Democracy for the Modern Era

Democracy, government accountable to the Will of the People: many set it on a pedestal, as the highest ideal of government, or even morality. Others call it mob rule, two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for lunch. I stand in between. Democracy may be mediocrity, but given the nasty predilections of many monarchs and juntas, I’ll take mediocrity – at least as long as nations are large enough to make government shopping prohibitively expensive. If government is to be a natural monopoly, let it be a consumer coop.

Our democracy has many problems because it isn’t. We don’t have democracy at the national level. We have a representative republic. Given the size of congressional districts and the enormous advantages of incumbency, our republic is not all that representative. Special interests, political parties, and the civil service are heavily overrepresented.

This is not to say I favor direct democracy. Legislation takes time, even for limited government. And why spend the time if your vote is only one of millions? Rational ignorance is no way to run a nation. So I’m game for choosing representatives, but I’d like a real choice.

Under our current system we usually get stuck with two choices: a Democrat and a Republican. This is not the fault of unfair ballot access laws or a sinister conspiracy by The Duopoly. This is a result of the plurality-take-all voting system we use for federal (and most state) elections. Put three or more viable candidates on a ballot and plurality-takes-all breaks down. Consider this ballot in a conservative district:

  • Rudolph Giuliani
  • Newt Gingrich
  • Nancy Pelosi

If conservatives split their votes between Giuliani and Gingrich, Pelosi wins, even though conservatives are a majority. This is hardly representative. And so, conservatives try to line up behind one and only one candidate before the general election. (I’ll leave it to the reader to devise a converse scenario for a liberal district. I’ll stick to this same conservative scenario for the rest of this article for brevity’s sake, not to endorse conservatism or the Republican Party.)

Most viable/moderate Libertarian candidates come off sounding more conservative than liberal, and so they rob more votes from the Republican candidate. A maxed out Democratic donor could thus aid his cause by donating to such Libertarians. This is rather perverse. And so, the people usually ignore third party politicians even when they aren’t on the fringe. The people rationally vote for the lesser of two evils.

The standard American ballot allows the user to express his (positive) opinion about only one candidate per office. If there are only two candidates, this implicitly provides an opinion on the second candidate. With three or more candidates, the missing information is significant. In the scenario above, a Gingrich voter cannot express a preference between Giuliani and Pelosi.

Many election reformers propose some form of ranked choice ballot to provide the missing information. A conservative voter could thus mark the above ballot:

  • 2 Rudolph Giuliani
  • 1 Newt Gingrich
  • 3 Nancy Pelosi

Counting such ballots is surprisingly tricky. Political scientists have devoted thousands of big-brain hours to the problem with no satisfactory solution. The gold standard solution is the method of Condorcet (which was used by the Free State Project to choose New Hampshire). Under Condorcet Voting, we look at each pair of contestants: Giuliani vs. Gingrich, Gingrich vs. Pelosi, and Pelosi vs. Giuliani in this scenario. We can take the ranking from each ballot and assign the vote to one of the two candidates in each pairwise contest. The ballot above would go to Gingrich, Gingrich and Pelosi respectively. If Gingrich beats Giuliani overall and Gingrich beats Pelosi, the Gingrich wins – which might be the case for a solid conservative district. However, if the liberal minority overwhelmingly prefers Giuliani over Gingrich, and moderate conservatives split, then Giuliani wins. The liberal minority doesn’t get their preferred candidate, but they still have influence. The entire district is in some sense represented. This is unifying.

Alas, Condorcet counting is confusing. A two-dimensional table is required to display voting results. This is hard to read and takes up scarce newsprint area. But far worse, Condorcet counts are not transitive. We could get Gingrich beats Giuliani, Giuliani beats Pelosi and Pelosi beats Gingrich! This is a recipe for civil war!

Instant run-off is simpler, and more familiar, than Condorcet. Unfortunately, it leads to the same two-party duopoly as our current system. Moreover, it can produce perverse results. Suppose most conservatives pick Gingrich, Giuliani, Pelosi; liberals pick Pelosi, Giuliani, Gingrich. Moderates divide between Giuliani, Pelosi, Gingrich and Pelosi, Giuliani, Gingrich. Under instant run-off, Giuliani loses in the first round. If moderates plus liberals outnumber conservatives, then Pelosi wins, even if conservatives outnumber liberals. Our current system of primaries, where in this case conservative voters could consider the electability as well as the desireability of the Republican during the primary, is less perverse.

Fortunately, a better system exists: Score Voting. Score Voting is how multiple judges decide between multiple contestants. If you’ve ever watched figure skating, high diving, gymnastics, or a beauty contest, you’ve seen Score Voting in action. Each judge assigns a numerical score to each contestant. The scores are added up or averaged and the contestant with the highest score wins. Score Voting is also how most schools pick their valedictorian. Grade points are scores. We do a better job of choosing beauty queens and top figure skaters than we do choosing our president and congresscritters.

Score Voting is an old system – for judging contests – but it is largely forgotten in a political context. The only political context I know of is the ancient Teutonic tradition of beating on shields in favor and shouting down in opposition to a measure or candidate. Score Voting is too much work for counting thousands of votes in the days of hand-counted ballots and so it disappeared in the political context. In the computer age, Score Voting is very easy to implement, however, so it is high time to give it a new try.

Mathematician Warren Smith is leading the charge to bring Score Voting back for political contest. His Center for Range Voting web site features in-depth analysis of Score Voting vs. other systems, and how Score Voting defies Arrow’s Theorem. (Range Voting was his original name for this system.) Take special note of his simulation studies, on how Score Voting minimizes Baysian regret. This is rather important. When Baysian regret gets too high, people die!

Consider a nationwide ballot in Iraq featuring the following candidates:

  • A Shiite extremist
  • An Arab Sunni extremist
  • A Kurdish separatist
  • A moderate social democrat
  • A moderate classical liberal

With plurality-take-all voting, the Shiite extremist wins — and the rest of the population takes up arms. Similar failure modes happen in other deeply divided countries around the world. When racial, tribal, linguistic, religious or ideological divisions grow too deep, democracy leads to dictatorship or civil war. This is the sad story of the Third World.

Now, consider the ballot above using 0-10 Score Voting. Shiite extremists may still give their man a 10, but they are likely to give the other divisive candidates zeros. Ditto for Arab Sunni extremists and Kurdish separatists. Under such an environment, unifying candidates such as the social democrat and the classical liberal have a real chance of winning, even though they have small enthusiastic bases. Score Voting favors candidates that are “less bad for all” vs. “best for the biggest gang.” The political culture should become less poisonous over time, and peacekeeping troops can come home after peaceful democracy takes root.

Of course democracy is not the same thing as freedom. In fact, many of you reading this may fear the spread of democracy, as it does lead to lefty governance. The poor outnumber the rich, so keeping the masses from looting the treasury is a problem. Moral arguments can help, but try explaining why are lazy poor people collecting welfare checks is bad while lazy rich heirs collecting interest is acceptable? This is an important objection, and I’ll deal with it in depth in future posts. For now, let’s look at the benefits of improved representation:

  • Incumbents can no longer hide behind fear of the other party. A corrupt conservative can be challenged by a fresh conservative without fear of electing a liberal. Ditto for corrupt liberals.
  • New ideologies can be explored: libertarianism, eco-conservatism, free-liberalism, Georgism, etc.
  • While more ideologies can be explored, they will be explored incrementally. Extremism loses under Score Voting. Excessive change in government is bad. People can adjust to even bad laws if they don’t change. Think of our ever changing tax code or ever changing monetary policies.
  • Score Voting applied within legislatures provides clear accountability. We will know where legislators stand.
  • Score Voting applied within legislatures might allow legislatures to take powers back that they delegated over to regulatory agencies.
  • Improved democracy might allow us to weaken the power of the civil service.
  • More efficient democracy might render state and local government competent enough to forgo help from the federal government. This could be a step to restore federalism.

Some of these benefits are conjectural. Experiments are required. But the experiments can be done. I’ll detail how in a future post.

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This is quite possibly the best post I've read at DR.

I'll need to think about this to have anything worth saying (I'm not sure I will even then). My quick thought is that the same computerization that would make Score Voting work might also end up allowing something like a STV to work. But at the end of the day, I think that your proposal might end up having the same benefits as proportional voting while being much easier to explain.

Reweighted Score Voting

Thank you. Made my day.

If proportional representation is desired, there is Reweighted Score Voting. It works as follows:

1. Determine the winner based upon standard Score Voting. This is the first ballot.

2. Reweight the ballots based upon how well the voters are already represented. The reweighting I read about was: scale the score range to [0,1.0]. Multiply the scores by 1 / (1 + winner score). Those who gave the winner a 10 out of 10 thus have their votes reweighted by a factor of 1/2. Those completely dissatisfied by the first winner by 1.0.

3. Reweight by the sum of the first two scores; i.e., 1/(1 + winner1 score + winner2 score).

4. Repeat until filled.

Personally, I prefer district votes for reasons given in my previous post. But for very dense representation (NH legislature, small town boards) having multi-member districts may be preferable.

The Spartans also used

The Spartans also used voting-by-loudness. All voting systems fail according to Arrow's Impossibility Theorem. That's a theory, in practice we might not care.

Arrow's Theorem

Arrow's Theorem is based on ranked choice ballots. Ranked choice ballots have less information than score vote ballots.

Public Choice Concerns

Are you assuming that we want a rational voting system that reflects voter preferences?

Or, to unpack that collective "we"...

Are you assuming that the incumbent politicians who have benefited from the current voting system would be willing to help modify it in any way that would weaken their hold on power?

Re: Public Choice Concerns

It would take a groundswell of grass roots pressure. Fortunately, such a groundswell is possible. I'll detail why in a future post.

voting schmoting

1: you're assuming an educated electorate that does not exist

2: score voting is famously riggable (really -- how many judging scandals are there each year for contests?)

3: you're arguing against MM. His big contention -- the reason he gets any notice -- is the "permanent government" of the civil service. What does score voting do for that? How is the "least bad" moderate going to have the way-vohs to do anything about the vampires with pay grades?


1. Not claiming utopia here. Only workable government with better representation.

2. Warren Smith ran simulations based on people trying to game the system. Score Voting is still better. Plurality voting is the limit of factions gaming the system as much as possible. It institutionalizes the worst case scenario!

3. Civil service is a problem. Is a problem under any system, including monarchy. See China. Even the Mongols couldn't change the Chinese Civil Service. More effective democracy might have a ghost of a chance at containing the bureaucrats. Localism helps. New Hampshire has more control over its civil service than California. Easier effective democracy may boost the case for localism. (Worth another post.)

The genius of the US Constitution

The genius of the US Constitution is that it is aimed at levels of the problem of liberty and governance that most people don't even consider.

Consider a "liberal" (in the classic sense) benevolent monarchy or oligarchy. Even if the current rulers have the best of intentions, and even if each ruler (or set of rulers) chooses the most benevolent of rulers to succeed them such concentrations of absolute power are dangerous to liberty, because they are unstable. It takes only one poor choice, only one usurpation by force, only one change of heart for benevolence to turn to abuse. And abusive, or at least indifferent, oligarchy is often as stable as the benevolent kind.

Consider a pure democracy. In the worst case you get the "last vote" situation where the public vote themselves into a totalitarian regime that abolishes further voting (this is actually a shockingly common case, many democracies are short-lived). In another common case democracy becomes little more than mob rule and the majority (or plurality) enforces their whims on the minority.

The US constitution is designed to lead to grid lock (and naturally encourages a two-ish party system) and also explicitly sets out fundamentally important individual rights and limits to the power of government. This makes it more difficult for the majority to get their way. If you imagine the instantaneous "will of the people" (the majority) to be some vector in multidimensional space, at any given moment the ability to realize that political will is resisted by the inertia of the political system. As it turns out, this will-of-the-people vector changes directions wildly over short periods of time (often in directions counter to individual liberty). But some portion of it is strong and consistent, reflecting a deep and important need of the electorate. The US constitution is designed to filter out the vagaries of political will and concentrate on satisfying this stronger, more consistent signal. In theory of course, in practice it's a far messier process, especially in the recent era (the last several decades or so) when our national media has been fundamentally broken.

The US system is designed for dynamic, long-term stability. The longevity of liberty (indeed, of deepening liberty) in the US is a testament to the robustness of the system. US liberty has survived civil wars, world wars, cold wars, and worse, and with any luck it will endure even the current silliness.

Score voting sounds good in theory but as you point out it makes the government more immediately responsible to the will of the people.

The problem with that is, as above, the will of the people is flighty and base. You present it as a robust solution with only a few slight blemishes, when in fact those blemishes have the capacity to unravel the entire tapestry of american liberty that has been built up through 3 centuries of hard experience. A case for monarchy could be made in the same manner, it has only the tiny problem that if it falls into the wrong hands (through accident or through force) then everyone could be well and truly fucked, but other than that...

I think what you'd find out is that when you take a system like score voting and fully work out how to robustly solve its flaws you end up with a corrective structure so all-encompassing that it's not merely a small adjustment but an entirely different political system, and one looking a lot more like our current systems than like a pure score voting system.

I'd like to see someone come up with a better, workable alternative to the existing system, but I don't think score voting is it, and I can almost guarantee that it will not be a simple or easy process to get to "there" from "here".

Genius of the Constitution

Was the subject of my previous post. And in this post I did not advocate scrapping our Constitution, only tweaking it. I'll keep the staggered votes for Senators, the federalism, the single-member districts, the appointed for life courts, etc. which gives our system stability.

However, as MM and others have pointed out, we are suffering from a longer term instability, a bias if you will, towards bureaucratic rule by an entrenched elite. The system is breaking down. Score Voting addresses some of the sources of this bias.

Democracy may be mediocrity,

Democracy may be mediocrity, but given the nasty predilections of many monarchs and juntas, I’ll take mediocrity

Democracy is mediocrity, it's much worse. Note that all successful organizations are managed by a selected elite. A successful organization that was run by the average person off the street, would not be mediocre, but would be managed terribly. An organization run by the person who can organize a group to shout the loudest, would be even more horrible.

Historically, the abuses of democracies and the governments (or anarchy) that democracies routinely degenerate into, have been far greater than the abuses of monarchy.

If government is to be a natural monopoly, let it be a consumer coop.

Co-ops do not scale. Even small ones tend to be ridden with stress and conflict. The basic problem is that it cannot distribute its profits in the form of money. So everyone gets in fights in how the business should move forward, as a way of distributing profits back to themselves. Contrast this to a joint stock corporation, where everyone has their shares up front, and knows the conditions for earning more shares, and knows that everyone gets and equal amount of money per share. While there is still grounds for conflict, there is much less. People work hard to make the company as a whole profitable, and then each person can spend their share of the profits as they please.

Our democracy has many problems because it isn’t.

A governance process basically does three things:

1) Grow the pie ( more economic growth, creating more stuff people want)

2) Divide the pie

3) Make decisions about moral rules ( abortion rights, gay marriage, etc, by definition, these decisions are decisions that good people can disagree about. If everyone agrees about the goal, then the issue is filed under "growing the pie" )

Let's take each of these elements one by one.

I don't think even the most fervent demotist believes that democracy is the optimal, (or even "least worst") form of government for growing the pie. If you want a government that grows the pie, you need control to wrest in the hands of some form of selected elite. In the corporate world, this happens because people who are good at making judgments about money tend to end up holding more controlling shares. In a non-profit, people are lifted into positions of authority and control based on service performed to the organization. The newest receptionist hire certainly does not have the same number of votes in how to control the organization as the chief operating officer who has been with the organization for ten years. In a military, promotions are based on successfully carrying out projects. The newest private has no vote, and no control.

Democratic management has two key problems when it comes to growing the pie. One, the average person is dumb, irrational and easily manipulated. Listen to sports radio for a few hours if you ever need to be reminded of this. Thus they are very unlikely to know what the best policy is. Two, a vote is a personally irrational act. The lost wages in the time it takes to vote will far outweigh any difference that your vote ever makes. Thus people vote not rationally, but based on how voting makes themselves feel. This makes non-transferable votes, a really bad method for rational, calculated decision making about how to grow the pie.

Presumably people favor democracy over monarchy/aristocracy because it is better at dividing the pie. But if our concern is figuring out the fairest way to divide the pie, why not just divide it up front? Declare that every citizen gets a dividend of $10,000 a year. Or grant everyone shares (perhaps transferable, perhaps not, the details can be worked out).

What's poisonous is putting the division of the pie go up for grabs every two or four years. People build alliances, organize parties, and form battle lines. The process both divides society and diverts talent and effort into politics, rather than productive activities.

There was is even a known name for this process: the spoils system. It was so poisonous, that reformers of the 19th and early 20th century created the Civil Service system to get around the problem. It only half succeeded. The civil service as a whole just ended up as another interest trying to get its hands on the pie. The only good part is that it is a very stable faction. Thus the division of the pie in modern America has become much more stable. As a result, our politics are much less violent and bloody than they were in the 19th centuries.

The problem with any plan to make more politics "more democratic" is that, if it succeeds, it will make more elections more competitive and turnover much more frequent. That will increase opportunities for factions getting their hands on pieces of the pie, and thus will actually make politics far more antagonistic and even violent.

As for three, (decisions about moral rules), here two democracy is a failure. In my opinion, these kinds of decisions are best left to as local level as possible. The federal government should be agnostic. Unfortunately, since people vote based on how the vote makes themselves feel, there is an inexorable logic that leads to the election of politicians who promise to legislate on moral issues. Failure again.

In summary, there are three core problems with democracy: a) it does not divide the process of dividing the pie from the process of growing the pie b) it is not a very good process for selecting management that can grow the pie and c) it creates constant conflict over the division of the pie.

Your proposed solutions address none of the above issues. At best, score based voting might lead to slightly less extreme candidates winning. Maybe. On the other hand, by making elections more competitive it might create a return to the nasty and violent politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It's really testament to the power of democracy theology that people spend so much time thinking about perfectly representational voting systems, as if that is anything close to the real problem with democracy. The real problems are those listed above.

If you're not willing to go as far as supporting a joint stock form of governance, you might want to check out Nick Szabo's writings. Check out these points in particular: and

Democracy's failures

Grow the pie: Hmmm, last I checked the U.S. is rather rich. So are Scandinavia and Switzerland. The U.S. government has a better credit rating than the old monarchies of Europe as well.

Divide the pie: I do like the idea of a Citizen's Dividend vs. the modern welfare state. Note that the modern welfare state is a product of undemocratic Prussia. (A few weeks ago I was watching the old Connections series. Back in the late 1800s the Germans were going hungry because the government had high tariffs on wheat to subsidize the Junkers, who were then selling their rye on the world market. Rather dumb.)

Moral decisions: Where are these tolerant monarchies? Saudi Arabia?


Democracy (or democratic republicanism) does have trouble getting off the ground under conditions of extreme inequality (cf. Latin America) or divided tribalism (cf. Africa, Iraq). Score voting addresses the latter problem significantly. The former problem I'll address later.


As for educated voters, give me a break. I'll take Palin over Obama any day. Progressivism is a product of the universities. All that study of Plato gives people totalitarian fantasies. I've heard political idiocy from the Harvard educated and I've heard correct analyses of the problems of welfare from semi-literate odd-job alcoholics.


I'll add Szabo to my reading list. Thanks.

Constitutional Monarchy

Constitutional Monarchy doesn't seem to be all that bad.


Outright absolutism might not be that bad for small principalities. There, it is inexpensive to keep the border sealed. Perimeter/area ratio is high. Also, in the modern era especially, a small principality depends on trade, tourism, etc. In essense, with small principalities in the modern era, government-shopping is viable. Competition produces accountability. The compelling argument for a coop goes away once you have competition.

For a large area, evil empire is viable. Witness Russia under the Czars. The Chinese emperors/civil service succeeded in clamping down on progress for centuries. China had a huge head start on the West and blew it completely due to tyranny.


I am inviting you to sign up for an account here at TDR and make blog posts. I've enjoyed your comments at other places and notice that you don't keep a regular blog anymore. This would be as good a place as any.

Thanks Jonathan, I've

Thanks Jonathan, I've signed up for an account. We'll see if I actually discipline myself to write a polished blog post, or instead continue to use up pixels in various comment threads :-)

You should be all set

We've had a lot of trouble with spam signups and have had to change our registration method, so I'm not 100% it'll work, but you should be set to post.

Most viable/moderate

Most viable/moderate Libertarian candidates come off sounding more conservative than liberal, and so they rob more votes from the Republican candidate. A maxed out Democratic donor could thus aid his cause by donating to such Libertarians. This is rather perverse. And so, the people usually ignore third party politicians even when they aren’t on the fringe. The people rationally vote for the lesser of two evils.

Their voting isn't rational if they care at all about the long run (i.e. the next election). Sure, the republicans lose this election because libertarians stole some votes, but to win the next election, and the one after that, etc. they'll shift their platform towards the libertarian position. Assuming libertarians also want to win, they'll shift towards the republicans. Thus in the long run, voting libertarian pans out. Of course, people don't vote like this, but that doesn't mean it's not rational. (It is rational to vote too! Think about the long run, not just this election.)

The problem with score voting is that you can still vote strategically - 10 for my candidate and 0s for everyone else. Why would you ever score a candidate as anything other than 10 or 0 if you want to maximize the chance of the best outcome? If everyone votes this way, then Arrow's theorem comes back. See this comment to this post.

Voting Plan

How about a simpler change? One vote per person applied to one candidate, but allow the vote to be either FOR (+ 1 vote) the candidate or AGAINST (- 1 vote) the candidate. As LeninOfLiberty pointed out, a great number of votes are driven by the desire to vote most effectively against a candidate. If this were a basic choice in the election, the results would be a more clear indication of the voters’ preference. I suspect that most officials would be elected on the basis of the smallest negative number of votes.

So much for anyone’s claim to a “mandate.”

Another approach

You may also wish to consider Cumulative Voting.