I’m sort of pleased with myself about this post’s title, because it’s about a draft article on “Cognitive Democracy” at Crooked Timber. The joke, which after all leads and animates that site, is Kant’s remark that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Yet the article is about using democracy to generate solutions to complex problems, i.e. straight things out of crooked timber. Consistent with their thesis they have asked for reader commentary on this draft, so I hereby suggest everyone reading here go on over and add your perspective to the mix.
For present purposes I’m struck by a point the authors, Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi, make about how democracy works / needs to work. They premise by arguing that democracy is superior to markets and hierarchies in locating best-possible solutions to complex problems, for two main reasons: 1.) democracy provides the framework for including the widest diversity of perspectives, thus better “exploring the space of possibilities” and guaranteeing against even experts’ individual or corporate tendencies to lock in on sub-optimal local solutions; and 2.) democracy levels distorting power relations so all perspectives are equally weighted. They also defend this liberal sort of democracy against a more utopian, in their view, virtuous general-will style republicanism by pointing out that there is no need to correct for narrow interests and confirmation bias on this account, since the whole point is to bring a diversity of such cognitive localisms to bear on the problem. People should be expected and even encouraged to give full vent to their partisanship, producing the best possible arguments for their position and letting the democratic process sort out the best possible solution. So far, so Federalist Papers if I remember my undergrad PoliSci aright.
Henry and Cosma argue that the critical mechanism of democratic process so constituted is ability and willingness to recognize and accept better arguments when we see them. They quote Mercier and Sperber (2011):
When one is alone or with people who hold similar views, one’s arguments will not be critically evaluated. This is when the confirmation bias is most likely to lead to poor outcomes. However, when reasoning is used in a more felicitous context, that is, in arguments among people who disagree but have a common interest in the truth, the confirmation bias contributes to an efficient form of division of cognitive labor. When a group has to solve a problem, it is much more efficient if each individual looks mostly for arguments supporting a given solution. They can then present these arguments to the group, to be tested by the other members. This method will work as long as people can be swayed by good arguments, and the results reviewed … show that this is generally the case. This joint dialogic approach is much more efficient than one where each individual on his or her own has to examine all possible solutions carefully (p. 65).
Ohhhhh, so we have to actually listen to each other, and maybe even modify our views accordingly. Dang. Lots to think about here.
Btw I must admit, like and perhaps unlike other fine scholars recently under discussion here at DV, that I have not finished reading the article, which strikes me about half-way through as a wonky think-piece dressed up with convenient citations. It’s not that I don’t agree with it or think it’s well done, it just seems to me like yet another optional rationalization of democracy, of which there are centuries-worth to choose from. It’s good enough to be your favorite and fits this context better than most, but I’m not sure it would convince a partisan of markets or hierarchy that democracy is the optimal solution yet. But Henry and Cosma are terrifically smart and may eventually (in this piece or later ones) get to something more compelling than the ‘some studies seem to show’ approach. I would very much like that, and will update in the comments accordingly as I continue reading, because I also prefer democracy and find it a little embarrassing that all I have is habits and rationalizations to account for this.
UPDATE: Cosma’s new post (also mentioned and quoted below in the comments), part of the Crooked Timber online seminar on Red Plenty, is an altogether more satisfying piece of analysis. The dynamic interpenetration of democracy, hierarchies and markets is fully in view here and the relative constraints and affordances of each in regimes perhaps inevitably far from optimization is directly thematized. How that earlier piece makes sense to Cosma given what he has to say here is not clear to me, and the disconnect has not so far been noted in the (otherwise mostly useful) commentary either. Maybe it’s ok to say things about Soviet planning and capitalist quasi-markets it’s not ok to say about our utopian dreamworlds, or maybe I’m just not smart enough to get the rhetoric of this project’s development. In any event, I confidently recommend this new post as not at all a waste of time.