The Best Model to a First Approximation

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I.
First an easy physics problem. Say you throw a ball into the air. Which part of the trip takes longer, the way up or the way down?

Did you account for the way the Earth’s gravitational field varies during the ball’s flight? How about its relativistic mass gain? The energy of rotation as the ball spins? Hopefully not, because that stuff’s irrelevant. The most important factor is air resistance, which slows the ball slightly more as it returns to earth, making the way down take longer[1]. The difference isn’t much, and so to a first approximation we can say that though the times are more or less equal, the second one is longer and that’s due to air resistance.

II.
Now for some substance. The quote “democracy is the worst kind of political system out there– until you look at the alternatives” has been attributed to Winston Churchill, and it’s an interesting thing to reflect on. Because although democracy has its faults, generally being able to remove blunderers from office is worth the fact that you often end up removing (or rarely get) great statesmen along with them, because the blunderers tend to do more damage than the statesmen do good.

Democracy has its failings– a tendency towards corruption or glad-handing, as well as the fact that choosing from two or three real contenders for an office which oversees just about everything that matters is a poor way of sampling public opinion, but as the quote above notes, there simply aren’t any obviously better alternatives. Communism has been famously unsuccessful[2], in that while it could compete and even excel in certain areas, on the whole it wasn’t the best government for the average man. Monarchy has its ups and downs, but mostly downs, because for every Sun King you get a whole line of ancestors who don’t even merit a cool nickname[3].

The reason democracy works so well is because it functions implicitly, like a well designed algorithm. At certain levels of scale, say local, municipal, county, state, federal, there are different government officials allotted certain powers in order to help govern things at their level. We elect representatives because almost no one has the expertise and fewer still the time in order to follow the workings of the country as well as draft and debate legislation. Prospective office holders have to run for office, and so that helps weed out those with unpopular views or obvious issues with competence. Additionally, all these officials have to choose to run, so typically you get better candidates than you’d select at random. No standardized testing, no divine right, no vetting by a central committee– just people choosing those that shall govern them from among themselves.

III.
However, the fact that it generally works well and fairly is actually one of the problems a democracy faces. The government operates under rules that it itself can change, so in order to adapt it also opens the doors to corruption or the misuse of its various powers. The system is complex so that it can deal with as many problems as possible with as few people as possible– there isn’t a lot of manpower dedicated to things like ideological orthodoxy or self policing, so people under democracy generally enjoy more civil liberties and rely on private enterprise for their livelihoods, but sometimes real problems get ignored. Above all, its hard to criticize: when a king issues some unpopular decree, the people know who to blame. A democracy can feasibly pass the buck to the point where an unpopular action in one city is traced back to something the federal government did years ago.

When things go wrong, responsibility is either abdicated (“I didn’t vote for them”) or blame is parceled out (“well maybe you should’ve voted”), but in both cases a greater point is missed, that these people were trusted to serve the public interest and failed to do so. Its something of a cognitive blind spot, and its one of those ways politicians avoid censure for their actions. Personally, I’m not sure how claiming “you voted for me!” excuses the fact that the speaker did a terrible job once in office, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day.

IV.
This is typically the way it goes with these efficient, implicit systems. Take peer review in academia: some sort of screening mechanism is necessary in order to judge the quality of new research, but when that screening mechanism is comprised of researchers in the same field with their own axes to grind, different opinions on what is and what isn’t a worthy line of inquiry, etc., you get a system that is ripe for abuse. But what works better? Science by democracy? Sociology by what’s fashionable? And so when there’s no obvious alternatives, questioning peer review is like questioning science itself, hence the strangely impassioned defense from its defenders.

Or take our mixed capitalist economy. To a first approximation, how much you work and how scarce the work you’re able to do directly correlates with how much you get paid, and therefore how valuable the work you do is. On closer examination, that’s not entirely accurate. Things like chance, personal situation, even qualities apparently unrelated to productivity like height or extroversion seem to have more impact on outcomes than our model of:

(hours worked)*(value of work) = (earnings)

seems to suggest. Indeed, given the way that the value of things gets distorted by government intervention, popular fads, and intentional systemic manipulation, compensation is a pretty poor way of measuring anything other than purchasing power, which is an obvious tautology and thus somewhat useless. Still, paying everyone the same kind of dollars makes everything run a lot smoother, which in turn makes your money go farther and you more productive, so to paraphrase Churchill, “capitalism is the worst economic system– until you look at the alternatives”. We know things aren’t perfect, but we tell ourselves its better than the alternative. The result is a schizoid state where something’s both true and not true at the same time. The economy is messed up, but I’ve earned everything I have[4].

V.
The root problem is a failure of imagination. We use representative democracy to immanentize Just Government, and the free market to model how we ought to distribute our resources. To a first approximation, our current implementations of democracy, institutional science, and capitalism all work well. The problem is is that when any of them break down, it’s uncertain how to go about fixing them. Also, since this is real life and not an abstract game, you need a clear and persuasive solution since the players benefiting under the current regime will do everything they can to maintain the status quo. Perhaps such a solution exists, and perhaps it doesn’t, but in general it’s illuminating to note that we as a species, and as a society, have not yet found a way to express the Will of the People, or Great Science, or even Individual Worth. Just approximations.


1. For the interested, in the low velocity limit acceleration is x” = Bx’ -g, where B is a constant, g is the acceleration due to gravity, x is the ball’s distance relative to the earth, x’ and x” denote velocity and acceleration respectively. Pretty easy differential equation if you want to verify it yourself. Or just go and toss a ball.
2. Although you can debate how much of that was due to the active interference of one of the world’s two superpowers.
3. With the possible exception of the spider king.
4. Which is particularly pernicious, because as any logician (or cryptographer[5]) worth his salt can note, you can prove anything from a contradiction.  

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2 Responses to The Best Model to a First Approximation

  1. Dan Dravot says:

    …an office which oversees just about everything that matters…

    Some folks I know use “democracy” as a sort of first-approximation term for “systems where your vote matters”. Other folks, not always different ones, use “communism” as a first-approximation term for “systems where one office oversees just about everything that matters”. Far from being opposed, the two are at least in theory pretty much orthogonal.

    Now, it does appear that in practice, the more you have one office overseeing just about everything that matters, the less anybody’s vote seems to matter. Mysterious, that. But it’s racist to say it out loud. And mean. Probably cisnormative, too.

    the players benefiting under the current regime will do everything they can to maintain the status quo.

    Yes, even if it seems fairly arbitrary — like shitting in a bucket in Zuccotti Park, for example.

  2. lost101 says:

    Would be nice, if we were ment to have a democracy not a republic.
    Yes, we have a democracy NOW and it sucks, of course mob rule always does. Now the true question people should be asking are what are the benifits/drawbacks of the republic that went in the gutter. Should we go back to it or is it outdated.
    Not to worry I only recently discovered this trivial (lol) fact myself of what we were supposed to be. Now it drives me insane all the misinfo about our great nation that goes into the rumor mill and out the poop shoote. Like, no we were not a democracy.

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