The Democracy algorithm: How much should a single vote count for?
What if the strength of a democracy was decided not by its history, institutions, transparency or even its people?
What if it was decided by an algorithm?
The question popped up during a conversation a friend and I were having over lunch. Somewhere between our salads and second cups of coffee, we ended up ruminating about the limitations and possible failure of the experiment that is “representative democracy”. The sentiment is not that hard to fathom given whats happening around the world today. Liberalism seems to be going out of fashion. As if the ideas that make the very foundations of civilized society, i.e.,freedom, individual rights etc are a tarnished accessory that can be discarded for the sake of, well, whatever. Donald Trump doesn’t help matters. Point is, things do look rather worrisome.
But what if it is not that representative democracy has failed, but that it just doesn’t work anymore? What if the founding assumptions of the theory no longer hold true? The original idea of democracy was to hand over power to the people. In essence, by allowing them to choose who gets to call the shots. Sounds good, in theory at least.
The flaws of representative democracy aren’t exactly new. The Romans saw how it could all go terribly wrong and they were the ones that essentially came up with it. *Churchill is known to have said “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Essentially saying “People are too dumb to be given the right to vote”. As much as I admire the man, this is one thing I disagree with. Not for any moral reasons though. My contention is, regardless of intelligence, the numbers just don’t work anymore.
Consider the following: In 1960, the population of India was about 450 million. So the value of single vote was essentially 1/450,000,000. That’s a very small fraction. Today, with the population being 1.25 billion, it is three times as less. Three times lesser than a minuscule fraction. No wonder voting can seem so utterly pointless.
But it gets worse. The way the system is structured, all votes are considered as equal in value. This is one of the core tenets of democracy and rightly so. Or is it? If I was suffering from a serious medical condition and had to settle on a method of treatment, how should I go about it? I might consult five doctors and weigh their opinions. It would make no sense in consulting two doctors, two lawyers and an accountant. Could Mr Churchill have been on to something?
In my experience, the more educated and aware an individual is, the less likely it is that he/she will be a single issue voter. Unfortunately, not many people fit that mold. Strictly speaking, it would take too much time and effort to “convince” an intelligent electorate to vote one way or the other. Take me for instance, if any of the major Indian political parties were to convince me to vote for them, I would end up questioning them on a variety of topics. Their stance on climate change, freedom of press, moral policing, foreign policy, size of government, transparency, social welfare, education, etc etc. From a campaign manager’s perspective, I’m a nightmare. It makes a lot more sense to instead get a bunch of saffron donning fanatics to yell “The Muslims are coming to eat your babies.” This approach will most certainly swing the numbers in his favor. The incentives are backwards. Single issue voters. There’s just too many of em.
The one thing the typical politician fears above all is an intelligent and aware voter. It makes his job so much more harder.
But what if we “valued” votes differently? Ancient Romans regarded the vote of an eques “higher” than that of a pleb, a system that all but guaranteed power to ones with more material wealth. Needless to say it was a disaster. However, can the same be said about a system that gave more weight to say, educational credentials? So a post graduate’s vote is considered a little higher than a high school drop out. We could expand this to include value attributes to things like economic status (the less money you have, the higher your vote is valued), military experience, social work, etc. Basically, an algorithm.
I know what you are thinking. That’s crazy. I admit, it does sound a little weird. And the chances of things going wrong are probably pretty high. If anything, it would be easy to go overboard with this.
To use a smartphone analogy, feature creep could be all it takes to ruin it. Little things that seem like great ideas keep piling on and the code gets increasingly bloated. Finally there comes a day where the latest build just ends up breaking everything. The device (the government) wont do what its supposed to anymore. Not that it can’t. It is just hobbled by the software (a vote bank so divided that consensus is impossible).
But then, how is that any different from the mess we are in right now?
What does one say about a system that allows people like Trump and Modi get elected? Heck, I’m probably being gracious with the usage of the term “allow”. In any sane system, these guys would not even be viable as candidates. The very likelihood of them winning should be the stuff of cartoons. Oh wait, it is.
I’m not proposing the algorithm method as a solution. It isn’t one. In many ways its horribly discriminatory. But its hard to shake the feeling that it somehow makes more sense than whats going on today.
After all, there doesn’t seem to be any other viable alternative. That is, until Skynet comes online.
*There seems to be some debate over whether or not Churchill actually said that. The story seems apocryphal at best but I’m going with the standard, albeit, unsubstantiated narrative here.