Power contest versus negotiation

Differences of opinion can be settled by a power contest or by negotiation.

Winning a power contest is simpler and more satisfying, at least in the short run. Simpler, because we don't have to acknowledge the validity of opponents' opinions or think of creative ways to accommodate them. Power contests have well-defined rules (for instance, majority vote wins) to establish who wins and who loses. We feel validated and empowered when we win. We get to dictate the results to the losers. Even when we lose, we can easily preserve our sense of moral superiority. The more powerful or numerous winners are simply not as smart and moral as we right-thinking losers are. It was only a power contest. We'll get 'em next time, or next decade, or next century.

Negotiation seems unsatisfactory to people accustomed to power contests. We don't have the opportunity to prove our superiority and dominance over opponents. We have to acknowledge opponents' interests and opinions has having some standing, some formal equivalence to our own. We have to think creatively to bridge differences or create trade-offs that all sides can agree to. Everyone partially wins and partially loses, relative to their starting positions. We don't get to separate ourselves from our opponents. Instead we draw them toward us by creating an agreement with them. We reinforce our similarities rather than our differences.

So a power contest provides us with abundant drama, intense emotions, feelings of superiority and/or victimhood, and a final score that lets us know our relative position of strength compared to others. So what if it doesn't provide a stable long-term solution to the problem or conflict? Why have peace when fighting is so much fun?

Negotiation is obviously better for relationships, for stability, for cooperation, and for problem-solving. It just doesn't allow us to win and lose in the simple, direct manner that evolution has given us the taste for.

I don't think we can suppress or ignore our instinctive attraction to the thrills of competition. It's not even possible to confine it to the safest domains of sports and games. But we need to learn the advantages of negotiation and be willing to use it in the most difficult and important conflict situations. Political conflicts are very important, and that's why politics needs to be institutionalized negotiation rather than a succession of institutionalized power contests. Politics as war-by-other-means was an improvement over constant actual warfare, but it's no longer good enough.

We need a system of real representation because it's a prerequisite for negotiations that work. I will elaborate on the connections between negotiation and representation in future posts.


Origins of Personal Representation

After the idea for Personal Representation occurred to me in 2007, I cursorily searched for references to the idea.  I found none, which surprised me, as the idea seems obvious and perhaps provably optimal if one begins with a few reasonable premises.  I started this blog partly because I hadn't found my Big Idea published anywhere.

I finally hit google/wikipedia paydirt earlier this month with terms like direct representation and delegated voting. Further poking around led to similar ideas with names like "delegable proxy" and "liquid democracy," the latter of which my wife said sounded like a cocktail, and probably a nasty one.  Delegable proxy was actually my first thought for an ideal system, but I felt and still feel that personal representation (a.k.a. proxy voting) is simpler, perhaps more sellable, and more than good enough.  The differences among systems of personal representation, via one or more level of proxy, seem minor to me. I'll take any one I can get. Ha, ha.

Tracing the idea of Personal Representation (or proxy voting) back as far as I could, I found a fairly quick progression from Thomas Hare's re-invention of the single transferable vote and John Stuart Mill's advocacy of it, to Simon Sterne and his buddies coming up with the weighted proxy voting idea.  I was gratified they chose the same name for it as I have—Personal Representation.  They started a Personal Representation Society in New York to pitch the idea to that state's constitutional convention, publishing Report to the Constitutional Convention of the State of New York on Personal Representation in 1867.  The proxy idea is introduced on page 35:
Every person receiving at any election for members of assembly, a larger number of votes than the minimum quota fixed by law, should be deemed elected, and each member cast in the legislative body upon every measure or act coming to a vote, the number of ballots cast for him, and which he represents, be they six thousand or twenty thousand.

Boo-ya!  Right answer.

* * *

The convention didn't go for it.

Reading works by and about Sterne, Mill, Dodgson, and other 19th-century advocates of proportional representation has been educational, fun, and sad.  Praised be wikipedia and Google Books.  On the plus side, I'm glad to know this little ol' blog isn't the sole public source of the proxy voting idea!  I'm not alone.  On the minus side, our little team hasn't made much progress since 1867.  And if a bunch of big-time New York lawyers, right after a friggin' Civil War couldn't get people (who were already having a constitutional convention!) a to try a new system, it's probably going to be a rather difficult task.

Carl Andrae (Danish inventor of PR, 1855) spoke the truth in a 1871 letter:
Frankly, it is ridiculous that a matter really so simple should create such a 'big noise.'  There is another instance of human folly.

Amen, brother.  But living many generations later under a thoroughly broken, unresponsive, and pathetically non-representational system, I'd be happy just to hear some of that 'noise' regarding real representation in government.


Representation 2.0—This Time It's Personal!

Yesterday's post leads to the oh-so-shocking conclusion that if someone is going to represent me, I should be permitted to chose who that person is.  If I can chose my Representative at will, that authority also makes me responsible for the result.  The System would be off the hook, representation-wise.

But Noooooo!, I don't get to choose my Representative.  Instead, some politicians that very few people really want (maybe their families, friends, and major donors?) decide to subject themselves to a farcical non-unpopularity contest known as an election, in which the victor becomes the so-called representative of everybody.  FMyLife.  Is it so hard to see this has nothing to do with personally useful representation in government?

In the status quo (remember, dear reader, I'm talking about U.S.-style single seat systems here), we don't have representation, we compete with our neighbors for little drops of it.  If that's not bad enough, our choices are limited, typically to 2, but in practice often to 1.  It really is a Coke vs. Pepsi situation, and you're lucky if neither one has a local monopoly.  But you don't actually get to choose Coke or Pepsi for yourself—you get what the majority of your neighbors dislike least.

What if we could give everyone his or her favorite drink without this silly and unnecessary competition?  Well...providing everyone at a big party with their favorite of 435 drinks might be a logistical challenge—it's called a bar—but with Representatives it's easier.

So without further ado (or centuries of make-believe) here's how to have a government in which everyone is represented, optimally.  Let's call it Personal Representation.

Given a group of oh, say 435 Representatives, have each citizen write the name of their preferred representative on a postcard and mail it to:

Office of the Clerk
U.S. Capitol, Room H154
Washington, DC 20515–6601

That's how difficult it would be to have optimal, personally-representative government. When it comes to representation in government, think SELECTION, not election. The only point of an election in the context of representation is to deny representation to the losers, and the losers that matter are not the losing candidates, but rather every citizen who would prefer a representative other than the election winner.

There's a second necessary part of Personal Representation: when the Congressperson votes, it's weighted by the number of citizens who've chosen him or her as Representative.  Like-minded citizens share a Representative, and the more popular Reps carry more weight in votes than the less popular ones. 

The only way we need to restrict an individual's choice of representative is by limiting the size of the legislature.

Why do we have large legislatures?  A good reason to have many Representatives would be so that each can represent a distinct political position.  An archaic and should-be-obsolete reason is to facilitate vote counting with the fiction that each representative "represents" an equal number of citizens.  A nefarious reason is to disguise the nature of a system in which everyone is gonna get a mixture of Coke and Pepsi, no matter what.

Re-stating the two principles behind Personal Representation:
RealGov Principle #3
Given a body of representatives, the quality of representation is maximized when constituents are free to individually select any representative as their own.

RealGov Principle #4
If constituents individually select their representatives, political equality requires that voting weights within the body of representatives are linearly proportional to the number of constituents currently selecting each representative.

There's much more to write about the potential workings of a Personal Representation system, but I hope the main idea and the thinking behind it are now clear.  Have a nice millennium!


Checklist for representation

What actually happens when a group makes a decision about some Issue?  People suggest alternatives, advocate for their preferred alternative, and sooner or later decide which alternative, if any, they like best.  In a political setting, suggestion is normally linked with advocacy, so advocacy and adjudication are the main functions.  They aren't completely distinct&mdashnegotiation is a combination of both.

Previously I argued (or baldly asserted) that everyone, advocates and adjudicators alike, could benefit from having a Representative, rather than doing the work themselves.  What conditions need to be true for a Representative to be beneficial to a group member?
  1. Skills.  I want my representative to be skilled in advocacy and negotiation.  From this perspective, it isn't surprising or unreasonable that so many politicians are lawyers.

  2. Values.  This is really the whole ballgame/enchilada/ball-of-wax, because it's my values that I want represented.  Aspects of my identity that aren't reflected in my values are irrelevant.  More than anything else, the representative needs to know my values and remain faithful to them in negotiation and adjudication.  As a practical matter, it's best if the Representative and I have very similar values, otherwise I've got to be constantly giving him instructions, and even if he obeys, much of the value of delegation is lost.

  3. Choice.  Suppose I miraculously max out on skills and values.  Am I happy with my highly Skilled Representative who shares 99% of my Values?  Hell yeah, I'm happy.  I'm having a political utopi-gasm.  But people change.  I change and the Representative changes.  We don't see eye-to-eye anymore.  I start to flirt with another potential Representative.  I fall in love.  It's time for me to change Reps.

    People also make mistakes, or lie.  Maybe it never really was a match made in heaven.  His speeches sounded pretty good.  I thought we shared Values.  But I misunderstood.  Or he fooled me.  Either way, I need a new Rep, ASAP.

The (damn-near tautological) bottom line is: if I can't choose the Representative who I think has the best Skills and who best represents my Values, then I'm not getting represented as well as I want to be.  Which leads me to:
RealGov Principle #2
In a representative system, a person is misrepresented to the degree that he or she prefers someone else over their actual Representative.

Now that we know what misrepresentation is, what do we aspiring designers of governments do with it?  That's right, kids, we minimize it.  Stay tuned.


A fool for a client

In the previous post, I suggested that Disinterested Parties might like to delegate their role within a group decision making process to a Representative, because said process is uninteresting to the Disinterested.  Many necessary and important tasks—including, dare I suggest, adjudicating disputes in which one has little personal stake or interest—are tedious, and it's a Good Thing to minimize tedium while still seeing the task properly accomplished.  Division of labor and perhaps accompanying compensation of some sort will be necessary for a satisfactory solution.

Consider an element of government that works pretty well: jury trials.  It might be better in some crazy/theoretical sense if all citizens heard all trials and voted on them, so that trial outcomes conformed to the judgment of the whole group.  But no one wants this.  Instead, we Disinterested folk delegate our role to randomly-chosen, short-term conscripts from our ranks, i.e., jurors.  The rest of us get to do something other than watch Court TV all day, every day.

Interested Parties in a trial (disputants) also clearly benefit from representation.  Lawyers have specialized knowledge and skills, and so the non-lawyer who represents himself indeed has a fool for a client.  A self-representing lawyer is less obviously foolish, but he is still depriving himself of an extra resource for his case.

Generalizing from the example of juries and lawyers as representatives within the context of trials leads to:
RealGov Principle #1
Everyone in a large group decision making process can and should benefit from representation, either by delegating the work of adjudication, or by accessing additional knowledge and skills for advocacy.

If this is correct (and yo, I'm tellin' you it is!) then a representative system has real advantages over a direct system beyond the obvious scalability advantage in the case of large groups.

But these advantages are not realized if the relationship between Representative and Represented is wrong, in which case we have not Representation, but Misrepresentation, and all hell breaks loose.  In the next thrilling installment, we'll look at the all-important relationship in more detail.


Direct Democracy...NOT!

If your group size is larger than you can count on two hands, you do NOT wanna mess with direct democracy.  That's where everyone is eligible to participate in group decision making and gets equal voting power.  What's going to happen is Interested Parties—people with a direct stake in the issue at hand, as well as various cranks and activists—will do all the talking.  Everyone else—the Disinterested Parties—will get bored and leave, if they bothered to show up to the meeting at all.  So the final vote will be determined by whichever Interested Party showed up in larger numbers, or dragged more friends along.  The only hope of getting a decision that reflects the Will of the Group is if enough Disinterested Parties care enough to grit their teeth and pay attention to the argumentation of the Interested Parties.  This is essentially unpaid jury duty and represents an inherent conflict between the interests of the Group and the interests of the Disinterested, if you catch my drift.  An incentive problem.  If you don't believe me, go visit a New England town meeting.  Bring lots of reading material.

Direct democracy is good system if you want to put one of your group members to death.  That's how the classical Greeks used it—not only against annoying a-holes like Socrates, but also against various battle-losing generals.  "Next order of business, who do we put to death this week?"  That keeps everybody Interested.  Not many people are going to skip that meeting.

*   *   *

What if we let the Disinterested Parties pool their resources and pay somebody to sit through the agonizingly slow presentations of the Interested Parties and then vote.  We might call that unfortunate-but-now-slightly-richer person a Representative.  We might be on to something, but it's going to need a lot of work.


It's the structure, stupid

I seem to be an American plagued by an unnatural interest in the rules that structure political contests.  Perhaps this goes back to my old love of games and sports—competitive activities in which I enjoyed discovering the ways that rules shaped strategies and outcomes.  Perhaps because I followed in the footsteps of my father to become a military officer—an officer of the government.  There's that bit in the oath about defending the Constitution "against all enemies, foreign and domestic."  That sounds bad-ass to a 22-year-old, and also might get you interested in the contents of the document you're oath-ing about.  Combine these risk-factors with my education as an engineer, with its problem-solving and design-oriented elements, and you've got a guy who, when faced with any routine type of political dissatisfaction, wants to trace it to the underlying design of governmental/political institutions.  There's a scene in The Aviator when Leo DiCaprio as soon-to-be-crazy Howard Hughes starts saying "Show me all the blueprints" over and over.  That's me!  Any political problem you got?  I'm gonna say show me the blueprints.  Show me the Constitution.  Show me the rules and I'll show you why you're screwed.  And maybe how you could get un-screwed—in theory, if not in actuality.  Sorry, my real-world superpowers are sadly limited.

I didn't stay in the military, and even while I was in it, I was on a leftward spiritual and political journey of sorts, from I-can't-be-sure-but-MAYBE-I-supported-Reagan in 1980 (age 16) to Nader-supporting-Green-Party-pseudo-activist in 2000 (age 36) to my current political stance, which I suppose I'd call something like libertarian socialist if I had to give a name to it and because if it's good enough for Noam, its good enough for me.  Although for sheer coolness and marginality, independent of any supposed content, I like the sound of post-anarchist better.  Or maybe I'm a budding/wannabe Engaged Buddhist.  That sounds almost respectable.  But I'm already married.  Badda-bing.

But enough about me.  This here blog is supposed to be about figuring out how we Americans could have a better Constitutional structure that DIDN'T work against our professed principles of popular sovereignty, political equality, and other good stuff we supposedly believe in.  That's what I'd call Real Government, versus what we've got now, Fake Government—fake because it claims to be one thing but is actually something else by design.  Smart alec foreigners will tell you they've already figured it out, what with their parlimentary systems and their proportional representation, and they'd be correct.  But that would be "too easy" and wouldn't scratch my engineer's itch to design better, from scratch.

To be clear, I'm not saying the modern nation-state as we know it is the ultimately desirable form of social organization (UDFOSO?)—far from it—but if we're gonna stick with that form in our uncertain future, let's at least do it right.  Jeez, y'all.