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Delegation and irreflection: the twin roots of failed political representation

Having sketched out the ways in which political representation is bound to continue failing us, let me pause briefly to ask what lies at the source of these problems. After all, and as most of us learned in school, representative democracy promised to be an effective solution to the challenge of public governance.

At the heart of this book lies the notion that there are twin causes for these problems.


The first of these is our unquestioning faith in delegation. Being able to delegate tasks to others is obviously a vital aspect of our societies. However, delegation can work only if there are mechanisms in place to ensure the proper alignment between the wishes of the person delegating the task (in economics jargon, the “principal”) and the actions of her representative (the “agent”).

These mechanisms can take a variety of forms. One would be incentives to perform well: if the agent's performance can be easily and reliably evaluated, then the principal can set goals for the agent to achieve and agree to reward (or punish) him accordingly.

Another driver of the agent's “good behavior” can be social norms. Even in the absence of oversight, social norms—such as a culture that promotes honesty, professionalism or, in the specific case of politics, a commitment to an ideal of public service—will often induce the agent to act according to the principal's best interests.

A third important factor in aligning the interests of the principal and the behavior of the agent can be emotional ties. The existence of a mutually treasured relationship between the two parties—or even just a sense of identification between the agent and the principal—will often succeed in making delegation work.

With regard to the issue of political representation, how well can these three mechanisms work for us? Might they actually be effective in making politicians truly represent the public interest? The answer, unfortunately, is not very encouraging. Let's see why they are likely to fail us.

Emotional ties, or even just a mere sense of identification, between members of our political class and the general population won't help us much. As argued in the previous chapter, most politicians belong to a caste that lives in a world quite different from that of the bulk of the population. They will have few reasons to care for—or identify with—those on the other side of that divide. In fact, they are most likely to identify with other elites in our society, not with the general citizenry. This means that emotional ties will, if anything, worsen the chances of delegation working as we intended it to.

Nor can we rely on social norms. Even if, in some parts of the globe, there arguably existed, at some point in the second half of the twentieth century, a true culture of public service, evidence suggests that it is now almost universally extinct. If media accounts are any indication, a culture of cutthroat electioneering and PR strategizing currently dominates the field of professional politics. It is, thus, highly unlikely that social norms of (for example) “serving the public interest” will ensure proper behavior by the political class.

This brings us to the central issue of how well incentives (coupled with an oversight mechanism) can help us keep tabs on the political class. After all, that's precisely what our representative democracies place their faith in.

In the case of political representation, a politician's prime incentive for good behavior is being reelected. Elections are the oversight mechanism: according to one of the central myths of our democracies, that is the time when citizens “pass judgment” on the performance of the incumbent leaders/party and collectively decide whether they are worthy of reelection.

Now, to evaluate how reasonable our collective faith in this mechanism really is, briefly entertain the following analogy. We will take our cue from introductory courses in microeconomics, in which the principal-agent problem is commonly presented by adopting the perspective of a shop owner (the principal) who decides to hire a manager (the agent) to supervise the daily operation of his business.

The question we should ask ourselves is: in the absence of strong social norms and/or an emotional tie between the two, how reasonable is it to expect that the manager will perform his job satisfactorily if the shop owner were to drop by the store every four years to check on how well business is going? Would anyone be amazed if, under these conditions, the manager were to disregard the interests of the shop owner, only quickly trying to cover up his lackadaisical or self-enriching behavior right before the shop owner's visit?

Even though this situation already looks bad enough—you might ask yourself if you would ever consider becoming a partner in such a store—the reality of political representation is far worse. To get a grasp of why that is so, let's continue with the shop analogy. Doing so will introduce us to the second cause of failed political representation. [8]

Decision-making without reflection

We already know that the owner thinks it is enough to drop by every four years. Now, suppose that, when he does so, he merely takes a cursory glance at the manager's performance and takes neither the time nor the effort to reflect on the manager's decisions and how they have impacted his business. The owner neglects to study the accounting books or to hear what others can tell him about how well the business is being run. Instead, he lets his “instincts” (or “gut feelings”) determine his evaluation of the manager's performance.

In a similarly thoughtless manner, during his brief visits to the store, the owner also considers the option of having the manager replaced. In line with his general approach, he quickly reaches a decision on this issue, too: he skims the résumés of a couple of job candidates and soon makes up his mind whether any of them intuitively strikes him as “serious” and “up to the job.”

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It's quite obvious what is wrong with the shop owner's behavior. His coming bankruptcy will be due to a combination of two factors: first, he delegated control of his store to the manager and, second, he believed that a cursory, unreflective and “gut-driven” overview of the manager's performance every four years would be enough to keep the business on course.

The parallel with our system of political representation should be obvious. When we are asked, in an election, to “evaluate” how well our politicians have been serving us, we do a similarly poor job. We all, including “informed” citizens who follow the news, neglect to thoroughly study the most important policy issues. We vote for a candidate based largely on what are little more than “gut feelings” regarding her honesty and reasonableness. At best, we have picked up a few tidbits from friends and the media that we take as truly revealing of that candidate's character.

These already precarious judgments are also considerably influenced by how much sympathy each of us has for the party a given politician represents. Here, again, the powerful psychological mechanism of identification rears its head (we met it before in our discussion of how politicians will tend to identify with other elites). In this case, social identification almost inevitably leads us to exaggerate the virtues of politicians belonging to the party we favor. Conversely, we tend to find the faults of the other parties' representatives particularly damning. Again, we often reach these conclusions unconsciously, and these processes influence our judgments without us even being aware of them. As one might expect, our ability to competently judge the performance of politicians at election time is, thus, further weakened.

It should be clear that we voters are not to “blame” for our failure to adequately judge the performance of our representatives. After all, doing so would require us to engage in a careful analysis of the policy issues facing our societies. Only then could we properly evaluate our politicians according to how well they performed on those issues. But the truth is that it is simply not realistic to expect citizens to engage in that kind of in-depth analysis.

Look at this from the perspective of any individual citizen. The amount of information that she would need to analyze to reach an adequately informed decision about just a handful of major policy issues is staggering. In a representative democracy, that same citizen knows that her single vote is bound to have only the tiniest impact on the outcome of an election—after all, she is just one among millions of voters. The amount of work involved in thoroughly analyzing a policy issue/option, combined with the extremely low likelihood that a single vote will significantly affect the outcome of an election, makes it reasonable for individual voters to abstain from digging deep into any issues. That is why political scientists speak of voters' “rational ignorance”: in a modern-day representative democracy, it simply does not pay for the voter to be fully informed on policy issues.

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Even if we somehow managed to overcome rational ignorance, and citizens developed an inclination to be “reasonably good shop owners” who gather some of the available information before making election decisions, matters wouldn't necessarily be significantly better.

Virtually all voters will still rely on their own individual consumption of information from secondary sources when forming an opinion about a politician or policy topic. Media reports, arguments by interest groups in favor/against a given politician or policy measure, and the public statements of politicians, commentators and other opinion-makers are all likely to play a key role in shaping voters' views. This introduces a number of interrelated problems that are very difficult to overcome.

The cornerstone of these problems is that this wealth of information will tend to be processed by individuals in largely the same “snap,” unreflective manner that currently plagues most voters' judgment of politicians. We read a couple of articles, perhaps catch a debate on TV and form “an opinion.”

While doing so, we favor some media outlets or commentators over others, deeming some as trustworthy and others as less reliable. Likewise, we label specific news stories as important and credible, while relegating others to the back of our minds. We do all this in a largely unconscious way.

Remember our earlier discussion of “confirmation bias”? We will accept and believe news and other information that agrees with our worldview, while we will tend to discount any conflicting evidence. This largely ensures that, even if voters tried to be better-informed on matters, they would quite likely end up merely reinforcing their pre-existing, “intuitive” views on the issue(s).

To get a notion of how precarious the “opinions” we all form really are, consider that virtually none of them will ever be subject to the rigors of even the most basic adversarial challenge. [9]

Most of us would agree that, when facing an important decision, it is quite reasonable to ask others for feedback and, hopefully, have a reasoned discussion about which course to take. With the benefit of their insights and experiences, you stand a very real chance of improving the quality of your decisions.

However, voters' political views rarely, if ever, get exposed to the light of day. In fact, they have quite a dark, depressing life cycle: they emerge from a murky, deeply flawed information-gathering process, live a largely unquestioned existence in the depths of their carrier's mind and, finally, seep out to leave their mark on a secret ballot. With the exception, perhaps, of mushrooms, nothing good grows in the dark. So, it should be evident that opinions formed this way are at odds with the kind of careful, reasoned decision-making required of citizens when it comes to politics. [10]

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A second, closely related problem with the way we voters decide on political matters is that, by basing our views on our private “digestion” of information coming from secondary sources, we collectively become easy prey for manipulation by special-interest groups. The reason for this is that any “encounter” between a voter and these secondary sources will necessarily be a highly asymmetric one.

Discussing markets as distinct as the global cotton trade and modern-day financial markets, the economic sociologist Michel Callon has described how an “uneven distribution of calculative capabilities” commonly leads to market power and transactions that most would deem as “rigged.” In the age of high-frequency trading, for example, no amateur day-trader—no matter how skilled—is a match for hedge funds armed with dozens of brilliant mathematicians and powerful computers. It is important that we come to realize that the “electoral market”—i.e., the market for votes in which our futures are decided—is equally rigged. Given the resources available to the political class and special-interest groups, the political views of each of us (taken in isolation) are easy prey.

Politicians and special-interest groups invest large amounts of time, effort and other resources into making their public image as appealing as possible to large segments of the population. They hire PR professionals and run countless focus groups to test variations of their “message,” subsequently honing it according to the feedback they receive from these groups so that the average voter will take its main points as “intuitively true” and, thus, will leave them unquestioned. And they spend enormous amounts of money to guarantee that this message is delivered to you in the format—and at the time and place—that is most likely to have an impact on your voting behavior.

Think about the average voter, who is busy going about her life—juggling work and family issues while trying to complete all the tasks on her to-do list. Time for reflection and pondering is not something she has a lot of. Now, add to this picture a flurry of expertly crafted political messages, each of them promoting a different candidate and all targeted at her. To think that the outcome of this process might be even remotely described as a reasoned, careful pondering of different political points of view is very optimistic, to say the least. Yet, incredibly, we stick to the fiction that elections provide us with an adequate mechanism to accurately evaluate and compare the political options presented to us.

Perhaps the closest analogue is that of entering a modern-day supermarket believing that you will buy “strictly what you need.” While walking down an aisle, you are bombarded with a variety of stimuli carefully engineered to induce largely unconscious responses that will lead to impulse shopping. Even the physical layout of the store itself is the result of many hours spent studying how to maximize the number of products you are exposed to and the amount of time you will spend inside it—since the more products you walk past and the longer your visit, the more you are likely to buy.

As voters, we are likewise stuck on the receiving end of this kind of deeply asymmetric “cognitive warfare.” An intelligent, well-meaning voter who relies on the passive, individual consumption of secondary sources is condemned to be largely overpowered by the combination of vast resources and state-of-the-art marketing techniques aimed at influencing his views. Competition among different political messages will, at best, result in the party with the most appealing message—often the one with the largest marketing budget—winning the public vote. And we can easily agree that is not what a democracy should be run on.

As long as our political systems relegate us to the role of a voter who relies on “gut feelings” and secondary sources of information, we will be vulnerable to rhetoric and manipulation. Thus, we will continue to be unable to critically engage with the messages we are exposed to, and politicians and special-interest groups will continue to have their way.

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In summary, there are two problems at the root of the failure of democratic representation:

  1. We have delegated power to the political class and hardly supervise it.

  2. As voters, we are condemned to unreflective and easy-to-influence decision-making. Even if we were inclined to effectively supervise politicians, this would severely limit our ability to do so.

Together, these problems present a real challenge. On the one hand, we can entrust power to a political elite who is able to minimally ponder policy issues—but who is also almost totally unaccountable to the general population. (This is what we have been doing so far.) On the other, we can give voters a stronger voice through, for example, a more direct form of democracy, but the risk is that they will speak in an uninformed, non-thinking way. Neither seems an especially promising approach.

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Let's return for a moment to the hypothetical case of a shop owner and his manager. Some of you may have felt—rightly so—that the comparison was an oversimplification. After all, the shop belongs to a single individual, while, in our societies, millions of us are ultimately in charge.

At first sight, this adds a whole other layer of complexity to the problem: it introduces a need for collective decision-making. If the shop were, in fact, owned by millions of people, then the issue would no longer simply be how to ensure that the manager's actions are in line with the owners' interests. Before worrying about that, the owners would first need to collectively agree on what they want. More concretely, they would need to find a way to jointly decide on matters and speak with a single voice.

At the core of this book lies the notion that this additional difficulty actually holds the key to solving the other problems we've already identified (that is, ensuring effective representation and avoiding thoughtless decision-making). That key is citizen deliberation, and we will come back to it repeatedly throughout the rest of this book.


8. ^ Before proceeding, though, it is worthwhile to highlight that misplaced expectations regarding delegation are a much broader problem that is also starkly present in the corporate world. In recent years, there has been talk of a “shareholder spring” (shareholders rising in protest against excessive executive compensation), but the depth of the problem is perhaps even better illustrated by the continued reckless behavior at banks. Whenever managers and the traders they oversee sustainedly engage in practices that put the very existence of the whole bank at stake—thus risking wiping out all the capital invested by shareholders whose interests they supposedly represent—our notions of delegation deserve some serious rethinking. These problems are addressed at length in The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism by John Bogle (founder of Vanguard, one of the world's largest mutual fund companies) and his later joint work with Alfred Rappaport (professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University), Saving Capitalism From Short-Termism.

9. ^ At least beyond the casual exchange of a couple of provocative remarks between friends or family members of different political persuasions, both of whom are guaranteed to stick to well-defined roles during the exchange—e.g., “the liberal” and “the conservative”—and none of them actually considering the content of the other's remarks.

10. ^ In recent years, the virtues of spontaneous, instinctive decision-making have been popularized in books such as Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking. I hope it is easy to (intuitively!) recognize that complex policy issues (e.g., how to properly regulate the financial sector) don't quite have an “intuitively evident” solution.

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