Social Choice and Chance in an Open Society is a proposal for deliberately injecting a stochastic (chancy) element into electoral and legislative processes. The paper gives a simple, practical example of how to apply chance to a committee proceeding and presents the salient arguments for doing so. The conclusion recognizes that political science is an empirical discipline and calls for experimentation on a small scale before any such scheme is promoted in public political institutions.
The ideas inspiring this proposal have an origin in the political philosphy of Sir Karl R. Popper, who coined the phrase "open society" as better than the ambiguous "democracy." (There are, of course, other sources of the scheme as well.) Accordingly, at the suggestion of J. Peizer of the George Soros Foundation, I began to monitor The Karl Popper Web, a list server operated at the Dublin [Eire] City University, dedicated to examining critically, as well as promoting, the philosophy of the late Sir Karl. The main part of this page is devoted to a lightly-edited chain of quotations from The Karl Popper Web relevant to the scheme. At the end of this page, there are references to other comments on "Social Choice and Chance in an Open Society."
Comments from The Karl Popper Web:
Barry McMullin asks what KRP might have to say about the ethnic and religious conflicts that have been damaging the open society and eroding public confidence in political processes:Date: Mon, 05 Feb 1996 14:12:50 +0100 To: email@example.com From: Barry McMullin <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: CRITICAL-CAFE: When "democracy" fails? (long) (Another week, another thread...) I have been recently musing on some problems of Government, or, more generally, of the "open society". Perhaps some of you can help me out. Karl Popper consistently advocated that philosophy should grapple with "real" problems - problems that have effects on people in their ordinary lives. With that in mind, I will dare to raise a contemporary problem which is perhaps not quite the greatest facing modern civilisation, but is certainly the greatest problem facing my own small country of Ireland. I am reasonably familiar with Popper's debunking of the notion that "representative" government (or any other kind of government) can be perfect, or reliably deliver an open society (in the sense of a society which, inter alia, defends and protects equitable and just treatment of all its citizens). I believe that Popper suggested, nonetheless, that some form of representative government, ultimately relying on "free" elections, with universal suffrage, is the best (or "least bad"?) form of government we have yet been able to formulate. My question is this: what can we then do when representative government does, in fact, fail - drastically, and seemingly irreparably? By this I mean that there are situations in which representative government fails to deliver or protect an open society; indeed, in certain circumstances, representative government can lead directly (and almost inevitably?) to sustained oppression and persecution. I have the situation of Northern Ireland explicitly in mind here, but the problem is, I think, fairly generic. It arises fairly naturally wherever you have a single state with two (or possibly slightly more) strongly distinguished ethnic communities, with a history of mutual conflict, and with both communities having roughly comparable population sizes. In such a situation, each community quite rationally fears the formation of a government dominated by the other community; this, in turn, reinforces and perpetuates the polarisation of the communities, particularly in the context of elections, lest any fragmentation or split might allow the "enemy" achieve power. Unfortunately, in practise, the two communities will rarely be close enough to exact numerical equality to place the overall outcome of elections in doubt. Indeed, the closer the situation is to such an instability, the greater the pressure on the members of the two communities to vote on straight ethnic affiliations. So: under "conventional" systems of "representative" government, some one of the two communities may, in fact, quite consistently and reliably achieve dominence in government. Once in power of course, there will be a very strong pressure not to alienate one's own community in any way; that, in itself, is not wrong - but it can very easily (and without actual malice!) tip over into positive discrimination against the minority community. I suggest that there can then quite easily arise a self-reinforcing cycle of opposition and protest by the minority community, and repression or persecution by the majority community (the latter all defended as being necessary to protect the "state" against subversion, or being in the "national interest"). A traditional (and sometimes successful!) response to this problem is territorial partition of some sort - redrawing boundaries of a state or states. This can certainly substantially perturb the situation, and make actually solve the problem. On the other hand, it may not. In the Irish situation, for example, one can interpret the establishment of Irish "independence" in 1921 as a partition of the British Isles, designed specifically to solve the problem of ethic British ("protestant") domination of an ethnic Irish ("catholic") minority in the Westminster Parliament. The original suggestion (and the aspiration then - and since - of Irish "nationalists") was a simple geographical partition. The "British Isles" consists of two large islands - Great Britain and Ireland. The "nationalist" idea was to that these should simply be divided into two states with separate parliaments. This was opposed (not surprisingly) by the substantial ethnic British (protestant) community in the northern part of the island of Ireland, on the basis that this would then leave them subject to ("democratic") oppression and persecution by an ethnic Irish ("catholic") majority in a Dublin parliament. The final compromise was a three way partition, with three parliaments, one in Dublin, one in Westminster, and one in Belfast (Stormont). (OK, of course I simplify more than somewhat: the state of Northern Ireland remained - and remains - part of the "United Kingdom", and its local parliament was subservient to Westminster; but Stormont had sweeping control of affairs within Northern Ireland, and was rarely interfered with by Westminster - until the level of violent protest in Northern Ireland finally forced its dissolution, and a reversion to direct rule by Westminster.) This partition worked (?) fairly well in achieving open societies in the consitutional monarchy of Great Britain and what eventually became the Republic of Ireland. Neither was left with a homogenous and substantial (in voting terms) ethnic minority, and political divisions were, or gradually became, oriented along policy rather than ethnic lines (which is, precisely, the situation under which representative government can work to protect and defend an open society?). However: the statelet of Northern Ireland was left with a very substantial (roughly one third) minority ethnic population - now effectively disenfranchised. During the following fifty years, electoral divisions in Northern Ireland remained stubbornly oriented along ethnic rather than policy lines. While there is considerable dispute about the exact scale or degree of abuse or oppression which was then inflicted on the minority community, it was certainly significant, and certainly became self reinforcing. And while one can regret (and even condemn) the emergence of violent opposition to this "democratic" regime, I think we should certainly regard it as very understandable, and not "obviously" mistaken. (I can still hear Margaret Thatcher's infamous "A criminal is a criminal is a criminal" speech...) Incidentally: the original partition agreement was very strongly opposed by many in the new "Irish Free State". At least some of these were surely motivated precisely by the expectation that the minority in Northern Ireland would suffer oppression and persecution. In any case, this dispute over the partition of the island of Ireland led to a bitter, protracted, and extremely brutal cival war in the new state, memories of which are still very vivid in many Irish families, and which still underlies major party political divisions. In this sense, partition certainly cannot be ranked as a "success" even for the southern state! Now, one still hears calls for another further attempt at (re-)partition to fix the problem (most commonly from Irish "nationalists" who cling to the touching - but extremely dangerous - belief that, in a "united" Ireland, the majority catholic community would not indulge in oppression and presecution of the new minority protestant population). But it seems to me that it may be time to admit that partition is at best a very crude and imperfect instrument - and may well have unexpected and unintended consequences - and that perhaps the time has come to challenge the hallowed notion of representative government itself. But there's the rub: I have no very coherent alternative to offer. So I throw the question open. But please, while I have, for reasons of personal interest and emotion, phrased this in terms of Northern Ireland, I'd like to hear whether you agree that it is a generic problem, and, more importantly, whether you can offer any generic solutions. Regards, Barry.
The response to Barry's question:
[Here you may pick up the thread "When Democracy Fails" in The Karl Popper Web's Critical-Cafe Archive. Since the archive does not have a back-link to this page, you may wish to bookmark this location.]
Go to C-C Archive.
Other Comments (via e-mail):
Tom Deering of Mensa raises the problem of complexity relative to binary choices:
To: email@example.com From: Sander Rubin <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Voting Procedures Cc: Bcc: X-Attachments: At 09:08 8/19/96 +0000, Tom Deering wrote: >Sander Rubin wrote: > [snip] >> For thoughts on voting procedures, have a look at: >> >> http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/~sander/mensa/chance1.html > >I read this page, and a couple of the related ones. (Now you know why it takes me an hour >to go through my email each morning.) I enjoyed the piece, but you missed one problem. > >You assume that people will reflect on issues. I think it's clear that people do very >little thinking in general, never mind in the heat of an election. Sound bites, dirty >campaigns and empty promises are proof. A thinking populace would demand real quotes, >issue-based campaigns; and they would check if past promises were kept. We do not. > >We use a simple binary choice because: it's simple. A chicken can make a binary choice. >The math is simple, the method is simple. Simple is the key, not fairness or accurate >determinism. We demand a system that can be operated with a simple coin flip. > >Thanks for making me think, > >Tom ------------REPLY---------- I didn't miss that problem; it just isn't the problem that I need to address at the outset. I'm well aware, of course, of inertia and laziness. And as they pervade society, we get consequences that do damage. The problem is: given (many but not all) people's laziness and inertia, can we devise rules that will favor the thoughtful and informed among them? Who, after all, is the "We" who are "demanding" binary choices? It isn't unanimous, and those who do demand are free to put all their votes on the one choice they favor. Turn your statement around. The sound bites, dirty campaigns, and empty promises are pervasive because the system of binary voting favors that kind of political activity. Would a different system produce a more rational political process and better social choices? Mensa is the ideal test bed for the scheme for two reasons. 1) The decisions to be made are of no consequence in the "real world". 2) The population has the ablitity to deal with (relatively) complex rules (though they are not really that complex). On the other hand, if you want to give chickens the franchise for some ulterior purpose, think about the consequences for us all and recoil. Sander
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Created: 19 Aug 96