31 January 2008

Democracy (what is it good for):

Tyler Cowen says:

The lesson is this: democracy is a very blunt instrument. Especially as it is found in the United States, democracy just isn't that smart or that finely honed or that closely geared toward truth or "progressive" values. (NB: Democracy in smaller, better educated, ethnically homogeneous nations is, sometimes, another story.)

But unlike one of my esteemed colleagues, I believe that we should revere democracy as one of the modern world's greatest achievements. [...] The future is far more likely to have "too little democracy" than "too much democracy." I do believe in checks and balances, but within a broadly democratic framework, such as we have in the United States.

That all said, we should not demand from democracy what democracy cannot provide. Democracy is pretty good at pushing scoundrels out of office, or checking them once they are in office. Democracy is also good at making sure enough interest groups are bought off so that social order may continue and that a broad if sometimes inane social consensus can be manufactured and maintained.
On the one hand, this means that, insofar as it can be considered to be at all goal- oriented (goals being things like fairness, high standard of living, etc.) democracy seems to function in a biased random-walk style, with each movement being more-or-less arbitrary and only corrected if a major error results. On the other hand, biased random-walk has turned out to be implicated in several neurological models for how we learn (here are more technical and less technical descriptions of some neuro models incorporating random-walk) as well as explaining how bacteria are able to locate food without a brain or sensory organs. So I'm inclined to find this similarity encouraging, since I think social processes are at their best when they replicate the interesting processes that have already evolved to solve astoundingly complex problems.