Government quality and government selection

[M]en err in two ways, either by ignorance or by malice.

Francesco Guicciardini, Dialogue on the Government of Florence

A model of government quality and government selection mechanism quality

The two chief desirable characteristics of government are

  • representativity (r): the government is representative when its efforts are aimed at promoting the general interests (rather than personal or narrow interests), and
  • competence (c): the government is competent when it is able to enact effective policy in accordance with its aims.

A representative, competent government enacts policy that effectively promotes the general interest.

Modeled in this way, the quality of a government is a function of its representativity and its competence, q = q(r,c), increasing in both arguments (e.g., q(r,c) = r c). The quality of a mechanism for selecting a government is measured by its tendency to produce high-quality governments.

The raw material for the government selection mechanism is the population at large. Before the selection mechanism is applied, every potential delegation, d (i.e., every group of people that could serve as government), can be considered to be described by two values, r0(d) and c0(d), the group’s initial representativity and competence characteristics, respectively. The averages of those values over the entire set of potential delegations, R0 and C0, are the background representativity and competence.

The selection process works in two ways:

  • first, it has a distributional effect – it makes it more likely for some potential delegations to assume power and become the actual government, and,
  • second, it has a delegation-intrinsic effect – potential delegations (primarily those that are perceived as having a high chance of assuming power) are affected by the process itself resulting in changes to their representativity and competence, say to rs(d) and cs(d).

The resulting averages (averages over the new values weighted by the chance of being selected, p(d)) are Rs and Cs.

Finally, as the government governs, its character is influenced by its special position, yielding new values, rg(d) and cg(d). Averaging those new values using the the selection weighting, p(d), yields the values Rg and Cg – the expected representativity and competence of the government.

Factors determining government quality through its lifecycle

The governing phase

The effect of the final phase, governing, is probably uncontroversial. As a group holds onto power its knowledge of how to utilize that power increases – i.e., it becomes more competent. At the same time however, it become less representative as its special status makes it more likely that its world view diverges from that of the average person. Thus, for any group that is in power,

rg(d) < rs(d) and cg(d) > cs(d),

and consequently,

Rg > Rs and Cg < Cs.

The likely outcome of those changes is that for some initial period of governing the overall quality of government increases as the effect of increased competence outweighs that of the decreased representativity. Then, as the period of government becomes longer the increase in competence slows and at some point a maximum in quality is reached. Beyond that point the decreasing representativity is the dominant effect, and government quality declines. This is roughly the rationale for “frequent elections”.

The selection phase

The selection phase could be, and often is, a very protracted affair. People spend lifetimes attempting to attain government power. On the other hand, important selection effects can be innate and in that sense instantaneous.
The effects of the selection phase depend greatly on the selection mechanism. Sortition, for example, has a very simple effect – the selection distribution it induces is explicit and its instantaneous nature makes it unlikely that the selection process will have a group-intrinsic effect (thus, for sortition, Rs = R0 and Cs = C0). In an ideal-type monarchy the selection process is simple as well – it is completely determined by innate properties and thus its only effect is distributional (but, of course, the distributional effect is extreme).
An electoral system, on the other hand, produces a very complex process. The 18th century doctrine as expressed in the Federalist Papers claims that elections produce a beneficial effect for both competence and representativity through the distributional mechanism (i.e., more competent and representative delegates have an increased chance of being selected) as well as through the group-intrinsic mechanism (in an attempt to win votes, groups align their policies – proposed and implemented – with the general interest and then work to make sure that those policies are effective). Critics of elections claim, on the other hand, that both the distributional mechanism and the group-intrinsic mechanism tend to reduce representativity (distribution: non-representatively ambitious groups are more effective at self-promotion, and groups that are willing to promote the narrow interests are likely to be selected through the support of powerful interests; group-intrinsic: competing for power inculcates in the winners the idea that the power is theirs by right, to be used as they see fit).
Thus, according to the Federalist Papers, for the electoral selection mechanism

Rs > R0 and Cs > C0,

while according to critics,

Rs < R0.

(Surveys show that public opinion now firmly adheres to the position of the critics regarding the matter of representativity.)

Background state

The background state of representativity and competence is affected by various factors. Societies can be characterized by a high level of representativity (a situation in which most potential delegations, if given power, would attempt to promote the general welfare) or by low representativity (a situation in which most delegations would attempt to use any political power that is available to promote narrow interests). Similarly, a well informed population would have a higher level of background competence than an uninformed or misinformed, propagandized population.
One of the factors determining the background state is the government selection mechanism – either directly through its ideological or incentivizing effects or indirectly through its effect on the government, which, of course, can influence the background state by applying public policy. An effect of the first, direct, type is that of a competitive mechanism, such as an electoral system, which tends to promote a competitive ideology, reducing background representativity. An effect of the second type is that of elitist systems (e.g., hereditary or co-optation based oligarchies, or elections) under which government has an interest in using secrecy and propaganda to buttress its privileged position, resulting in reduced background competence.

Conclusion

The analysis of the quality of a government selection mechanism according to its effects on the representativity and competence of delegations in each one the phases of the government lifecycle provides a framework for understanding the complex effects of a political mechanism of central importance in any organized society. In particular, the analysis provides a way to understand the various ways in which corruption (non-representativity) can grow and lower the quality of government. Such an understanding is useful as background to evaluating the potential of sortition in reducing corruption.

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29 Responses

  1. Most interesting. I think it might be more constructive to model this slightly differently. Basically, your distributional effect is just a fancy way of saying that some individual gets chosen and not others. Your delegation effect is the effect of the process upon whoever the individual happens to be. The latter but no the former alters the characteristics of the individual selected (and possibly the individuals not selected?). Your governance effect seems just to be the effect of being in government over time. So maybe it would just make more sense to make r and c be functions of s (selection process) and t (time spent in office).

    Also, you move between talk of selecting the “government” and selecting an individual official. Surely that’s a huge difference. I know that this is a point Keith has hammered on repeatedly–the collective decision-making body might behave very differently than any individual agent. Can the collective performance of a representative body be predicted by the individual performance levels of the individuals composing it? That strikes me as very tricky to model.

    Finally, I believe there’s a literature on uncertainty and electoral politics that might interest you. If I recall correctly–this is not my area of expertise–the idea is that you can imagine society as having a collective utility function. Society wants this function maximized. But there’s uncertainty, and so the “best” policy can only be determined with error. Society selects politicians to identify the best policy. They might be very good at it; they might not be able to hit the best policy exactly, but they could arrive at a distribution with a low variance. But the politician’s utility function might not coincide with that of the society. And so if the politician doesn’t get it quite right, the voter must decide whether this is due to an honest mistake or due to self-serving behavior. And regardless of which is the case (or both), the voter must decide if voting the politician out will help matters.

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  2. > Basically, your distributional effect […]

    Yes – that is essentially what I meant. I just tried to give things a bit of formality by attaching symbols to the elements of that analysis.

    > Also, you move between talk of selecting the “government” and selecting an individual official. Surely that’s a huge difference.

    I tried to keep to the former. It is the behavior of the entire governmental system that matters.

    > Finally, I believe there’s a literature on uncertainty and electoral politics that might interest you.

    Sounds potentially interesting (although the assumptions seem questionable). Do you have any references?

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  3. I do not think that either representativeness or competence can be treated as single dimensions assessible on a uniform metric, even retrospectively, let alone prospectively.
    Even more dubious is the assumption that there is some task of governance that can be reduced to a single assessment. It is true, of course that there are plenty of performances in the field that are so clearly bad by almost any criterion that they deserve unanimous condemnation, in spite of the fact that we differ greatly about the weight to be attached to different criteria.
    But that does not mean that there is any way of establishing an optimum. It is not just a question of uncertainty. Such agreement as we can get about the criteria of representation or competent performance is highly contextual, even at very abstract levels. If Rawls can argue that his contractors behind the veil of ignorance would choose liberty as their first priority, that is only because 1) he assumes that security is already taken care of, and 2) liberty remains pretty vague.
    In some matters it is very important to have uniformity over as wide an area as possible, notably law,especially equality before the law, but in many other areas it is important that decision be sensitive to specific needs that differ between various constituencies. In these latter matters both representation and competence will need to be assessed differently from the former. In a modern society the difference is not primarily a matter of geography but of functional diversity.
    Good results are likely to emerge from negotiations between diverse interest in which each tries to arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise rather than the triumph of its own interest at the expense of the other. Such negotiations have to be quite specific. Vague generalities about priorities only get in the way. That is why I argue that in a very wide range of matters what are needed are specific authorities that are focussed on specific public goods, coordinated in their turn be negotiation of conflicts between them. Top-down decision is necessary in some contexts to some degree, but should be minimised.
    Our centralised electoral systems assure incompetence and unrepresentativeness in relation to any realistic analysis of the tasks they are required to perform. But sortition is not likely to be much better as long as it rests on the present aggregation of tasks.

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  4. Hi John,

    While it is true that representativeness, competence and governance quality are all highly complex characteristics, I still think that it is useful to think in terms of summary indices of those characteristics. Such indices can be applied to government bodies at any degree of aggregation.

    These indices can be considered subjective – different for each person, so that the question of whether they can be agreed upon does not become an issue. Thus, unlike Rawls, I am not trying to argue that high quality government will act in one way or another – only that government should represent effectively the interests of the people, which seems to be true by definition for a democratic conception of government. (I agree with you that Rawls’s argument is weak.) By the way, your own argument (that good results would emerge only in decentralized systems) implicitly defines what a high-quality central government would do – namely, it would decentralized much of the government policy making. (Of course, if this happens, you would also desire high quality in decentralized government bodies.)

    To the extent that objective indices are of interest, they can be created by aggregating subjective indices. An index of government quality, for example, can be operationalized (conceptually or practically) as the average of assessments of quality from a sample of people who are provided with the resources and motivation to reach a good understanding of government operations. Note that such an operationalization does not require that the people on the sample agree about what would constitute high quality government. Objective indices of representativeness and competence can be operationalized in a similar manner.

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  5. Hi Yoram
    I think your points are well taken about post-factum assessments, but in trying to cook up recipes to be tried, I don’t see how such assessments can help. Perhaps they can tell us something about what is wrong with present arrangements, but not how to get to the root of what is wrong. It’s a bit like medicine. You may find that a person has blood poisoning, but not have a clue what to do about it.
    As I often argue, Lenin had an impressive model of democracy. Local committees would discuss what they needed and send their resolutions up to the regional level, where an attempt would be made to weld all the local demands together, and so on, until finally at the top all these desiderata would be brought together in the great plan, which would then be implemented by the bureaucracy delegating productive tasks and resources to various cooperatives. Of course, the demands that reached the top were nothing like what the grass roots wanted and what the grass roots produced was nothing like the planners wanted. The statistics either way were systematically faked. There were just too many variables to be quantified, too many people covering their ass and too many failures in transmission of information. But, above all, there was no conceivable rational procedure for handling all that information even if they had it.
    Big capitalist conglomerates fall victim to an analogue of the same disease, and so do large government enterprises like the armed forces.
    My conclusion is that you need 1) specialisation and 2) that the people who make the decisions be those affected by them.

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  6. I’m reminded of John Adams’ verdict on Condorcet: “A Man of Science, but little acquainted with history: ignorant, totally ignorant of all Writings of the Science of Government, with very little knowledge of the Human Heart and still less of the World”. Actually, I’m a fan of Condorcet, I’m just sceptical as to why you want to reduce political theory to algebra. Defining the government as “representative (r) when its efforts are aimed at promoting the general interests” doesn’t tell us anything about how best to achieve r, so what value is added by the algebra? The danger is that we forget that human agents are not just mathematical tokens — this I suspect is what Adams had in mind. If we want to understand human agency then we need to look to history, psychology and sociology, not mathematics. What is interesting about the Condorcet theorem is not just the probability calculus, it’s the conditions that are necessary in order to realise its potential in political decision making. For example “independence” is better understood in the psychological rather than the computational sense so if we want to design institutions for human agents we have more to learn from Rousseau than Condorcet.

    Returning to your initial definition:
    1) representativity (r): the government is representative when its efforts are aimed at promoting the general interests (rather than personal or narrow interests);

    You might well follow this with:

    2) statistically, sortition is the most representative appointment mechanism

    therefore

    3) sortition is the means to ensure government in the general interest.

    This may be true definitionally, but is not true in practice (as statistics only apply in aggregate and its not possible to model mathematically the behaviour of individual agents on account of the uncertainty produced by sheer human diversity). It’s theoretically possible that government by a benign dictator might be a better way of promoting the general interest, as there’s no necessary connection between the number of decision makers and the agenda pursued. This is because human agents are not obliged to pursue their own narrow interests. Whether or not they are likely to do so in practice is the domain of history, psychology and moral philosophy; mathematics adds nothing whatsoever to our understanding of these matters.

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  7. Yoram, John and Keith,

    Since both competence and representativeness are made up of so many constantly changing factors, I also doubt the value of trying to convert the concept of good government into formulas.

    One obvious point is that “government” is a catch-all term for multiple functions….including such things as the function of deciding WHAT to do, the intermediate function of deciding HOW to do it, and the executive function of DOING it…. It may not matter one whit if the executive functionaries are representative, and it may not matter very much how “competent” the people who are deciding WHAT should be done are. The HOW decision is perhaps the toughest, benefiting from some elements of competence and representativeness.

    Research into group decision making has clearly demonstrated that diversity (in its many aspects) is beneficial…and indeed diverse groups generally make better decisions than homogeneous groups of experts (maximum “competence”). This diversity does not even NEED to be representative of the population (though representativeness is a functionally convenient way of achieving diversity).

    And of course, a given group may be extremely competent on issues A and B and totally incompetent on issues C, D, etc. I question whether “competence” is a single thing at all.

    In short, good government is an emergent phenomenon that cannot simply be reduced to a formula like competence plus representativeness.

    Terry Bouricius

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  8. Agree, but would add that whilst sheer diversity is sufficient for improved decision making, if the diversity is statistically representative of the population it also has the advantage of making the decision process democratic. So you get the normative and epistemic benefits at the same time. The demarchic alternative fails on the normative count and I also wonder whether drawing from a pool of volunteers would generate sufficient diversity to enable the epistemic benefit of descriptive representation. In his book John acknowledges that demarchic initiatives would most likely be proposed by “those who are active negotiators in their everyday lives” (p.127), and this would have the effect of sacrificing epistemic diversity on the altar of competence in speech acts. We should certainly look for competence in executive functionaries but research would indicate that sheer diversity is a more important factor in the “rightness” of aggregate judgment and that we would be unwise to privilege the judgment of “active negotiators”.

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  9. OK, I confess demarchy is not democratic , if that means giving people what they think they want. The evidence is that if people get to discuss matters responsibly they alter their opinions for the better, ie in the direction I believe is right. Worse still, like J S Mill, I believe that participating seriously in negotiation and subsequent decision for which they bear the responsibility improves people morally and intellectually, widens their horizons and enriches their lives.
    Professionally and temperamentally I’m committed to reason, but I may be wrong. A very sophisticated professor of Government I knew well put up a long resistance to a certain proposal. When all his arguments were refuted he still held his ground, saying “I just don’t like the smell of it”. He may have been right. It may be that all we reasoners are doing, as A C Bradley said, is “finding bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.” But I still think he was wrong.

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  10. “The evidence is that if people get to discuss matters responsibly they alter their opinions for the better, ie in the direction I believe is right. Worse still, like J S Mill, I believe that participating seriously in negotiation and subsequent decision for which they bear the responsibility improves people morally and intellectually, widens their horizons and enriches their lives.”

    No-one on this list would argue with any of the above (apart from “in the direction I believe is right”, which, hopefully, got lost in translation!). The only issue is who gets to do the discussing — a randomly-selected mini-public or a pool of volunteers. Fishkin’s experiments would suggest that, for jaw-jaw rather than war-war, conscripts are just as effective as volunteers. So that leaves trying to work out who bears the responsibility for what. Given the social democratic foundations of modern states most people are involved one way or another in most things, so volunteering would merely distinguish between the leisured/opinionated/active-negotiators (drawn predominately from the chattering classes) and everyone else.

    Your definition of democracy as “giving people what they think they want” is a description of the rational ignorance resulting from mass elections, and has nothing in common with the deliberative democracy championed by Fishkin and others.

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  11. Keith,

    Can you give us a citation for that biting Adams quote about Condorcet?

    Terry Bouricius

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  12. Keith wrote:
    “if the diversity is statistically representative of the population it also has the advantage of making the decision process democratic. So you get the normative and epistemic benefits at the same time.”

    Keith,
    In your own mind is the promotion of democracy a normative good? Do you consider yourself a democrat? In your book (which I finally finished) you state that the UK “never SHOULD be a democracy.” and the way to resolve the problem of electoral dictatorship “is not more democracy, it is to create the essential balance that Aristotle argued constituted the ideal polity.”

    Terry Bouricius

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  13. Hi John,

    > I think your points are well taken about post-factum assessments, but in trying to cook up recipes to be tried, I don’t see how such assessments can help. Perhaps they can tell us something about what is wrong with present arrangements, but not how to get to the root of what is wrong.

    I am not sure what it is that you are arguing. Is it that analysis of political phenomena is inherently intractable? Again, you are engaged in such an analysis yourself when you claim that politics needs to be decentralized in order to be produce good results. Are you claiming that the flaws in Lenin’s proposals were unforeseeable? In fact they were foreseen by some, but even if it were true that in this particular case there were unforeseeable factors, it would hardly be evidence that analysis produces no understanding at all.

    Of course, I am not claiming that the model I proposed (or any other model) is an infallible tool for deducing the quality of governments. Keynes put it this way:

    The object of our analysis is, not to provide a machine, or method of blind manipulation, which will furnish an infallible answer, but to provide ourselves with an organised and orderly method of thinking out particular problems[.]

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  14. > I’m just sceptical as to why you want to reduce political theory to algebra. [Keith]

    > I also doubt the value of trying to convert the concept of good government into formulas. [Terry]

    > good government is an emergent phenomenon that cannot simply be reduced to a formula like competence plus representativeness. [Terry]

    These statements seem to reflect some inherent resistance to formalization. Formalization has its uses and its drawbacks – a model can be under-formalized or over-formalized. A generic argument against formalization is simply too sweeping to be valid.

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  15. Terry

    The Adams reference is from Nadia Urbanati, Representative Democracy, p.178. Her source is Huggins, John Adams et ses reflexions sur Condorcet, p.211, but Adams’ original remarks were unpublished.

    As for my views on democracy, I think it is an essential part of a mixed constitution — elective democracy for the initiation of legislative proposals and sortive for scrutiny and law-making. But the other elements of the mixed constitution are non-democratic — aristocratic (in the generic sense) for advocacy and meritocratic for executive functions.

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  16. Yoram

    I don’t have a problem with formalization in principle, but there is a danger when human agents are involved. This is the problem with systems theorists like Niklas Luhmann.

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  17. > there is a danger when human agents are involved

    Humans are always involved and life is rife with dangers.

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  18. > Returning to your initial definition: […] 3) sortition is the means to ensure government in the general interest.

    > This may be true definitionally, but is not true in practice

    Your argument is transparently flawed. For one thing, it ignores the issue of competence. It also ignores what I called “the background rate of corruption”. If that rate is high, sortition will be unlikely to produce a representative government.

    These flaws demonstrate the need for careful analysis and for constructing a reasonable framework for thinking about the issues we are considering. Those are my goals in proposing the model presented in this post.

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  19. I think we are using words in different ways. If the background rate of corruption is high then sortition will simply reflect (re-present) that and produce a corrupt government. This is a reflection of the old adage that we get the government we deserve, not the one we want. If you want to use a private language in which “representation” is re-defined as “non-corruption” then your careful analysis requires a key in which you define your idiosyncratic use of familiar linguistic tokens.

    As for the issue of algebraic formalization, I’m sure this is a valuable tool for software engineering but is less useful where volitional agents are involved owing to the high level of uncertainty.

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  20. > This is a reflection of the old adage that we get the government we deserve, not the one we want.

    This platitude is nothing more than apologetics for the oligarchical system we are used to.

    > If you want to use a private language in which “representation” is re-defined as “non-corruption” then your careful analysis requires a key in which you define your idiosyncratic use of familiar linguistic tokens.

    When people speak about “representative government” they mean that it represents their interests. You, as well, in the comment I quoted, wrote about “government in the general interest”. Again, your confusion here – which is actually quite common – highlights the need for careful definitions and indicates that the reduction in ambiguity that is formalization provides may be very useful in the current context.

    > As for the issue of algebraic formalization, I’m sure this is a valuable tool for software engineering but is less useful where volitional agents are involved owing to the high level of uncertainty.

    Again, “volitional agents” are involved in all human activity, including software engineering. Again, formalization has advantages and disadvantages – in software engineering as in political philosophy. Good practice uses formalization judiciously rather than adopting it uncritically or dismissing it out-of-hand.

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  21. I did just want to add a comment in favor of formalization here. It’s important to remember the dangers of the opposite. I can understand why conservatives like Burke and Adams were wary about believing in general principles in politics–politics is complex, the principles won’t capture everything important, etc. But the opposite approach seems much too close to relying upon personal judgment and intuition, with all the massive biases, prejudices, etc. that can be concealed there. At least if you have clearly specified principles–maybe even a formal model–you can argue about what’s missing, what needs to be added, what the limits of application are, etc. But how do you argue with someone whose defense of their opinions is “I feel it in my breast,” or “I’m appealing to the age-old wisdom of our tradition?” Again, reliance upon judgment is valuable and important, but not very useful for certain purposes–like trying to figure out how government works.

    I think we’d all agree that we want government to work “well”. The problem is figuring out just what the heck that means. As John rightly points out, we might want government to do different things, and it might be hard to aggregate how well it does those things into one measure of performance. (This is sometimes called the problem of incommensurability of values.) Incidentally, I think this is one of the advantages of demarchy–instead of having one governmental body trying to do everything, we can have multiple bodies each doing a different thing. Surely that form of specialization makes it easier to say what doing “well” means for each particular decision-making body.

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  22. Okay…If there is value in formalizing the notion of “good government,” it is necessary to subdivide each or Yoram’s root elements into constituent elements. “Government” consists of distinct functions, such as decision-making (what and how) legislative functions, and executive functions, as a start. Each sub-element needs its own formula for good governance. Also, “competence” needs to be subdivided and also specialized to distinct elements. Competence regarding issue A might be mutually exclusive from competence on issue B. It does little good to ask what the average “competence” of the base community is if legislative competence is an emergent quality that is generated by the mixing together of diverse individually incompetent individuals.

    In sum, I think the level of complexity (epicycles upon epicycles) needed to formally explain “good government” is such that it is a hopeless task.

    Terry Bouricius

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  23. Terry,

    > If there is value in formalizing the notion of “good government,” it is necessary to subdivide each or Yoram’s root elements into constituent elements.

    Such subdivision may be possible and interesting, but that doesn’t mean it is necessary. If something of interest can be said about “competence” or “representativity” as a whole then breakdown into components is not necessary. For example (as I indicated in the post), the claims that competence increases with experience, while representativity decreases (“power corrupts”) are widely accepted.

    > It does little good to ask what the average “competence” of the base community is if legislative competence is an emergent quality that is generated by the mixing together of diverse individually incompetent individuals.

    It seems that what you are arguing is that the competence of a group is only very loosely connected to the competence of the individuals in the group. That seems unlikely to me, but in any case this does not directly touch on the model I suggested, since that model deals entirely with group competences and makes no attempt to connect them to competences of individuals. When I refer to average competence I am taking the average not over individuals but over the set of groups. That is, if there are only two possible governments – Republicans and Democrats – and they have about equal chance of taking power then the average government competence is ½ [c(Republicans) + c(Democrats)]. The quantities being averaged are the competences of each of the groups as a whole.

    > In sum, I think the level of complexity (epicycles upon epicycles) needed to formally explain “good government” is such that it is a hopeless task.

    It is not clear to me at all that explaining things informally is inherently easier than explaining things informally. Also, formal models are being routinely used to describe (certain aspects of) very complex systems such as the global weather, the global climate, the global economy, whole organisms, whole populations (including human populations), etc. It is not clear to me why you think that politics or government is inherently more complex than those other systems.

    Of course, no model exists which will predict with any accuracy every aspect of the global economy or the size of every leaf on a tree. Models (formal or informal) tend to predict aggregative, statistical properties. This would be true in models of government as in other models.

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  24. Peter, you are building a man out of straw when you contrast algebra with intuition. My appeal was to history, psychology, sociology and moral philosophy and I think students of these disciplines would be insulted to see their domains traduced as “feeling it in my breast”. The attempt by positivists and Marxists to formalize the study of history by reference to “covering laws” and other such generalisations failed miserably and this is the likely fate of any attempt to reduce human behaviour to mathematics (by all means provide some examples of successful endeavours).

    I agree that we should seek to define our concepts clearly but Yoram and yourself appear to be suggesting that Pitkin was wasting her time devoting her PhD to bringing some clarity to the concept of representation as all she need to do was to switch to the math department and then declaim:

    representativity (r): the government is representative when its efforts are aimed at promoting the general interests (rather than personal or narrow interests)

    Job done, QED, so now we can all go down the pub. The danger, of course, is that we delude ourselves into thinking that political problems can be resolved by the manipulation of algebraic symbols. The laws of arithmetic tell us nothing whatsoever about the behaviour of actual human agents, for that we need psychology, history etc. Note this is not an appeal to irreducible complexity — social psychology being the study of the predictable behaviour of individuals in a group context. But this is an empirical domain — for example Cass Sunstein has argued that group deliberation polarizes opinion, whereas Page, Fishkin and others have argued that polarization can be avoided if institutions are carefully designed. But this is the field of social science experiments, not deductive logic or algebra.

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  25. Actually, Peter has it right and you have it wrong. The contrast is not between “algebra” and “history, psychology”, etc. any more than the contrast is between “algebra” and “physics, chemistry”, etc. Algebra is a tool that is used within fields – physics, chemistry, history, psychology, etc. The contrast is between working within those fields while using formalization (when useful) and working within those fields while insisting on not using formalization at all.

    As for “attempts” to use formalized descriptions of human behavior – how about models for population growth, models for economic activity, or models associating age and socio-economic group membership with, say, watching TV? Is it not clear to you that there are many, many such models constantly being devised and employed across society?

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  26. The only attempt that I know of the application of algebra to history is the (failed) attempts of positivists to identify ahistorical covering laws. Regarding the social sciences (my own field) I agree that where it’s possible to quantify something then there is nothing wrong with introducing mathematical formalisation. But how exactly are you proposing to quantify representation? According to Pitkin’s analysis representation (r) would require a large number of qualifying subscripts, so numerous that you would have to keep looking them up, so your proposed shorthand would obfuscate rather than clarify the argument.

    Competence (c) however can be operationalised using standard methods like competitive examinations, and I suppose the subjective assessment of professionals (including peer-review and the judgment of head hunters) might be amenable to some sort of Bayesian formalism, but in past posts you have denied that some people might be more competent than others in public affairs, preferring instead to surround the word with scare quotes.

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  27. > But how exactly are you proposing to quantify representation?

    You seem to have a very unrealistic conception of what formalization implies. In general, an exact method of quantification of a certain concept is not a requirement for the discussion of the concept – this is true whether that concept is referred to using a word or a symbol.

    That being said, as it happens I have already suggested a possible way to quantify the characteristics I discussed – representativity, competence and quality of government – in my comment above timestamped July 10, 6:15am. To whatever extent representation of interests is made of various identifiable components, such a quantification would be a summary index of those components. I don’t see why answers to the questions such as “to what extent do you think the current government attempts to promote your interests?” obfuscate things.

    > in past posts you have denied that some people might be more competent than others in public affairs, preferring instead to surround the word with scare quotes.

    Here you go covering old ground again. The competence that you (or me, or others) ascribe to the certain people is subjective. Your (and Socrates’s) implication that the people you consider as experts must be universally seen as experts is false. If we could all agree who the experts are, then there would not be any need for you to shove those experts down our collective political throat. Since there are disagreements, then the best we can do is let every delegation choose their own “experts” – i.e., make their own choice of who is competent.

    That doesn’t mean, of course, that there would not be wide agreement on certain matters associated with competence, such as that experience usually leads to increased competence, or that lack of information leads to reduced competence.

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  28. Yoram,

    You wrote
    “That doesn’t mean, of course, that there would not be wide agreement on certain matters associated with competence, such as that experience usually leads to increased competence, or that lack of information leads to reduced competence.”

    I don’t think I would agree with that. Experience within a legislature can actually REDUCE one’s competence at addressing societal problems, while enhancing one’s competence at being re-elected. Also, information is a double-edged sword. Much “information” is incorrect, or biased, and reduces competence. Those who were extremely expert in Ptolemaic model of the solar system 2000 years ago, were LESS competent at understanding the solar system, or even make accurate predictions about the location of the planets in the sky. I think political science and public policy are at a similar state of immaturity… where presumed knowledge actually gums up the works.

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  29. Terry,

    I defined competence as the ability of the government to achieve its own goals. Therefore, in a system in which the chief concern of the government is to get re-elected, increased ability to get re-elected is an indication of increased competence. The reason for the reduced ability to address problems in society is an increasing divide between the interests of the majority in the society and the interests of the delegates. Thus, this reduced ability reflects a reduction in representativity rather than a reduction in competence.

    Regarding the value of information: I do not want to get into the extremely deep epistemological water of what counts as information. Intuitively, it is clear, I think, that having more information about a phenomenon makes it more likely that effective policy regarding that phenomenon can be devised. In the case of celestial phenomena, for example, the increasingly sophisticated Ptolemaic models were the result of an accumulation of information – added celestial observations and increased accuracy of those observations. Those models did result in increased accuracy for predictions. Ultimately, the transition to Heliocentric models and to elliptical trajectory models came due to the availability of more information as well.

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