Archive for October, 2010

The Gaussian Bell Epoque

October 25, 2010

World’s political leaders are in a conceptual vacuum after the failure of the climate conference in Copenhagen. How should we proceed? Many glances at the internet – as made for changing the world fundamentally through better decision-making processes than the traditional hierarchical systems offer.

Policymakers in hierarchical organizations are usually a small group, limited by the number of people that can sit around a table. Internet knows no such limitations. Hierarchical organizations are based on the idea “You know the best, you are the Boss.” But what is meant by that? A leader is supposed to be an expert in decision-making because he/she has both relevant information and good judgment.

Relevant information comes from persons who know about the actual situation, usually far down in the hierarchy. The problem is that these people are biased and avoid providing information that disadvantages them. Anyone who wants to make his career in a hierarchical organization knows that it is good to say what the leaders wish to hear, which is not always the truth. Thus hierarchies disturb the free flow of information.

Most people think they have a good judgment. Who claims to be a worse judge than the average? Yet, the fact is that each one of us has less discretion than the average in the long run. In fact, the average verdict in a sufficiently large group of independent individuals is surprisingly good. The Gaussian Bell curve illustrates the principle that has made democracy a global success – if people make slightly different estimations, the average estimation is the most rational for the group.


A group of independent and engaged decision-makers with access to relevant information makes better decisions the more people are involved. Good Night Gentleman’s Club and the closed Meeting – Good Morning Digital Direct Democracy!

Internet’s non-hierarchical communication creates an openness that is going to reform decision-making fundamentally. Collecting the relevant information together in written debates with arguments for-and-against, and using internet polls gives the Bell Curve as a democratic result.

The blogpost title alludes to the Belle Epoque, depending on the same factors as we have today – better communication systems and new technology. About 100 years ago our ancestors fought for women’s suffrage. Our new Global Civil Rights Movement is about Digital Direct Democracy. Now we fight for extended universal suffragein all issues.

Political corruption and nepotism become almost impossible when people around the world demand that the arguments are clear and concise and published before decisions are taken, and then let the debate be open – as well as the internet voting.


October 7, 2010

In the late 70’s,  just when computers were developed, Professor Robert Axelrod invited programmers around the world to take part in a tournament between computer programs. Axelrod wanted to explore which game’s strategy was best suited to handle moral conflicts. His idea was to make different strategies compete in a Moral-dilemma Tournament. The rules were simple. The score in each round depended on the opponent´s strategy. All strategies met in pairs and they played 200 rounds in each match. The strategies could choose to try to win over the opponent or to cooperate.


The winning strategy accumulated the most points overall throughout the tournament. It was the simplest strategy Tit-for-Tat, made by Anatol Rapoport. Tit-for-Tat cooperates in the first round and then does the same thing as the other player did in the previous round. If the opponent cooperated, Tit-for-Tat cooperated in the next move. If the opponent was trying to win, so did Tit-for-Tat in the next move. We have much to learn from Tit-for-Tat.

Jealousy is self-destructive and prevents people from being rational. Tit-for-Tat is not seeking to win over the opponents. In fact, Tit-for-Tat never defeated an opponent in the tournament, at best it got the same points. But Tit-for-Tat won the total by consistently organizing a strong second place with different partners. Axelrod sums it up that Tit-for-Tat is not jealous, the strategy won by promoting the common interest rather than by competing.

Tit-for-Tat must be provoked for not cooperating. The basic idea is that an individual should not attempt to gain impunity. One can get far by being nice, but it can also lead to getting scammed. To win in the long run, it is necessary to be consistent. When the other player does not cooperate, Tit-for-Tat must take revenge. The same is true about forgiveness – the strategy returns to be kind as fast as the other player does.

Excessive revenge leads to a power struggle that has negative consequences for both players. Power struggle is the weakness of Tit-for-Tat. If two Tit-for-Tat strategies are starting to compete the struggle may go on forever. One of the most important lessons from Axelrod’s tournament is that mutual retaliation is hell on earth. A spiral of violence must be avoided at all costs.

After the success of Tit-for-Tat Professor Axelrod tried to teach his students to compete successfully with each other in playing the same game repeatedly. He gave the students clear instructions and said that the goal is that everyone should get as good results as possible. “It does not matter if someone gets more points, as long as everyone gathers as many points as possible,” said the professor. But the instructions did not work. Sooner or later, someone tried to win to get ahead or to just see what happens. This made the other students angry, whereupon the opponent retaliated and the game degenerated into a power struggle.

Axelrod pays tribute to the program Tit-for-Tat – aka reciprocity or the ancient morality group egoism – a morality with historical roots. Before we started farming we lived more than 100.000 years as hunter-gatherers in small groups in Africa. Members of the group helped each other to collect food, hunt, and defend against enemies. Group egoism tells us to stay together in the group and fight the common external enemies. The moral principle of group egoism is that you should treat others as they treat you. Axelrod’s study teaches us the importance of cooperation, but the most important lesson from it is about how to design the rules for fair human behavior.

In the 50’s the idea that the ideologies are dead was launched. Welfare is more important than ideology, the sociologist thought. Welfare became the guiding principle in politics and the political parties became increasingly similar. When ideology was put on the heap of history, the evolutionarily related group egoism came back into politics. It is not acceptable to be any kind of egoist, so now this morality is named reciprocity instead. The problem is that this morality fits a group of 20-100 individuals and not for big cities. Reciprocity is based on that you can recognize people you met before, otherwise you do not know who to be friendly to or who to take revenge on.

The rules determine which behavior is to favor. The rules in the Electoral Democracy are based on competition between different parties. The parties’ goal is to grow and increase their influence. A way to increase the influence is to cooperate and form an alliance and try to get more than 50% of the votes. As an alliance cannot grow without the other alliance decreasing, so the alliances work against each other. Elected officials see it as their responsibility to give their voters as much influence as possible. This leads to the majority’s dictatorship, and when the power changes so the new winning alliance tends to destroy what the old alliance has built up. Since politics is about solving moral dilemmas, Axelrod’s study is of the utmost importance, and it shows that a political system based on competition leads to the worst possible outcome in the long term.

Reciprocity is a successful principle in business, sports, and science. In all these areas reciprocity yields success. But without fair rules reciprocity wouldn’t work at all. The rules are determining the success of Tit-for-Tat. The tournament won by Tit-for-Tat was Robert Axelrod’s specific rules, and he chose the rules that made it valuable to cooperate. If the rules had been different, so would have the outcome. If the strategy that lost the match was out, then Tit-for-Tat would have no chance. All games have rules to follow, otherwise, there will be chaos. Determining the rules and laws of society is the main task for politics. If we want to reward the desired behavior we must have an idea of what is the desired behavior. If the rules should be fair, we must use a different morality than reciprocity when we make the rules.

Axelrod argues that reciprocity makes the system self-regulating. “There is no need for a central authority,” he writes in the neo-liberal approaches. I do not agree. Tit-for-Tat does not care about the impact on the environment, the participant’s welfare in the long term, or for other parties who do not participate. Life is no competition and Tit-for-Tat – aka reciprocity – is no morality principle. It also works for terrorists and criminals. If you snitch in the World of Crime, then you die. Cooperation is not always the best moral solution. We should not cooperate with someone who harms others, even if we should gain from this cooperation. The best way to avoid moral conflict in practice is to choose fair partners.

Cooperation also occurs between the questionable players. 200 years ago Adam Smith noted that you can never leave two merchants in the same room – they immediately begin to make plans on how to defraud the customers. It is difficult to prevent the parts from dividing the market between themselves or raising the price in tacit collusion to increase their profits. Therefore public procurement is necessary, and Tit-for-Tat is a bad principle in political legislation. Powerful companies do not hesitate to support their political representatives economically. Transparency is one way to avoid dirty alliances between politics and business. Another way is to empower so many citizens that the companies cannot afford to bribe them all.

Electoral Democracy Criticism

October 3, 2010

Electoral democracy means that parties try to convince voters – by information or persuasion – to vote for them the next election period. Impartial information gives voters the opportunity to form an opinion, but persuasion is second to none when it comes to getting people to change their opinion in a short time.

Election campaigns use great resources of information. Without information, the voters would not be aware of their choices, but there are limits to how much information we can handle. When all parties inform at the same time almost everything drowns in the information flow. Only the strongest voices are heard.

The election campaign can be described as a competition in strategic marketing – a contest in which party leaders’ personality and charisma, and election workers’ persuasion techniques decide the outcome. The voters become more susceptible to emotional arguments the more the election day is approaching. In the situation that arises, it is difficult for the media to stay neutral. The election campaign that is supposed to be a period of enlightenment turns into competitive entertainment.

Electoral democracy opens up every fourth year so that people can join and decide. After Election Day the system isolates itself from the public. Before this day all political information is open. When it is over the political system shuts like a clam and the parties begin to negotiate behind closed doors. The radical shift between maximum and minimum information flow shows that the political system is not transparent. Both surpluses and deficits in information reduce voters’ ability to take rational decisions.


Another problem with electoral democracy is the parties’ promises. Competitive behavior makes them often to promise more than the economy allows. The winner can either keep the promises and risk the entire economy, or take financial responsibility and disappoint the voters. Both strategies reduce political confidence.

It’s not only voters who undergoes an unhealthy information press before the election. Even politicians are exposed to a large pressure. Lobbyists and interest groups uses the political campaigns to press the parties. Media can hardly stay neutral – the hidden political agenda behind the media companies and the large advertisers do affect them.

In the polarization that occurs the media tend to concentrate on the party leaders. They end up in live interviews where experts challenge them. To behave like oracles, they need to surround themselves with speechwriters and media trainers. This dramaturgy shifts the focus from ideology to person, from the content to the package. There is no time for thinking or nuances in the hot media situation.

Electoral democracy promotes the formation of two coalitions, based on a political conflict between social classes. But this political map is out of date. Coalitions make a frustrating situation for the voters. Many other issues are just as important as the one between the bourgeoisie and the proletarians – i.e. human exploitation or sustainability. One who would vote for the Green Party in Sweden was forced to favor the Social Democrats in the election.

As the parties seek to push through as much of their policies as possible, it leads to a “minimal winning coalition” – the smallest possible coalition required to have the political majority. Nearly half of those elected are marginalized, while the rest abide their party leaders’ agreements. Decisions will in practice be taken at closed meetings where party leaders are negotiating. Competition between the parties turns the politicians from visionaries to strategists. If the parties task is to give their voters as much influence as possible, it leads to a systematic oppression of the other parties.

The technological developments have come so far that more participants can prepare the decisions. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) allows for better cooperation, which means that the party leaders’ dominance could be broken. We could develop a broader democratic interaction, allowing participation between elections. A well-suited ICT model would not only complement representative democracy, but lead to a close interaction between representative and direct democracy.

The political system would not have to be top down. People affected by a decision often have relevant information. Decentralization means decisions made by those concerned. Policy decisions could be decentralized to a greater extent if we change the laws and regulations discouraging it. Organization and hierarchy are two different things. If everyone has the right to take part, the system becomes self-regulating and more decentralized.

If we want to bring democracy to the information age, we should take a glance at self-organization, i.e. how market economy works. Every time we buy a product, consider that we vote for it. All consumers’ choices together control the market. Something similar could be done in politics if the decisions prepare together with the help from ICT and not behind closed doors.