Is voting theory important? An attempt to check my bias.

by Jameson Quinn 8mo17th Feb 201914 comments


You may have seen either or both of my two prior posts here, in which I first said I'm beginning to seek a grant for some voting theory research after I graduate, and then looked into some of the possible sources of such a grant. In this post, I'll dig into why I think that this research is important. I have plenty of ideas on that issue, and I'm using this writing as an opportunity to get them in order, so you should not expect this to be a well-organized post.

I think that voting theory is important; that is, that it is an area in which further study and the resulting insights can reasonably be expected to lead to improvements in collective welfare that are big enough to make opportunity costs essentially irrelevant. I also know that I'm biased; I've invested a significant portion of my identity into thinking about voting theory, and even if I could somehow be dispassionately rational in spite of that, an outside view would have to admit that my assessment of the importance of this area is an outlier.

I can't possibly detach myself entirely from this bias, but I should at least try. So here, I'm going to argue both sides. First, I'm going to give the reasons that I think this is important; then, I'm going to try to make the best counterarguments I can; then, I'm going to try to weigh both sides. I think that this format, where I write out one side at a time, is probably a better idea than trying to do all three at once, which seems to be what happens when I do it in my head. Not that that interior arguing in circles can't eventually lead to progress and insight; just that it seems a pretty inefficient and unreliable way of getting there.

I want to be clear about the purpose of writing this. It is, above all, to help me clarify my thinking. I'm going to post it publicly primarily because having a clear idea of my audience helps me write more clearly. I won't deny that I have other motives in publishing this; I also hope to inspire, inform, and/or impress you. But when I have a choice between spending effort clarifying a point that I'm not yet clear on, and explaining one that I am, I'll choose the former.

So, here goes:

Yes, voting theory is important.

  • Direct impact:
    • Public elections are pivotal for important stuff;
    • in principle, they could be done better, so as to get better immediate outcomes on average;
    • those improvements are possible in practice;
    • and a better understanding of voting theory can help make such improvements more probable.
    • I recognize that the four-step chain of logic above, though it starts on what I think is pretty solid ground, gets weaker with each link. Nevertheless, I think it almost certainly holds all the way to the end to at least some degree.
  • Indirect impact:
    • Aside from encouraging better immediate outcomes, better voting systems would shift the incentive structure for public debate, in a way that could tend to make it healthier over time. The above logic also works with this point in place of step 2.
  • Prescriptive philosophy:
    • I believe that understanding the paradoxes, difficulties, and possibilities of collective decisionmaking processes is useful in constructing ethical philosophy.
    • Ethical philosophy, in turn, is useful not just in everyday life choices, but in how we imagine, design, and collectively choose our future. This includes, but is not limited to, the issue of AI friendliness.
  • Descriptive philosophy:
    • Understanding voting theory means understanding multiparty, non-zero-sum, high-stakes (that is, not-frequently-repeated) games, and how the mechanisms in these games can be designed to promote relatively-positive-sum outcomes. This kind of understanding may be useful in thinking about a transhuman future.
    • This is not the same as the previous point, in which understanding collective decisionmaking is useful prescriptively, as a step in defining what human volition even is in the first place. In this case, it's about understanding what a post-human-supremacy society of mind might look at descriptively.

No, voting theory isn't important.

Arguing this side in a vacuum would mean trying to prove a negative. So I'll mostly focus on refuting and/or undermining the arguments above, one point at a time.

  • Direct impact:
    • Public elections are pivotal for some things, but other collective decisionmaking processes (markets, corporate hierarchies, etc.) may be more important.
    • It's easy to overestimate how important voting theory and voting methods are. For instance, it's probable that the majority of the "democratic dividend", the empirically better welfare of democracies as opposed to autocracies, comes from the mere fact that they allow peaceful transfers of power. A society that regularly chose a new leader by a peaceful lottery would also do better than an autocracy in which the only way to transfer power is through civil war.
    • Even if voting reform is a good idea in the abstract, it may be so difficult to accomplish as to make other reforms a better investment of effort. In particular, in my country — the USA — there are so many veto points that many reforms, especially any that would require a constitutional amendment, are nearly impossible.
    • Even if voting reform is both desirable and possible, it could be that we already understand exactly what is needed, so that further theoretical work is unnecessary.
  • Indirect impact:
    • As above, it's easy to overestimate the importance of voting methods in structuring the public debate. You should be very skeptical of any suggestion that somebody's idea will fix the public debate and substantially improve collective rationality.
  • Prescriptive philosophy:
    • Philosophers have had over half a century to come to terms with Arrow's theorem, and they're generally smart people. Why should any new ideas in voting theory have a significant impact on our understanding of ethics?
    • In terms of "ethical engineering" (that is, using ethics to design the future, not engineering ethics or engineering ethically), there are probably unanswered questions that come before voting theory. That's especially true for friendly AI.
    • The fact I even bring up AI in this context probably has more to do with thinking that that's a fun thing to talk about, or a reasonably high-status thing to talk about in this context, than with any actual connection between voting theory and AI. (Note: Raemon challenged me somewhat on a related point in a private message, and that's probably the main reason I'm writing this now.)
  • Descriptive philosophy:
    • The chance that the quality of a post-human future actually hinges on our ability to understand now anything about what that future might look like is very, very small. The chance that voting theory will contribute meaningfully to our ability to understand anything about what that future will look like is also pretty small.

OK, so is it important?

So, now that I've played the role of lawyer for both sides, here's where I play that of judge and jury. I realize that this is a stretch; no matter how fair I try to be, I can't fully remove my bias, or at least not without subtracting an estimator of that bias whose variance would probably be a bigger problem.

  • Direct impact:
    • Public elections are not the only way important decisions get made, but they're still quite important. I'm highly confident of this.
    • Better voting methods wouldn't solve all problems or lead to a utopia, but they could help substantially. There's plenty of research on how political systems correlate with economic or other outcomes, and while I don't think any of it has successfully established causality, it's still consistent with the idea that this stuff matters. I'm reasonably confident of this.
    • Voting reform has happened before in various contexts, and it should be expected that sooner or later and somewhere or other it will happen again. Will it happen in the particular ways and places I'd like it to? There's no way to be sure either way, but I'd say that the probability is certainly over 1%, and the possible impact is large enough that moving that probability by anything over one chance in a million is worth my time. You could make a reasonable case that I am deluded to think I can have an effect that large, but it wouldn't be a slam dunk. So I certainly could be wrong here, but when the question is "does anything you do matter at all" it's better to err optimistically.
    • The debate among reform activists between various voting methods (IRV, approval, Condorcet, score, STAR, etc.; as well as the understanding of proportional representation) has progressed substantially in the 20 years that I've been a part of it, and I think it can progress further. I think I'm as well-positioned and well-qualified as anyone in the world to help that progress happen.
    • This is probably the point on which my bias as compared to an external view is largest, but it's also the one on which my expertise is the deepest. So I'm going to take the internal view here, and say I think that my further work in this field can be helpful, but I'd certainly understand if you decide to differ.
  • Indirect impact:
    • From an internal view, I actually feel more confident that better voting methods would lead to a healthier public debate, than I do that they would lead to better outcomes in the narrower within-the-ballot-box sense. That is to say, I think that changing the incentive structure — the definition of "political fitness" — will affect political evolution more surely and predictably in a long-term sense than in a short-term, single-election sense.
    • But from an external view, it seems crazy to say that I can predict second-order effects more confidently than first-order ones. I guess that it's not so crazy, though, if the second-order effects are smaller and more numerous, such that the law of large numbers applies. Still, it would be unhealthy to be too confident in such a long chain of justification.
  • Prescriptive philosophy:
    • Frankly, I think I can be confident that thinking about voting theory from this perspective is fun, but I can't be confident that it's important. At best, it could be. For me, "fun and not inconceivably important" is enough; YMMV.
  • Descriptive philosophy
    • As above, with an even lower chance of being important.

So all-in-all, I think it's pretty reasonable for me to think this is worth my time, and even that the case for that is strong enough for me to look for a short-term grant. But in looking for that grant, I may end up making arguments towards the bottom of the thrice-repeated list above, in order to connect it to funders' stated purposes, even though I am more confident in the arguments towards the top of that list. I think I'm OK with that, because I think that even the arguments at the bottom should be considered, and that there are few who can make them better than I.