The Crisis of Collective Decision-Making

The latest catastrophe in America governance-the inane brinksmanship over the Debt Ceiling has finally made it official: our representative democracy is too dysfunctional to handle even routine matters, and lack of confidence in government is spilling out into the economy, diplomacy, national security, culture, you name it. Given how totally FUBAR the situation is, I want to take a step back and talk about what’s underpinning this collapse. Not just the economic or political issues, but the philosophical ones.

The challenge of governance is that of making collective decisions. And before you say that “we don’t need to make collective decisions,” even Libertarianism requires some common agreement on basic property rights. Global challenges demand common action, and even coming to no decisions is, in and of itself, a decision.

There are basically three ways that a group of people can come to a collective decision.

1) Swarm: Everybody acts according to what is best for them, based on the information that they have. In the animal kingdom, these are schools, flocks, hives, and other animal collectives. For humans, this is the Free Market. The decision of the swarm is the sum total of the actions of its members. Swarms are fast and efficient, but they have less strategic foresight than individual members. Schools of fish get trapped by dolphins and eaten, herds of animals stampede off cliffs, and free markets fail in a variety of ways.

2) Consensus: Everybody sits down, discusses their preferences, beliefs, and opinions of the options at hand. No decision is taken if a single member is opposed. In theory, consensus is great, but in practice it breaks down when more than a few people are involved, usually over definitions, mutually incompatible desires, or plain stubbornness.

3) Delegation: The task is divided between several people, each of whom works on it individually. Delegation is the structure of modern society; almost every complex effort involves some amount of delegation. Delegation allows each member to apply their unique talents to the decision, while still being fast and strategically responsive. However, delegative institutions can become highly dysfunction, through the Peter Principle, shooting the messenger, and detachment between decision-making and operational levels.

Now, let’s get back to the real world, and American politics. Congress combines Delegative and Consensus aspects. By voting, we delegate the responsibility to create and enforce laws to politicians. Democracy serves as a check to ensure that leaders act in the interests of their constituents. Once elected, politicians act to create laws through a process of negotiation and compromise to ensure the broadest base of support, a formalized variation of Consensus.

At least, that’s the idea. Now, in 2011, both side of that governing mechanism have broken down. Few people believe that either of the major parties represents their beliefs, yet the same old candidates keep getting elected. Consider a ‘rational’ election. The candidates would be weighed on their performance, and the better one selected. Now try and think of the last time a candidate was fairly evaluated by the opportunities presented them, their choices, and the results of his or her choices. The mechanisms of delegation which are supposed to select the best candidate instead selected for the best advertising campaign.

Most bills are passed on party-line votes, by the barest majority. Rather than Consensus, Congress works on the most fragile of coalitions, leading to unpopular laws which seem to jam together multiple policy proposals. Rather than an attempt at a “best-of” plan, we seem get policy proposals which satisfy nobody.

My time on the Hill was spent as Senate Intern #16, so I can’t claim to speak from any sort of deep insider knowledge, but DC struck me as a town of very hard working, very insular people. Representatives and Senators are surrounded by the staffs, who talk mostly to professional lobbyists and advocates. Conservatives and liberals eat at different restaurants and different bars. I only saw Republicans at Senate staffer softball games. What passes for “debate” on the Senate floor is talking-point laden gibberish directed to an empty room and a few cameras. Committee hearings are for grandstanding and scoring points. Legislative ploys pass for communication. Given the hyper-planned schedules of most professional politicians, I have no idea when they meet with each other to find common ground.

So there’s no consensus in the upper levels of government, and there our mechanism for picking leaders is little better than random chance at weeding out the crazy, corrupt, and incompetent. Where do we go from here? Karl Schroeder at Charles Stross’s blog had an interesting proposal for solving wicked problems.

“Here's my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society--or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.

What we need, in other words, is a Facebook for collaborative decision-making: an app built to compensate for the most egregious cognitive biases and behaviours that derail us when we get together to think in groups. Decision-support, stakeholder analysis, bias filtering, collaborative scratch-pads and, most importantly, mechanisms to extract commitments to action from those that use these tools. I have zero interest in yet another open-source copy of a commercial application, and zero interest in yet another Tetris game for Android. But a Wikipedia's worth of work on this stuff could transform the world.”

It’s an interesting solution. Rather than trying to fix mechanisms of Delegation, which may be fundamentally broken (and don’t tell me to “give power back to the people.” I’m a Californian, I know what kind of nonsense you get out of direct democracy, and I want professionals in charge), we instead move over to a Swarm/Consensus based model. Information technology improves the signals the Swarm uses to communicate, and data mining tools extracts Consensus definition and choices in real time.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Policy-making is a lot of power to hand over to an algorithm, and networks would have to have a way to hold people to account for their choices. Combining the continuous, geographic real world with discrete, protean virtual networks may not be possible. Instead of one political network under the American flag, we’d have dozens or more, all proposing incompatible versions of reality.

America is not alone in political paralysis. Look at the UK, Belgian, Italy, Greece, Germany, Iraq, and so on. Representative democracy is entering a period of crisis worldwide (by the way, if you know of a functioning democracy, please let me know). I’m no fan of the Beijing Consensus of authoritarian capitalism, but it strikes me that society rests on a substrate of technology. Democracy as conceived during the Enlightenment was only possible in a literate society. We are now post-literate, hyper-textual, and we need a new Constitution, that allows us to make effective and wise collective decisions.