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Review of Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, & the Rule of the Many

This book follows the recent trend in democratic theory termed “epistemic democracy” in a novel way. Rather than rely on liberal philosophy or an analogy with science, it begins with results in mathematics, decision theory, psychology and cognitive science. It also mentions an evolutionary basis for the superiority of group decision making.

Landemore traces different nuances of epistemic arguments for democracy from Aristotle to Mill to Dewey to Hayek, then sets out on her own path resting on the Condorcet Jury Theorem, the Law of Large Numbers, and recent results in decision theory such as the Diversity Prediction Theorem. At its core it is a sophisticated application of crowd wisdom theory into the political realm.

Democratic Reason assumes that individuals bring good faith and (on average) better-than-random intelligence to their evaluation of the proper course of action or predictions about the future. She cites empirical work not only on the “wisdom of the many” but also the “averageness of the few,” such as Phillip Tetlock’s “Expert Political Judgment.” Tetlock, like Kahneman and Tversky before him, used extensive data to show that political and business elites are about as accurate as laypersons in predicting outcomes of political and strategic decisions.

The positive side of the argument (for inclusive deliberation) relies on Lu Hong and Scott Page’s work to the effect that diversity trumps average ability when it comes to group problem solving and decision making. To that end, Landemore recommends deliberation (in assemblies selected by lot) followed by voting, because large, diverse groups make better decisions. Her ideal democratic mechanism would begin with deliberation to bring out information and points of views, followed by a vote taken among options two at a time. She sets aside the issue of a “stop procedure” for the deliberation phase. While most deliberative democrats would recommend some version of consensus here, Landemore (in my view correctly) leaves this for more empirical work. It may very well be that stoppage at a point of having a satisfactory number of proposals is rarely an issue in deliberation; but it is not part of her theoretical argument.

Individual fallibility and bias, she says, citing for example Hugo Mercier’s work, may actually be an evolutionary adaption that helps us make better group decisions. If each person presents her best possible argument to a particular point of view (even blind to her own fallacies and biases) while others have the natural ability to find fault with her arguments, all important information will emerge before the collective tribunal.

In other words, evolutionary psychology could be telling us that we were “built to parley” when it comes to social decisions. We make horrible decisions (see Kahneman and Tversky) as individuals and surprisingly good ones in groups (Surowiecki, Page) at least when the group is free of systemic bias. Diversity is essential not only because it brings in different points of views, heuristics, and information, but also because it allows individual errors to cancel.

What first appeared to be a missing link between deliberation and voting turned out not entirely crucial. Landemore, like many others, assumes it is possible to end a deliberation with yes/no (binary) votes between possible political choices. She states that current parliamentary procedure already functions in this way, and that even if the order of voting could affect outcomes, the agenda could be set in a random order so that all options are given equal chances. Some might find it unconvincing; some might find it a detail to be worked out later.

An issue that most would find minor, but that in my own opinion ought to be further explored by political scientists, is majority vote. She, like most theorists, assumes that in so far as voting is concerned, we must go with majority vote, because any other way of counting amounts to minority rule. Granted consensus would be next to impossible in any but tiny groups, but the choice is not binary. The option of supermajority should be given fair consideration.

Landemore makes it clear that more data are needed on what actually happens in deliberation both in current representative assemblies and among non-experts in other contexts. If nothing else, Democratic Reason begins to undo the distrust of “the masses” that has plagued political science since the time of James Madison. While remaining humble about its own claims and leaving many questions open for more evidence, this book shifts the burden of proof (in my non-expert opinion) with respect to quality of political decisions onto those who oppose democracy.

It also makes perhaps a greater achievement; it beats rational choice theory, usually employed in political science to bemoan the meaningless of voting or belittle the ignorance of the average voter, at its own game. Democratic Reason, like much recent literature on collective intelligence, argues that (pre-deliberation) ignorance of the average citizen is irrelevant when thinking about systemic properties. Democracy works (absent systemic bias) because what happens at the group level overcomes the shortcomings of individuals. This is, after all, why we (more or less universally) work in groups and teams in the first place.

Yet another interesting aspect of Landemore’s book, like epistemic democracy in general, is side-stepping the “communitarian” versus “liberal individualist” conundrum. Democratic Reason proceeds neither from “aggregation of preferences” nor an assumption of a mythical “general will” (at leas as often interpreted). It is founded on something entirely different: “general wisdom.” Epistemic democrats, whether Joshua Cohen, David Estlund, Robert Goodin, or Hélène Landemore, do not normally claim they are inventing anything new but rather trace their roots as far back as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Mill, Dewey, Pierce, or Hayek.

The book tables the issues of fairness (that democracy is inherently desirable independent of outcomes) as well as good faith and corruptibility. But in so far as the tasks it sets out to do, provide a purely epistemic justification for democracy over aristocracy and monarchy, it thoroughly succeeds.

In defense of epistemic democrats, they do not claim that only correctness of decisions (however measured) is important but that correctness must be part of why democracy in the first place. Democracy, they would say, like anything one comes to love has more than one thing going for. New or simply a return to ancient wisdom, it is exciting work! Democratic Reason is an especially readable manifestation of epistemic democratic theory.

2 comments on “Review of Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, & the Rule of the Many

  1. Pingback: Review of Democratic Reason: Politics, Collecti...

  2. Alex Sparrow

    Wow, I just picked this book up myself! I’ve been looking forward to getting into it.

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