Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Some thoughts on Democracy: Ethicality vs Effectiveness

Western cultures love democracy. You can tell that by the sheer number of US TV shows that involve voting:
  • American Idol? Let's vote!
  • American's Got Talent? Let's vote!
  • American Inventor? Let's vote!
  • Last Comic Standing? Let's vote!
And of course, we got to vote to decide who's going to be our president.

Why do we like democracy? One big reason is that it's fair. Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence. So, isn't it perfectly ethical that everyone should have his/her voice heard when it comes to deciding who's going to lead the country?

Yes, it's ethical, it's fair, it's politically very correct.

The sad thing is, ethicality doesn't necessarily lead to effectiveness.

"No, let me give you one counter example that fairness leads to effectiveness. The woman who won the Last Comic Standing was actually the funniest among all the other comics and she won because she got the most votes from the audience!"

Well, let me tell you: the reason we arrived at a good decision of the Last Comic Standing show was that people in general have the ability to decide, duh, who makes them laugh. It has nothing to do with whether the system is fair or not.

Now let me ask you

"The policies that Obama/McCain propose, do you think that they will be effective? If you do, why?"

I remember seeing a presidential debate between Obama and Clinton. The moderator asked Obama why he wanted to raise capital gain tax because, historically, raising tax rate doesn't necessarily increase tax income for the government. I forgot how Obama responded exactly but he implied that it is the right thing to do. Or, ethical, fair, politically correct, choose one you like.


In Freakonomics, Levitt claimed that the sudden crime rate drop in the US during the 90's was due to the legalization of abortion in the 70's. I know there's a good deal of people who don't agree with his theory and I don't have time to read about all the technical details of their analysis. However, one thing I'm pretty sure is that Levitt's theory cannot be completely wrong.

If it's not completely wrong, we've just witnessed a case in which ethnically questionable behavior (abortion) can lead to good outcome for society (crime rate drop).

The more I read about economics, the more I believe that it's very difficult to decide whether a government policy is actually beneficial to the country. A policy that sounds so good to you may well be a disaster to the economy as a whole in the long run.

Realizing it actually irritates me when the presidential candidates say something like

"We'll make health care accessible to the poor."

"We believe that everyone should get a job that pays living wage."

"We'll be energy independent."

How can you make huge promises like these? How do you know that the polices you're proposing will actually work and not harm other parts of the economy at the same time? Do you know that we don't have infinite resources to make everything wonderful?

Maybe, maybe a citizen can decide whether your polices are good if s/he
  • has a deep understanding of various economics theories
  • has good mathematical and analytic skills
  • will actually read through all the words in your policies and understand them
Do you think an average citizen has/will do the above? Tell you what, I really like reading but I still feel tired if I need to read through a long article like this one to understand the cons of the abortion-drops-crime-rate theory. Mind you, it's just one theory/policy on one potential cause. A candidate proposes many policies that affect numerous aspects of the country. No exaggerating, one probably needs to read thousands of pages just to have a grasp of what really is going on.

No, an average citizen won't/doesn't have the ability to do that. Because of this, I don't think an average citizen would make a good decision on choosing the right candidate. And, a lot of average citizens making decisions with no rational ground will just result in one final average, or, bad, decision.

That's why I think that, as good as democracy sounds, it is seriously handicapped in leading to effective decisions on complex issues such as, yup, choosing the right person as the president of a country.

If highly educated citizens in a developed country like the US may not make good decisions on choosing a good leader, how hot an idea can it be for a developing country like China with many illiterate citizens to practice democracy? I really, really doubt it.

What do I want to say in this post?
  • Be a critical thinker; ideas that sound that they work doesn't mean that they'll actually work
  • Be non-religious when situation warrants it; actions that are ethical doesn't mean that they'll lead to good outcomes
Thanks for reading :)