all in favour?

Thunk on or about 7th May 2004

It's an election year. For any Americans reading this I'm not referring to George W. Shrub. Australia will be holding Federal elections sometime before November and, for the first time in a long while, our Prime Miniature is looking vulnerable.

While the duty of voters is clear (Vote the Little Bastard Out) it is not so clear that the voters will do their duty. So a few thinks about the political process would seem to be in order.

A brief guide to Australian politics

Politics in Australia is fairly simple. We have two main political parties: the Liberal Party which steals from the poor to give to the rich, and the Labour Party which steals from the poor to give to the middle class. There are three significant smaller parties: the National Party which steals from the poor to give to the farmers, the Democrats who steal from the poor to give to the intellectuals and the Greens who steal from the poor to give to the bilbies.

If you are poor your best bet is to devote your energies to not being poor. Staying poor means you are basically unrepresented. Your only other option is to storm the Bastille/Winter Palace/[Insert appropriate structure here] but things probably aren't bad enough yet to raise a quorum for this.

During the last few years the current government has lied to us repeatedly, locked up children in refugee camps and taken us into a deeply unpopular war in Iraq. Literally hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against this last - the biggest demonstrations since the last unpopular war in Vietnam, and almost as many as turn out annually for Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras. Why do I think the voters might fail in their duty?

A brief discourse on the Problems of Democracy

The Problems of Democracy fall into two main categories:

There are secondary problems such as the Problem of Laws and the Problem of Information but these will solve themselves if the first two problems can be fixed. Bad Laws will be reformed if the right people are elected. Adequate Information will become available if enough people want it.

Let's start with the Problem of Voters.

The Problem of Voters

Imagine five mathematicians: Idiot, Fumbler, Journeyman, Master and Genius. They are each given the same five mathematical problems to solve. The problems are graded in difficulty such that Idiot will get one right, Fumbler will get two right and so forth up to Genius who pings all five. You hire Genius and your mathematical problems are over.

Suppose, instead of hiring Genius, you elect to hire all five and get them to vote on the answers and provide you with the majority opinion. They duly present you with the answers, two of which will be wrong because Genius was outvoted.

By hiring all five you have completely nobbled yourself - 40% of your answers will be wrong. In fact, you could have got the same results more cheaply by just hiring Journeyman.

Suppose now you have a country of twenty million people, ranging from Epsilon-minus Morons to Alpha-plus Extremely Smarts. You need to elect a government, so you give everybody one vote and go with the majority opinion.

Does anyone see a problem here?

It is, I am sure, unnecessary to point out that this analogy is not only facile, it's not even original. But it does have a kernel of truth. We all make stupid decisions but for some people, it is a way of life.

One suggestion, which pops up periodically, is that we have a system of proportional voting with everyone having some voting power but some having more than others. While this has a superficial attraction it runs into the serious problem of how to allocate the proportions. In Australia we give people in Tasmania a proportionally greater vote than those in other states. While this doesn't seem to have caused any great problems, it doesn't have much in the way of demonstrable benefits either.

Most democracies have come up with a different solution - that of representative democracy. Voters don't actually make decisions. They just elect the people who make those decisions. This has a lot of benefits in terms of disengaging stupidity from the day-to-day process but it runs directly up against the second problem - the Problem of Politicians.

The Problem of Politicians

The Problem of Politicians is actually a specific instance of the more general Problem of Measurement. This problem occurs whenever you attempt provide evaluation criteria for a relatively fuzzy concept. The classic is measuring whether your academics are performing to standard. As soon as you make the number of papers the measure, people start cranking out more and more less important papers. If you change this to be paper citations, little groups will get together citing each other's output like mad. And so forth.

In the case of politicians, what you want are the people who will best run the country. What you get are the people who are best at getting elected. Add to this the fact that being a politician requires no qualifications whatsoever and the magnitude of the problem becomes apparent.

A simple and elegant solution

I forget who said it but it goes roughly like this:

For every complex problem there is a simple and elegant solution. Which is wrong.

There is no easy solution. Moreover, it is important to deeply distrust anyone peddling such a solution.

Towards a practical solution

The only practical solution that I can see lies in education. Voters need to be educated in the art of Charlatan Spotting, Logical Argument and Bullshit Detection. There needs to be a general warning that talkback radio personalities are more interested in ratings than truth and that their opinions are often paid for. The same warning should apply to any news service owned by a private individual.

Politicians also need to be educated. I would be in favour of some sort of Professional Accreditation scheme. After all, you can't become a plumber without proper certification. Accreditation might at least indicate that a politician can spot logical inconsistencies, flawed assumptions and non-reversible syllogisms. Perhaps it might indicate a general awareness that Ethics is not just an English county near Thuthics. Stuff which, in other words, indicates that they might have some of the mental tools required for the job.

It's not quite as hopeless as it first appears. For instance, once about 60-70% of voters can make intelligent decisions about who to vote for, the moronic decisions of the rest cease to matter. They'll be outvoted.

Politicians might even be persuaded to vote for the Accreditation scheme. As long as there is a grandfather clause to exempt anyone currently elected they'll be more than happy to get brownie points and make it more difficult for new rivals at the same time. A classic win-win situation. It just requires enough (educated) voters to insist on it.

What to do about it

Obviously, none of this is going to happen overnight. It's not even going to happen before the next election to any meaningful degree. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth the effort.

It is important to spread your Bullshit Detection skills around. Help those more intellectually challenged than yourself. Help people to understand that, just because all crows are black, it doesn't follow that everything black is a crow. Write pretentious web pages like this one. Or at least provide a link to it.

If all this seems like too much work there is still something you can do. When election time comes around, just remember these five simple words:



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