Why Polls are a Danger to Democracy

poll

Does this poll reflect the true preferences of the Dutch population?

It is 13 March 2017, and the intermediate polls of the Dutch election suggest that it is going to be a close call between the Dutch Liberal Party (VVD) and the populist Party for Freedom (PVV). Who is going to be the biggest party of the Netherlands? Both parties are currently leading in the polls, and the winner will lead the formation of a new government, and most likely provide the new prime minister. So the stakes are high.

Now suppose you don’t agree with the VVD. You prefer a more progressive party (such as GroenLinks or D66). However, one thing is for sure: you don’t want Geert Wilders (PVV) to win, let alone become the prime minister. What do you do, knowing that it is going to be a close call between the VVD and the PVV? Do you vote for the party that truly reflects your preferences (GroenLinks or D66 in this example), or do you vote for the Dutch Liberal Party, knowing that you prefer the Liberals to the Populists?

The last option (to vote ‘strategically’, or not on your most preferred candidate) is handed to you only because of the information you derived from the intermediate polls. It is only because you know what the result of the election will be – given that people will vote as indicated in the poll – that you can adjust your vote to it.

But this raises a question: do we want people to have the opportunity to vote strategically? Or differently: should we allow for intermediate polls?

Democracy as a reflection of voters true preferences

This basically comes down to another question: what do we want the election results to be a reflection of? Do we want the results to be a reflection of the true preferences of the members of a population (meaning: if 20% of the people most prefer the VVD, then the VVD will get 20% of the votes, etc)? Or do we want the results to be a reflection of both true preferences and insincere preferences (i.e., 30% of the people vote for the VVD, even though only 20% has the VVD as their preferred option, with the other 10% preferring the VVD to the PVV).

I think no reasonable person would say that we hold elections to elicit insincere preferences. After all: what is the point of a democratic election in case we want to end up with election results that don’t reflect the population’s true preferences? This might even contradict the notion of democracy itself. So we want to elicit the true preferences of voters through an election.

However, by publishing intermediate polls, we entice people to cast votes that don’t reflect their true preferences (i.e., voting for the most preferred candidate), as shown by the example above. Hence the election result will not be an accurate representation of people’s preferences, hence not an optimal form of democracy.

Bandwagon effect

But there is another argument to be made against polls: the bandwagon effect. The bandwagon effect implies that the rate of uptake of beliefs increase with the number of people already holding the belief. In practice this means that people, seeing a poll in which party x has more seats than party y, become more inclined to vote for party x than y, ceterus paribus. The result is that x gets more votes than it would have gotten in case the polls wouldn’t have been published, and another party – possibly y – less. Still: we end up a with election results that are different from what they would have been in case we didn’t publish the polls.

But you can also approach the issue from another angle by simply asking: what is the added value of polls? What do polls contribute to society? ‘Information,’ one could say: ‘information about the voting behaviour of the population.’ But what can we use this information for? We cannot use it to change the voting behaviour of others. So for that purpose it’s useless. It can only be used to change one’s own voting behaviour.

Banning polls

So it seems that the only contribution of polling is that it allows for changing your vote in light of the voting behaviour of others? Well, we have just established that this is not a good thing in a democracy. Therefore polling has no added value to society.

Assuming that all of the above is true, why then allow polls? Banning polls is not some far-fetched idea. It already happens in many countries, including France (on the day before the election) and Italy (15 days before the election).

And given the negative effect of polling on the democratic process, this might not be such a bad idea.

Should State Media Stop Sharing Jihadi Propaganda-messages?

On the 23th of September 2014, the Dutch state television broadcasted a video-message of a jihadist in Syria. In this message he calls for his ‘Dutch brothers’ to support him in the war Islamic State fights against – among others – the United States. ‘If you cannot support us by coming to Syria,’ he says, ‘then at least do a severe deed in the Netherlands or Belgium.’

The full message takes 2 minutes and 43 seconds. The Dutch state television’s news-program – which is the most viewed TV-program in the Netherlands – broadcasted around 20 seconds of the message. So there he was: the jihadist in Syria, asking for Dutch people to support IS, and 1 in 8 Dutch people listened to his message. This raises the question: should the state television broadcast such a message? Doesn’t it, by giving a platform to these people, indirectly support these people? And if so, isn’t that weird, given that – at the same time – the Dutch military is fighting these same people in Iraq and Syria? Let’s take a look at these questions.

One could say that the state television shouldn’t do such a thing, because – by doing so – it gives a stage to a group of people that the state opposes. If a government is sending jets to fight a group of people in Syria, then this same government should not allow this same group of people to share its propaganda via the state’s own media. Furthermore, showing such messages – which are often violent in nature – might cause ‘the enemy’ to apply such violent measures again. After all: it worked the first time – in the sense that international media gave them free publicity. So why don’t do it again? This leads to the question: should the government want to support such violence? The obvious answer is: no.

Also, one could say, broadcasting such propaganda might cause messages most of us find wrong to be spread. The reason that a book like Mein Kampf is prohibited from being sold (in the Netherlands at least), is especially for this reason: because these ideas should – according to most of us – be banned from society. And so – one could say – it should be with jihadi messages. Therefore it is wrong for the state television to actively spread these messages.

So it seems clear, right? The state television should not broadcast such messages. But it might not be as clear-cut as it seems. For one could say that every person can think for himself, and that the government – or any news-agency for that matter – does not have to decide what is good or bad for us to hear. We can very well decide this for ourselves, after having heard the message. We are reasonable people, and seeing such a jihadi video-message does not compel us to support the messenger. And even it would compel us, what gives? Aren’t we free to decide who we want to support and who not?

Also, even though the content of the message might be ‘wrong’, it might still be newsworthy, and should therefore be distributed by the media. After all: people might find it interesting to know what is going on in the world around them, and seeing such a message provides them with a better informed perspective on the world. This cannot be wrong, can it?

I find this a difficult matter. What do you think?

‘Moral Logic’: a Guide for Political Decision Making?

Modal logic is – as far as I am concerned – all about what might possibly be the case (alethic logic) or about what we know (epistemic logic), but not about what we should or should not do. That is: ethics seems not to be grounded in modal logic – or any logic for that matter. And that’s a pity, for I believe that logic can play a valuable role in moral decision making, especially in politics. Let me illustrate this with an example:

Let’s say that a politician proposes a policy A (‘Taxes are increased’). Let’s suppose that it is common knowledge that A leads to B (‘A –> B’), with B being ‘The disposable income of the poor is decreased’. Now, let’s say the politician doesn’t want B, (we write ‘–B’). Then, you could reasonably say that, by letting ‘–’ follow the rules of negation, and by applying modus tollens, we get –A. That is: the politician does not want A.

This last step requires clarification. Suppose that we know that by increasing taxes (A), the disposable income of the poor will be decreased (B). Then knowing that the politician doesn’t want the income of the poor to be decreased, the politician should not increase taxes. Then, assuming that no-one wants to do something he should not do (we are dealing with very rational agents here), it follows that the politician does not want A (‘–A’).

This ‘logic’ is consequentialist in nature. That is, you decide whether to perform a certain action (A), by looking at its consequences (B). In case you want B, you are good. In case you don’t want B (–B), then – by modus tollens – it follows that you should not do A. Hence you don’t want A, giving –A. This logic is of of course very strict; it follows absolute rules, axioms or principles. Hence it might be suited best to model a moral system that is equally strict. Think about Kantian ethics. On the other hand, a system like utilitarian ethics might be better modelled by a different mathematical model.

Workings
Let’s dive a little deeper into the working of this moral logic. One way this logic might work is as follows.

(1) You start with a set of axioms; propositions you absolutely want, or absolutely don’t want to be the case:

A
–B
C

(2) Next you look at the actions available, and the consequences these actions entail:

D –> A
D –> B
E –> C.

(3) Then you choose an action (in this case either D or E), which does not have any consequences you absolutely don’t want. In this case you should not choose D, for D –> B, and you have –B, hence –D. That is, according to the rules laid down, we don’t want D; hence the only option that remains is E.

Extended
Of course, this ‘logic’ does not obey all the regular rules of logic; for instance, it does not obey the rule of modal logic that the two modal operators can be expressed in terms of each other – we don’t even have two modal operators. But still, by applying the very simple rules laid down above, applying this logic can be helpful. I find this logic particularly valuable in analysing arguments used in political decision making, for politics is a prime example of the interplay between actions (the antecedent of our material conditional) and normative consequences (the consequences).

The above logic can be extended to take into account degrees of preferences. You could make a hierarchy of consequences, with consequences higher at the hierarchy being morally superior to those below, so that – in case you have more than one action to choose from – you should choose the one having the consequences highest in the hierarchy. This would also suit Artificial Intelligence very well.

What do you guys think of the moral logic?

Elections and the Duty to be Genuine

Voting: the only legitimate manner in a democratic society for distributing power. The question is: how do we want to distribute this power? Do we want liberals in charge and hope for the government to back off? Or would we rather see our state becoming more social; helping those that have been unfortunate? In this relatively long article, I want to make claim in favor of being anti-social, or at least not being disingenuously social. But why would that be a good thing? In order to see that, we first have to understand a little about free markets and prices.

Maybe you have heard the name of Friedrich Hayek. He was one of the, if the not the most, prominent economists of the 20th century. Hayek was a leading figure in the battle for free markets. He condemned intervention by the government in the market, and he condemned central planning by the government even more. By “central planning” I am referring to the state deciding where its resources should be allocated to. The reason Hayek objected against central planning was as follows: Hayek believed that the economy was incredibly complex; that there is an infinite amount of interests that have to be dealt with. And, Hayek said, it is impossible for a state to get to know all the interests and all of the individual preferences of its citizens. That is, it is impossible for a state to know that John likes shoes and that he is prepared to pay a lot money in order to buy some, and that Susan absolutely hates shoes and doesn’t want to pay any money in order to buy some.

The only manner, according to Hayek, by which to get a clear insight into the tremendous complexity of people’s preferences is through the market. Or, to be more specific, through the price that comes about in the market. Only by taking a look at the price that comes about through totally unhindered supply and demand, we would be able to come to grips with the (possibly) conflicting preferences of society’s members. And it is not just that the market informs us about the value of goods: it also regulates buyers’ and sellers’ behaviors.

You can see why central planning doesn’t provide this opportunity to extract all the relevant information from its citizens: there is no price mechanism that can take care of the interplay of individual preferences, and make sure that goods (or services) are distributed in a fair manner. Thus, it is only when the state starts messing around, when it takes control of the market process, that the only source of tremendously valuable information get’s ruined.

I want to take a look at Hayek’s explanation of the price as being the most perfect indicator of the individual preferences of the members of society. That, through the market mechanism, each member of society can obtain all the information (s)he needs in order to make a reasonable decision. Thus, and I am sorry if I am repeating myself, if every member of society would act according to his or her set of desires, the market would take care of the rest; the prices will come about in such a manner that everyone’s interests are taken care of. This is the closest we would be capable of getting to know all the relevant information required to allocate resources perfectly.

Now, let’s imagine that we would apply Hayek’s free market idea to the election process in a democratic society. The process in which the citizens of a state decide who they want that represents them in parliament. We could interpret the number of votes a party receives to be equal to the notion of price in a free market, and the parties people vote for to be an expression of their individual preferences. But this is not “just” an expression of their individual preferences; it is the most complete expression attainable. Parliament is, given that all of society’s members act in line with their true beliefs about how society should be, a direct representation of the preferences of society. And it this representation that could have never been attained by even slightly deviating from a fully genuine voting system. The only difference between an economy and politics seems that, instead of the price, the resulting equilibrium is the distribution of seats in parliament.

So, what are the implications of this observation? First of all, a rather obvious implication is that dictatorial regimes can impossibly posses all the relevant information in order to distribute its resources (the seats in parliament and thus, indirectly, the state’s money) in perfect harmony with the complexity of the preferences of the state’s members. Another, less obvious, implication is that each member of society should be completely genuine in expressing his or her individual preferences in the election process. That is, we should not vote according to the preferences of our mother or daughter, or not even because of our “empathy” with the sick, unless this empathy is genuinely meant by the voting person. If not, the ideal of a perfect representation of society has become unattainable.

Thus, the moral of this story is, don’t be disingenuous in expressing your vote. Don’t vote for a party if you don’t genuinely consider this to be the best possible option. Don’t vote for a party because society finds this the “most decent thing to do”. Because it is only by being fully genuine about what you believe to be right or wrong that all individual preferences can be listened to and processed in the market mechanism called election.

But what do you think?

What Makes Someone Intelligent?

Who is more intelligent: (1) a construction worker voting for a progressive, responsible and tolerant party or (2) a mathematical whizkid working at a bank and voting for a party whose main goal it is to get rid of minorities? In other words: what is it that makes someone intelligent? Is it how good he is in calculating the inverse matrix of a particular order? Or is it how thoughtful he is about our community and whether or not he contributes to how we as a society might become a more loving/productive institution?

I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who I believe belongs far more to category (2) than (1). He spoke to me about his discontent with pretty much every Moroccan around; including the ones he had never actually met. He considered it to be a good idea to send each and every Moroccan back to his country of origin.

In the same week I had a discussion with my uncle. My uncle is a very nice man – just like my friend by the way – and belongs far more to category (1) than (2). And although my uncle admitted to be rather slow in absorbing/processing information – reading, calculating etc. – he also told me the following: ‘Rob, you are free to do everything in life that you want to do. Truly. But please, promise me one thing: never ever vote for those discriminating parties. Ever. Will you?’

I ask you again: who is more intelligent?

Before we might be able to answer this question, we first have to explicate the notion of intelligence. I believe that someone’s intelligence ultimately comes down to his actions. Someone’s actions are, after all, the only objective criterium we have for judging what goes on in his mind. The fact that a friend of you might say, ‘I could have easily passed that English test if I hadn’t just started studying last night’ shows to me that – apparently – this person is not very intelligent. A truly intelligent person would have known better, right? And it is for the same reason that someone who is good in mathematics or physics, or any other discipline we usually associate with intelligence, is not necessarily intelligent. Look at the banking sector, I would say. Have those mathematical ‘geniuses‘ been acting very intelligently lately?

You could of course argue that I am mistaken the concept of intelligence for the concept of wisdom, where intelligence might be about the ‘processing power’ of one’s brain while wisdom might be about the reasonableness of one’s decisions. I would reply by saying that even the processing power of one’s brain can in the end only be judged by the manner in which the person acts. That is the only objective criterium we have for making any claims about that person’s intelligence. No matter how many areas of one’s brain turn yellow/green/red in a f-MRI scan, we are still unable to know the true processing power of the person’s brain. Maybe the person’s brain is just very inefficient, using a lot of brainpower for very little output. That is why the only true test of intelligence consists not of what one’s brain does, but what one does with his brain.

But what do you think?