Hélène Landemore on why we’re all in this together

When it comes to elections, much worry goes into whether or not voters are truly ‘qualified’ to head to the polls. According to Jason Brennan, many are simply as bad as drunk drivers. But do we make “smarter” decisions politically as a group than as individuals? Hélène Landemore thinks the answer is yes. An assistant professor of political science at Yale university, she is also the author of Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence and the Rule of the Many, forthcoming in January 2013. Recently she took part in a Q&A about her book, explaining the concept of collective intelligence, its superiority over individual decision-making, and why democracy is the best way to make decisions for the common good. Read her interview here:


What is “democratic reason”? How does it relate to the concept of collective intelligence in your title?

I call democratic reason the collective intelligence of democratic citizens as it is expressed through various democratic mechanisms. In my book, I study the collective intelligence of the people as it emerges from public deliberation and voting on issues of common interest, but it could also be channeled through other venues for democratic participation that I’m not considering. The concept of collective intelligence is broader than that of democratic reason and has been conceptualized and studied by various disciplines since at least the 1980s. I am simply extending it to politics.

The term “democratic reason” itself was meant as an echo to the famous Rawlsian concept of “public reason.” Democratic reason is distinct from John Rawls’ public reason in at least two ways. First, democratic reason is a descriptive, rather than a normative concept. Whereas Rawls’ public reason is meant to serve as a standard of public justification, a filter for what can be said in the public sphere, democratic reason is an ideal-type of the collective intelligence of the people as it emerges in the political domain. Second, to the extent that both concepts have a descriptive content, democratic reason is meant to be more inclusive than public reason. For Rawls, the people who typically voice public reason are representatives, official candidates, or judges. By contrast, any citizen or group of citizens can be a part of democratic reason.

Your book argues that democracy is a smart decision rule. Can you explain?

My conception of democracy is that it is a collective decision procedure combining two mechanisms: deliberation and majority rule. Deliberation allows the group to identify problems and come up with potential solutions. Majority rule maximizes the chances of picking the better solution. I argue that democracy, understood as such a collective decision procedure, can turn the lead of individual judgments into something like gold: a collective output that no individual within the group could have come up with on his own.

The argument is also comparative. At the heart of the book is the claim that the inclusive nature of democratic decision-making—giving everyone a voice on matters of common concern—ensures that our decisions are probabilistically smarter than if we delegated them to a dictator or a group of oligarchs. I make that claim assuming that the dictator and the oligarchs would be both smart and benevolent, which certainly stacks the deck in favor of these non-democratic forms of rule. And yet, in my theory, democracy still comes out on top, in terms of producing good political outcomes more often than these alternative rules.

Can you explain how the inclusiveness of democratic procedures ensure their superiority over less inclusive ones, such as a dictatorship or an oligarchy?

Here I need to introduce the work of Scott Page, on which I build. In his book The Difference (2007), Page argues that there are two components to collective intelligence: the individual intelligence of the members of the group and the cognitive diversity of the group. This concept of cognitive diversity is crucial. It refers to the difference in the ways in which people see the world and interpret it. Page shows that when it comes to collective problem solving, it is more important to have enough cognitive diversity in the group than to have very smart people in it. In other words, if you want to maximize your chances to solve a given problem, you are better of with a group of moderately smart but diverse thinkers, rather than a homogeneous group of even very smart people. That’s what he calls the “Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem.”

What I do in my book is build on this theory to argue that to the extent that politics is about problem solving, the great advantage of democratic decision-making over alternative decision rules is its inclusiveness, which naturally maximizes the cognitive diversity of the group of problem-solvers. That’s what I call the “Numbers Trump Ability Theorem.” The more people you include in the decision process, all things equal otherwise, the smarter the group is likely to be.

What do you mean by “smart” outcomes or “right” political choices?

I think everyone would agree that some political decisions are better or worse. By “right” choices, I mean that democratic decisions tend to be better rather than worse in at least that minimal sense. The domain of questions where such better or worse answers can be assumed to exist—what I call the “epistemic” domain—can be contrasted with the domain of coordination issues and the domain of pure value or interest conflict. Coordination issues, such as “Should we drive on the left or on the right of the road?,” do not have better or worse solutions. The right or left side of the road will do as long as we all agree on the same side. As to pure value or interest conflict, it is the domain of questions where we estimate that the point is not to seek the truth but simply to settle disagreement fairly. Epistemic questions, by contrast, are questions where disagreement is a result of ignorance. Examples of such epistemic questions could include: Is austerity the right policy to solve the economic crisis? How do we lower crime or the number of college dropouts? Was going to war in Iraq a mistake? More controversial epistemic questions, which some would perhaps phrase as pure value conflicts, would be: Should same sex couples be granted the right to marry? Should euthanasia be legalized?

Assuming your theoretical claim about the superiority of democratic regimes lends itself to an empirical test, what do you make of the success of autocratic or oligarchic regimes like China or Singapore?

Here you have to remember that my argument is probabilistic. I claim that on average and all things equal otherwise, democratic decision making can be expected to perform better than non-democratic decision making. But in some cases, non-democratic decision making will do better. So one or even a few exceptions (assuming that your examples are well-chosen) do not refute my view. I’m not denying that, occasionally, an oligarchy will outperform a democracy or that some autocratic decisions will turn out to be better than democratic ones. I’m just arguing that the probability of something like this happening is lower than the reverse probability of a democracy outperforming an oligarchy. The safer gamble is democracy.


Hélène Landemore is assistant professor of political science at Yale University. She is the author of Hume: Probability and Reasonable Choice.


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