than $1000 for war.

        By opposing coasianism, you’re either preventing me from paying $1000 for peace… or, you’re preventing me from receiving more than $1000 for war.

        Why would we be better off if you prevent me from paying for peace? Why would we be better off if you prevent me from deciding for myself what war is worth to me?

        You’re concerned with the wealthy making decisions for everybody else. Yet, evidently you have no problem preventing everybody from making their own decisions.

        • Michael Wulfsohn

          My understanding of Coasian bargaining is that it doesn’t say much about any distributional impact, just about achieving an “efficient” solution.

          In practice the poorest don’t have the cash available to “vote” effectively through this means. Most are struggling to pay rent, or tuition fees, and don’t have the money to splash around on high-minded causes. For example, take a policy that favors the rich over the poor, like making taxation much less progressive. This might cause poor families to lose thousands over the long term. Let’s say they would have to receive an upfront lump sum of $5k to compensate them for the extra tax payments that would be imposed on them over time. You’re saying that they should therefore be happy to pay $5k now to prevent the policy going through, but from where would they get $5k? If they could borrow it, would it be wise to risk that amount, which they would lost if the policy went through? No prudent bank would lend money for that purpose. There’d also be a powerful free rider effect, on both sides but much stronger for the poor who face greater financial risk in “voting”.

          Perhaps an even stronger argument against this mechanism is that it would induce speculators to vote against policies they see as likely to go through (or vote for policies that are likely to fail), to try to make money. This might even be the driving force for most policies, as there are a lot of people who care more about their personal finances than national policy. The funds management industry would find it difficult to justify not capitalizing on this opportunity. Ultimately this would significantly distort policymaking.

          • The “efficiency” of a solution depends entirely on people’s valuations. And people’s valuations can only be revealed by honest sacrifice. Dishonest sacrifice is correlated with inefficient solutions. The free-rider problem is when shortages are the consequence of people’s allocations (how much they spend/sacrifice) being less than their valuations.

            I derived some positive value from reading this blog entry that Katja Grace took the time and made the effort to produce. But, I haven’t allocated any money to her which means that my allocation is less than my valuation. Is this the free-rider problem? It’s a problem if it results in a shortage of her blog entries. The more of her readers who are dishonest (allocation < valuation) with her… and the greater their dishonesty…. the more likely it is that a shortage will occur. Dishonest sacrifice is inaccurate communication and suboptimal incentive.

            If you truly understand the problem with dishonesty… then you should understand the problem with democracy. Other than the opportunity costs, voting doesn't require sacrifice… but you're only going to vote for things that you positively value. This means that your allocation will always be less than your valuation. Democracy is dishonesty… it's inaccurate communication and suboptimal incentive.

            You think democracy helps the poor but in reality, it hurts everybody… especially the poor. Poverty would be eliminated if people truly understood the importance of honesty.

            With a Coasian system, I have no idea how much money the poor would be willing to pay for progressive taxation. But if we actually implemented coasianism it would mean that people understood the importance of honesty… which would mean that taxpayers would also be able to choose where their taxes go. If, via coasianism, the wealthy managed to win a more regressive system… then this would logically give them less influence over public goods. Would the wealthy really want less influence over public goods?

            Personally, I'm guessing that if people understood the importance of honesty that the tax rate would increase and the public sector would expand to include digital goods (ie music, videos, blogs). We'd have no reason to be dishonest with Katja Grace.

            Regarding coasianism and speculation…

            "It is impossible for anyone, even if he be a statesman of genius, to weigh the whole community's utility and sacrifice against each other. – Knut Wicksell, A New Principle of Just Taxation

            If it would be easy to predict which side would win then coasianism would be a waste of everybody's time.

            • Michael Wulfsohn

              It still seems to me that you are enamored by the nice theoretical aspects of coasianism, to the point where you’re glossing over practical problems and political realities. Taking in everything you’ve said, I would still expect this system to fail, based on a) the capital market-specific issue I described, b) the effects of coasianism on distribution of wealth that the theory doesn’t address, and c) the dynamics of power distribution within a society, which economic theory in general does not often broach.

              • You didn’t even attempt to address my argument against dishonesty.

                Katja Grace takes the time and makes the effort to blog. She allocates a good portion of her limited time and energy to sharing her thoughts with the general public. Is it beneficial when her readers lie about how much they value her blog?

                Just to be clear, by “lie” I mean that the amount of money that her readers pay her doesn’t equal the amount of value that they derive from her blog. We can guess that their payment is less, rather than more, than their valuation. Which means that Katja Grace should have more money than she actually has. Which means that she should have more power/influence/control than she actually has.

                Do you see the crystal clear connection between dishonesty and the distribution of wealth? The more dishonesty there is, the less beneficial the distribution of wealth.

                Coasianism would eliminate the massive dishonesty of democracy. This would massively improve the distribution of wealth.


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