Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Interesting Equilibria

Over on TheEdge, they asked 150 people what worries them most.  One of the more interesting responses by Dylan Evans notes that while Democracy is pretty good, there might be something better. Unfortunately, we may never find that better system.
the appendix persists because individuals with a smaller and thinner appendix are more vulnerable to appendicitis. So the normal tendency for useless organs to atrophy away to nothing is blocked, in the case of the appendix, by natural selection itself. Perhaps this idea will turn out not to be correct, but it does illustrate how the persistence of something can conceivably be explained by the very factors that make it disadvantageous. 
Democracy is like the appendix. The very thing that makes majority dissatisfaction inevitable in a democracy—the voting mechanism—also makes it hard for a better political system to develop.
It's a neat analogy and a deep problem.  The thought of the median voter, including the great unwashed one sees at amusement parks, deciding policy forever seems somewhat limiting.  After all, the nautilus's pinhole eye is far inferior to something with a lens, but in the 500 million years since the Cambrian explosion, it's still stuck with the pinhole eye camera even though a nautilus would really benefit, greatly and immediately, from a lens. It is like a hi-fi system with an excellent amplifier fed by a gramophone with a blunt needle.

Another fascinating post was Clifford Pickover:
Zeilberger considers himself to be an ultrafinitist, an adherent of the mathematical philosophy that denies the existence of the infinite set of natural numbers (the ordinary whole numbers used for counting). More startlingly, he suggests that even very large numbers do not exist—say numbers greater than 10 raised to the power of 10 raised to the power of 10 raised to the power of 10. In Zeilberger's universe, when we start counting, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., we can seemingly count forever; however, eventually we will reach the largest number, and when we add 1 to it, we return to zero!
I'm hopped up on pain meds now, and this thought is blowing my mind.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Restricting the right to vote based on some criteria would be the kind of modified "democracy" that could evolve. However, that goes against the last 100 year trend in voting rights and seems unlikely to change in America. Even a simple rule like having to be a net payer of taxes in order to vote (vs a net recipient of taxes) would be fair qualifications but would so radically change the electorate that it could not happen.

Rajat said...

"The very thing that makes majority dissatisfaction inevitable in a democracy—the voting mechanism—also makes it hard for a better political system to develop."

Surely dis/satisfaction is relative? The real point is that democracy stops the majority from getting dissatisfied enough to change the system. This weakens the analogy.

Tel said...

"It is a commonplace that the history of civilisation is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon--so long as there is no answer to it--gives claws to the weak."

George Orwell, You and the Atomic Bomb.

Zeilberger's universe, when we start counting, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., we can seemingly count forever; however, eventually we will reach the largest number, and when we add 1 to it, we return to zero!

Every computer works that way and people seem to deal with it. Actually when you add 1 to the largest positive number you get the biggest magnitude negative number (or zero for unsigned integers). Floating point arithmetic units have a representation of infinity and you add one to that you get infinity again.

Mercury said...

"In Zeilberger's universe, when we start counting, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., we can seemingly count forever; however, eventually we will reach the largest number, and when we add 1 to it, we return to zero!"

Holy quantitative ambiguity Batman!

Don't tell Dr. Bernenke and the rest of the Super Friends. The foundation of modern central banking rests on a very different assumption.

Berend de Boer said...

I think the analogy fails because the appendix is not a useless, but critical organ :-)

Anonymous said...

Democratic government is like an insurance pool: It works and is fair to the extent the population is homogeneous. We should expect that as the elite's "diversity" project intensifies, democracy will become increasingly tenuous unsustainable, and ultimately impossible.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Berend:yeah, I've heard the appendix is needed, and that may be true. But the nautilus eye sucks, and it's odd that it's persisted for so long.

Mercury said...

Survival of the fittest isn’t about being bigger/better/faster/stronger it’s about having the best fit for the environment (including I suppose optimal niche positioning within the larger environment). I bet the sucky nautilus eye ends up having a longer active existence on Earth than the awesome human brain.

Anonymous said...

Apples and Oranges - Democracy and Appendix. An appendix is rather uniform in its scope, shape, function, etc.. "Democracy" is a process with potentially infinite possible implementations.

The question may not be what is a "better political system", but can an implementation of Democracy be made that has sufficient protections built into it such that it can still survive as a Democracy (i.e. not create "dissatisfactions" to the point that it drives citizens to another system).

It is not simply a function of the "great unwashed" that western democracies have their challenges. There are many special interests at play.

It is the built-in incentives that, if left unchecked, cause malformed policies that grow upon each other in a self-reinforcing cycle.

The nautilus' eye has not evolved because it was not necessary to be successful. Over that time period, there must have been some incremental "positive" mutations to the eye, but perhaps that increment was not sufficient to give it a survival or procreational advantage such that it outnumbers the pinhole variety.

There will always be "median voters". The problem is not with them as it is with how the system is set up to protect itself from any "human frailty".

(my apologies if this is a double post - looks like my original was "lost")

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$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

After a few generations of conflict between tribunes/populaires and senators/aristocrats, both parties produced dictators (Caeser v. Sulla) to unify their movements. Maybe we'll see the same, those unwashed masses may like the cut of Obama's jib and permit him extra powers, extra terms and the right to designate his successor.

DaveinHackensack said...

"The thought of the median voter, including the great unwashed one sees at amusement parks, deciding policy forever seems somewhat limiting."

Sure. But then the track record of the Harvard intelligentsia in matters of policy is somewhat discouraging as well. Maybe the problem is not enough representation of smart-but-not-too smart folks -- ones with enough smarts to grasp necessary technical nuances, but not so much smarts that they lose their horse sense?

Re Zeilberger: on the surface, his finitism seems consistent with Max Tegmark's cosmology (math is reality).