This article from the Jacobin magazine is taking issue with the kind of argument that became a bit vogue lately, as typified by articles such as this in the Irish Independent.

This is something that has a curious history going back decades, if not more.  After Arrow’s famous Impossibility Theorem came out, there were many who supposedly claimed “democracy” is impossible–in fact, that tradition continues to very recent past, as captured by this book.

The contention that Arrow’s Theorem is at odds with “democracy” is something that I had never quite understood, since, at no time, did Arrow say that “democracy” is impossible.  He did show that decision-making by a group that satisfies a set of criteria that make the outcome “orderly,” rational, and predictable is impossible.  If you want something that orderly, rational, and predictable, the only way to achieve that–within a set of mathematical lingo–is to install a “dictatorship” defined only in the rhetorical sense:  a single person who makes orderly, rational, and predictable decisions who is empowered to overrule everyone else.

Or, in other words, Arrow’s argument was that democracy is messy, chaotic, unpredictable, and complicated, not necessarily that it is “impossible.”  Indeed, if you do not want something that is chaotic and unpredictable, why bother with democracy at all?  (to steal Kierkegaard’s argument about faith.)  You hold elections, not coronations.  All elections are contested because of even a miniscule chance that the outcome is not totally preordained, that, even the best analysis of the data and the most sophisticated algorithms may fail to predict what will happen, and indeed, something completely crazy and unexpected may occasionally pop out of the box.  Without this inherent uncertainty, democracy is meaningless.  In this sense, then, Arrow was really just speaking a truism:  that democracy is characterized a fundamental uncertainty that cannot be conquered, tamed, or (wholly) managed, much the way a God who answers our every whim without fail and obeys some predictable rules of the universe cannot be omnipotent and is unworthy of being subject of faith, if the words of Kierkegaard are to be extrapolated.

But “managing” democracy, in the name of minimizing the so-called “vox populi risk” has been a popular topic these days.  “Brexits” of the world, the Trump nomination, the strength of the Sanders campaign, everywhere the apparent democratic will of the people just catch the conventional wisdom off guard are not just surprises any more, but a big source of costly risk, even an affront to the sensibilities of the elites.  Something that has to be whittled down, to the point that it is made predictable, rational, and orderly.  This, of course, brings Arrow’s argument around a full circle:  so we may have democracy and accept its inherent uncertainty, risk, and chaos, or an oligarchy where a handful of “very important people” claim the right to overrule the masses in the name of being predictable, orderly, and rational.  This strikes me as a very dangerous and self-serving argument, at the very least.

Nobody ever said democracy has to be orderly, rational, and predictable.


2 thoughts on “Democracy?

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