Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Condorcet Wants Kids To Vote

I've been reading the discussion following Jonathan Bernstein's "Kids Vote" proposal with some interest. Extending the voting age downward by at least a couple years strikes me as a good idea.

I think this despite accepting a view of democracy that Bernstein sees as most opposed to the Kids Vote proposal -- the view that "justifies democracy on the basis of an informed individuals, thinking for themselves, being the best way to make good decisions about public policy." If you think kids are just barely better than random in determining who should rule, adding their votes to the system will push things in the right direction overall. Maybe I'm misunderstanding what he means by 'informed', but large numbers of barely informed people can systematically contribute to good public policy if each is right 51% of the time in two-way choices. And then their small but positive level of information is actually producing good public policy. (This sort of reasoning, where larger numbers of barely informed people end up increasing the probability of good decisions, is the kind employed in Condorcet's Jury Theorem.)


Jonathan Bernstein said...

Well, mostly I think a democracy that's justified on the basis that it makes objectively better decisions is unstable. It's going to be vulnerable to the argument that the better informed will make better decisions than the not as well informed, and so we should arrange thins so that more of the former and fewer of the latter actually vote. It's not hard to make a case that someone is <50% correct if you can show how little they know about "the issues."

Granted, I'm also not at all convinced that there are objectively better decisions about public policy, while I guess you are, so we probably disagree even beyond the practical question.

Stentor said...

I think the problem with using the Condorcet Jury Theorem to justify letting kids vote is that the CJT incorporates the assumption that each voter formed their opinion independently. But to me the biggest stumbling block to kids voting is precisely that their votes are not independent -- kids are under the direct power of their parents in a way that adults aren't.

Matt G said...

I always thought -- though I can't name any specific thinkers who support this view -- that the idea behind a voting-age cutoff was not to filter the informed from the uninformed but the people with the ability to think critically from the people without. Certainly it's true that a large number of adult voters appear, sadly, not to have that capacity, but we know from cognitive science that most children don't even develop the potential for true abstract thought until they're in the 16-18 range.

In other words, while I could see pushing the voting age down a year or two, any further and all you'd be doing is amplifying the parents' political views, since most kids younger than that just don't have the cognitive capacity to evaluate them for themselves.

(Feel free to explain why I'm wrong, since I'm willing to accept that I am.)

Neil Sinhababu said...

I see how that can happen, Jonathan, but I think the problem is solvable. The way to stabilize that kind of democracy is to keep making Sen- and Condorcet-style public arguments for equal-voting democracy, pointing out the bad consequences of inegalitarian systems. And as far as I can see, every system is vulnerable to appealing but bad arguments for changing it, so I don't see how other views are doing better on this count.

You only mentioned this, but it's the kind of bait I have to take -- I'm surprised that you don't think there are objectively better decisions about public policy. The past century has seen public policy in some countries producing mass starvations and genocides. Don't you want to understand these as objectively worse public policy decisions?

Stentor, I see how that would be a problem if the kids were correlated with each other. But is it a problem if the kids are correlated to their parents? I'm just taking the addition of the kids as the addition of a big reliable agent, and I was thinking that works out. But maybe for some reason that's the wrong way to understand this.

Jonathan Bernstein said...

Ah, let me rephrase...I don't think there's any objectively correct democratic decision. I'm not sure if there's an objectively correct policy decision in general...I think that's a hard question, but it's actually a slightly different question that what I'm actually concerned about here.

I'm fine with saying that particular policies might not meet the standards of morality, ethics, or Pareto optimality. And as a citizen, I'm going to have strong opinions about policies, and may have strong opinions about which standards we should use for choosing policies. But I don't think that democracy is justified because it will achieve policies that meet those goals -- and, in fact, I'm not at all sure that democracy does better meet any particular policy goal such as a particular morality.

Neil Sinhababu said...

What this makes me wonder, Jonathan, is how I should understand your support for democracy. Is there something right about democracy in and of itself? I say the good thing about democracy is that it usually leads to better consequences. Singapore is a rare exception, but India, where the mass-casualty famines ended after it became an independent democracy, as far as I know is a more normal case.

I want to go back to something you often say, which I agree with. Politics is only a small part of many people's lives, and they don't research it in detail. The fact that they don't doesn't say anything especially bad about them, or that they're dumb or living inauthentically or whatever.

If that's true, it would seem that there are plenty of good and important things in life that have nothing to do with politics. These people are living good lives if they're achieving these other things. (I think you and I will find this obvious.) The further step I take is: these other good and valuable things, which I take to generally concern promoting happiness and avoiding suffering, give us the grounds on which political systems should be evaluated. After all, that's what really matters in life. Why shouldn't we evaluate political systems on whether they deliver it?

Jonathan Bernstein said...

I think the strongest cases for democracy are based on ideas of autonomy and (collective) self-determination, the idea that it's inherently good for people to have the capacity (or, thinking of it another way, to make use of their capacity) to organize the way they live. And, secondarily I suppose, republican ideas of public happiness.

I'm open to empirical findings that democracies produce "good" policy, or at least avoid the most horrible policy outcomes, but IMO it's a very difficult road to go down, because it's easy to wind up concluding that if the policy chosen isn't the right one, then it must not have been a democratic decision. I really reject that; I think democracy really must be open to the possibility of terrible decisions, democratically arrived at.

I suspect that you would prefer an ideal, perfect bureaucracy to a democracy if such a thing was actually possible. I think I wouldn't.

Enthusiast said...

Neil, what do you make of a fully democratic decision to put an end to democratic deciding, such as happened in Algeria a number of years ago? There, the military intervened to prevent the democratic decision from taking effect, but it could happen again. How should one respond to such a popular choice?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Jonathan, you're right that I'd support the ideal perfect bureaucracy if such a thing were possible. Politics is really interesting and all, but I'd much rather everything went on the right track by itself due to competent management so I could save all my attention for philosophy and the ladies.

Good question, enthusiast. I suppose there could be some unusual situations where people doing such a thing are making the right choice. But in general, I think it's the wrong choice, since a democratic government creates some incentives for leaders to make the right choices (if lots of people starve, democratic leaders lose their jobs, but kings and such don't).

I guess you could think about this way: Under ordinary conditions, democracy gets the right decision a higher percentage of the time. But sometimes it'll get it wrong -- for example, when people democratically decide to abandon democracy for a lower-percentage system.