Category Archives: institutional design

Who makes the rules for selecting the rulers?

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Our major adversarial institutions are not free-for-all, war-of-all-against-all, slugfests. They are highly regulated competitions, with specific rules in place to encourage desirable outcomes: convicting the guilty but not the innocent (law), creating prices and promoting efficiency (markets), electing competent governments (politics), entertaining fans (spectator sports). The “players” are invited to play to win; but the competitions are not in place primarily for their benefit, but mostly for the benefit of those outside the competition.

This, in a nutshell, is why it always matters who gets to write or amend the rules of these competitions. And why we worry when the “players” get to write their own rules. Especially when a subset of the players — the ones who happened to win the last round — get to write the rules for the next round.

As Arash Abizadeh writes in Toronto’s Globe and Mail,

Here’s the problem: letting politicians who won the last election decide future election rules is like letting the team who won the last playoff game decide rules for the next game. There’s an obvious conflict of interest. Electoral rules determine who forms government, and different rules favour different parties.

After surveying the options for a better process of electoral reform, Abizadeh recommends something novel:

how could electoral reform be legitimized? We need a manifestly fair procedure – a neutral body, unbeholden to politicians, that will reasonably evaluate the alternatives.

Fortunately, political scientists have a solution that fits the bill – a randomly selected citizen assembly. The idea is this: randomly select a few thousand Canadians, ask if they are willing to serve, and, from those saying yes, randomly select 100 to 200 to serve on an assembly empowered to determine federal election rules.

Putting regular citizens in charge may initially seem crazy. Wouldn’t citizens with no special experience or expertise make incompetent decisions? But that’s who decides referenda, too. In fact, Canada is a pioneer in using citizen assemblies to make decisions about voting systems.

We’ve done it twice before, in B.C. and Ontario. Political scientists havestudied both cases, and both were in many respects a great success. Once our fellow citizens received expert advice (about voting systems) and consulted the public, they became well informed, and their deliberations and decision-making were extremely competent and reasonable.

No surprise here: it’s well known to social scientists that under the right conditions, there is intelligence in numbers. The decisions of an assembly of regular but diverse individuals are often more intelligent than decisions by a lone genius or expert.

As they used to say in 1960s sitcoms, that is so crazy it just.. might.. work! It is also not beyond the realm of conceivability that the current Trudeau government in Canada, which promised electoral reform in its last campaign, would consider such a thing.

The probability that anything like this will happen south of 49th parallel, where two parties have successfully colluded to secure a political duopoly for generations, is approximately 0.0. Why think outside the box when the box is just fine the way it is? Why not just hire a consultant…

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Boaty McBoatface, Primaries, and the Illusion of Democratic Legitimacy

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The internet seems to bring out the extreme tendencies of human groups. It can connect us over the greatest of distances and provide for the rapid spread of information — whether in the form of revolutionary tweets or cat pictures. At the same time, the anonymity provided by certain social media platforms coupled with mass social movements can end up having some wonky effects.

One such recent sensation was the saga of Boaty McBoatface. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently ran a contest to determine the name of a new $300-million research vessel. The new ship would explore the remotest waters, its side emblazoned with a name chosen by “the people” of the internet. Or such was the idea.

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

Of course, internet users jumped on such an opportunity to “participate” in such scientific endeavors. Before long, the leading entry for the name of the new ship was “RRS Boaty McBoatface,” a name which soon became an internet sensation. As links to the contest were shared, the name continued to gain steam, ending with 124,000 votes — over three times the votes of the runner-up entry.

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The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

Yet the captain (er, Science Minister) Jo Johnson leaned hard on the tiller and, along with the hardy crew (the NERC), decided to bring her about, ignoring the prevailing winds of internet opinion. Such a name just wouldn’t be proper!

This raises the obvious question: if the NERC wanted to maintain creative control over the naming of the ship, why hold the contest at all? Had they never asked the amorphous mob of “the internet” to participate, they could have just named it whatever boring name they wanted. But had the done so, they never would have got people interested. After all, wasn’t the purpose of the marketing ploy precisely to raise awareness for science and give people the feeling that they were somehow participating in the process?

Here we see something pertinent to the study of adversarial institutions: sometimes a contest can be used to give validation or legitimacy to an idea. The logic is generally this: the majority will have little reason to complain about the outcome, since they themselves chose it. Such a notion may appear extremely obvious — after all, we are used to it in its political form: majoritarianism.

Yet the story of “Boaty McBoatface” shows that while a body might set up a such a structured contest to give their actions legitimacy, that same body of organizers might find themselves still wanting control over the outcome. In an alternate scenario, the  NERC could have the people choose between several tried-and-true-and-boring options. But is a choice among options you didn’t pick really a valid choice for the purposes of legitimacy?

The example of Boaty McBoatface seems especially relevant in a U.S. primary season where both major parties have seen strong challenges from candidates considered to be outsiders. On the right, there has been talk of Donald Trump being blocked at the Republican convention by the party establishment; on the left, superdelegates have proved to be a hot-button issue in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Like the NERC, both parties seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to let the people (generally, or of their party) appear to have some input, but they also want to maintain some control over the process.

If there’s one thing that both the saga of Boaty McBoatface and this U.S. primary season will achieve, it will be the raised awareness among citizens and internet-basement-dwellers that sometimes the way that contests are structured matters immensely. Is it enough to have a choice, or is directly choosing the options also required for democratic legitimacy? Needless to say, deciding the scope and limits of democratic legitimacy is and will continue to be a slippery business.

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Congressional Military Oversight: A Trial Without A Judge

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The US Congress holds the constitutional responsibilities of declaring war and raising, equipping, and maintaining the military (clauses: Declare War, Army, Navy, Regulate, Installations). The framers of the constitution intentionally gave the legislature these powers to divide control of the military between it and the executive. They sought to prevent either branch of government from using the fighting force to oppress the people or to engage in wanton war making. In short, they wanted an adversarial structure to the mechanism that controlled the military; an institutional check on military and executive decisions that relate to war and national defense.

To fulfill this constitutional duty, congressional committees frequently hold hearings to investigate ongoing military issues, to learn about strategies being employed, and to hold military leaders accountable for the decisions they make. When done right, congressional oversight can be extremely effective (Truman Committee: here). The Senate Armed Services Committee handles these duties for the Senate.

Unfortunately, committee members frequently use hearings for personal or political advantage. Consider testimony on the Syrian Civil War and the Iraq War:

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On 10/27/2015, Senator Lindsey Graham (above) engaged in an emotional questioning of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (below) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford about the ongoing Syrian Civil War. He asked both individuals questions on the US strategy to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Asad from office and in all cases he proceeded to interrupt and answer for the witnesses (video: here). His line of questioning was less about learning and more about criticizing the Obama administration. Despite hearing such as the one shown here, Congress is still yet to authorize the ongoing military operations in Syria and Iraq, consciously choosing not to vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force.

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On 9/11/07, then Senator Hillary Clinton (Dem) spent 6 minutes giving a speech criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War before ever asking a question. In this speech she essentially accused the witnesses General David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker of lying (video: here; article: here), stating: “Despite what I view is your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony both yesterday and today, I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.” It was later revealed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that Clinton admitted that she only voted against the surge for political reasons (article: here).

In contrast to Senator Clinton, in the same set of Iraq War hearings Senator John McCain (Rep) asked several softball questions that supported the ongoing Bush-Petraeus surge strategy. McCain was a noted supporter of the surge and his leading questions did very little to probe the war effort or provide any real oversight (video: here; support: here).

Although congressional hearings have a question and answer format reminiscent of a lawyer’s examination of a witness in a courtroom and they are similarly intended to seek some approximation of the truth, there is no equivalent to the judge to keep the questions on track and professional. It’s unfortunate that committee hearings frequently turn political instead of being informative. It’s also easy to understand why witnesses so uniformly hate testifying before Congress.

Alexander Hamilton and the Supreme Court nomination crisis

By now there is (probably) not a single person in the country who remains unaware of the impending, but also already incredibly intense, showdown over President Obama’s nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia, who died last month. (Facts: here. Conspiracy theories: here.)

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In justifying their refusal to consider any nominee, many Republicans cited the authority of both precedent and even some vague Senate “rule,” arguments which have since been unmasked as straight up not true. The number and intensity of opinions seems to be growing wilder and fiercer by the day, so I thought I’d one-up Republicans by appealing to an authority even higher than mere precedent or tradition: Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU does a great job explaining in this article (which can be read alternatively as a cross-posting at The Huffington Post if, for some reason, you prefer Arial to Helvetica) how the framers of the Constitution, particularly Hamilton (and Madison), expected situations like this would be handled by future generations.

As its authors note: “Our constitutional system only works if the institutional players adhere in good faith to the Constitution’s basic rules.”

Politics is an appropriately adversarial system; however, it is inappropriate, and even dangerous, to play political games with the basic, constitutive rules of a government. Politicizing the mere maintenance of the fundamental institutions of a system of government risks gutting the framework and crippling the stability of that system.

Things fall apart: Williams v. Pennsylvania and judicial conflicts of interest

It seems self-evident that no person should be permitted to judge a case in which they have an interest, but our laws do not yet reflect this principle clearly, if at all. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU recently published this article about a capital case—Williams v. Pennsylvania—in which conflict of interest has had a leading role.

This is a particularly timely article because the U.S. Supreme Court—narrowly divided on this issue several times in the past, though now more evenly so with the recent passing of Justice Scalia—heard oral arguments in this case yesterday, February 29th. (Transcripts and recordings of the oral arguments will be available here by March 5th.)

What is important for us to note is that, at issue are not disputes over guilt or innocence, but rather whether the fundamental concept of procedural justice has been tainted by a judge’s conflict of interest; and what kind of threat that would pose to both the perception and reality of justice and fairness in our legal system.

As the article notes, we all have the right to a fair trail before an impartial judge; yet

Mr. Williams was denied that right, by any reasonable reckoning, when Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice, Ronald Castille, who is now retired, declined to recuse himself in a 2014 ruling by his court upholding Mr. Williams’ death sentence, notwithstanding an astonishing conflict: He personally approved and oversaw Mr. Williams’ prosecution and post-trial defense of the death verdict in his earlier role as Philadelphia’s district attorney.

 

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“You look familiar. Have I prosecuted you somewhere before?”

Our legal system is necessarily, and fortunately, adversarial; and removing that adversarial component from this case puts the integrity of the entire system at risk.

Lawyers are to argue their client’s case competently, perhaps even very aggressively, and an impartial magistrate is to judge the proper course of action after listening to and considering both sides. But what might we expect to happen if one of those lawyers were to become the “impartial” judge of the case at a later stage of the trial and then refuse to recuse himself? (Spoiler alert: objectively bad things, many of which are certainly immediately apparent to the reader even as pure hypotheticals.)

Democracy for a race of Mitch McConnells

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Immanuel Kant famously believed that “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” These rational devils will realize that they need well designed and enforced laws for their own self-preservation, even though each “is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them.” So they need “to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such evil intentions.”

In short, in this essay Perpetual Peace, published about 30 years after Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Kant was optimistic that with a well designed constitution, something like an Invisible Hand (and sometimes, surely, a visible foot) could turn opportunistic political behavior into responsible, statesmanlike, governance.

Of course, this is all probably irrelevant for those following the current election cycle in the US. Kant thought that cleverly designed rules for the game could handle greed. But all bets are off if either the devils running for office, or those whose votes they are courting, lack intelligence, understanding, or rationality. So, well, all bets are off then.

A time-traveling Kant would nonetheless be intrigued by the political biography of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. At least, if the account developed by Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, tracks the truth. In his recent attempt in The New York Times to explain McConnell’s tactics for the game of selecting and approving the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court, MacGillis portrays the Senate majority leader as exactly the kind of intelligent devil Kant had in mind.

The best way to understand Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been to recognize that he is not a conservative ideologue, but rather the epitome of the permanent campaign of Washington: What matters most isn’t so much what you do in office, but if you can win again.

As an aspiring young Republican — first, a Senate and Ford administration staff member and then county executive in Louisville — Mr. McConnell leaned to the moderate wing of his party on abortion rights, civil rights and many other issues. It was only when he ran for statewide office, for the Senate in 1984, that he began to really tack right. Mr. McConnell won by a razor-thin margin in a year when Ronald Reagan handily won Kentucky. The lesson was clear: He needed to move closer to Reagan, which he promptly did upon arriving in Washington.

From that point on, the priority was winning every six years and, once he’d made his way up the ranks of leadership, holding a Republican majority. In 1996, that meant voting for a minimum-wage increase to defuse a potential Democratic talking point in his re-election campaign. In 2006, as George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, it meant asking the president if he could start withdrawing troops from Iraq to improve the Republicans’ chance of keeping the Senate that fall, when Mr. McConnell was set to become its leader.

A year later, it meant ducking out of the intense debate on the Senate floor about immigration reform to avoid making himself vulnerable on the issue. It is no accident that the legislative issue Mr. McConnell has become most identified with, weakening campaign finance regulations, is one that pertains directly to elections.

This is also the best way to understand Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to the president: It is less about blocking liberal policy goals than about boosting Republican chances.

MacGillis concedes that McConnell’s tactical obstructionism has been successful on its own terms:

The resistance from Mr. McConnell has had an enormous influence on the shape of Obama’s presidency. It has limited the president’s accomplishments and denied him the mantle of the postpartisan unifier he sought back in 2008.

But the game isn’t over yet, and McGillis wonders whether McConnell has overplayed his hand in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

This blog does not really have a dog in that fight. We’re interested more in the concepts and categories we use to think through issues than we are (at least within this blog) in the political conclusions they lead to. My interest in McGillis’s portrait of McConnell is about the viability of Kant’s constitutional optimism. Some deliberately adversarial institutions — like Wimbledon tennis matches, courtroom law, markets without dangerously exploitable market failures — can licence the players to pursue their own interests in a contest with well designed rules and close monitoring for compliance. In these cases those outside “the game” will benefit even if the “players” care only about their own interests.

But can we possibly expect a modern democracy to work well, and justly, if the players vying for, and holding, office are all rational devils? Do the US Constitution and other defining features of the political infrastructure (such as the Federal Election Commission and the 50 different states’ laws for drawing up federal constituencies and voter-eligibility rules) constitute the kinds of rules that will, as Kant put it, convert selfish or evil private intentions into virtuous public conduct?

Even Mitch McConnell (thought not perhaps Francis Underwood) would surely agree that the answer to these questions is No. When this blog ponders politics, it will generally be to explore  “why not?” or “where, then, from here?”

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Duke Student Government Elections: Students actively avoid adversarial tactics

While national democratic politics are generally adversarial, it turns out democratic politics in the context of student governments at American universities are not. Last week, the Duke Student Government held its annual debate for candidates running for student body president and vice president. The presidential candidates had very similar platforms, so the moderator spent most of the debate asking questions about their leadership styles. In a race where candidates differed on personal, rather than ideological, attributes, the candidates did surprisingly little to distinguish themselves from their opponents. None of the candidates directly criticized the other, and when asked to the name the biggest weaknesses of their opponents, one candidate declined to answer for sake of “constructive conversation.” Interestingly enough, the candidates were willing to scapegoat the school’s administrators on every issue.

Without any conflict, the debate lacked entertainment, for sure—but also substantive value. The platforms of all the candidates were vague and inflated, and they all got away with inaccurate statements. The candidates had plenty of opportunities to go after each other, but none of them did.

Much of this lack of conflict can be explained by the candidates’ relationships to one another. At the end of the campaign, the candidates will inevitably see each other again in class or at a party. They don’t have the luxury of returning to their home states or hiding behind a camera. The candidates have to directly confront each other, and a contention taken the wrong way would make future interactions awkward. On the national stage, it is easy to call your opponent a flip-flopper. On a cafeteria stage in front of a group of peers, a comment with even the slightest contrast can be taken offensively.

In some ways, a government where members are sensitive to conflict will be a government with a lot of mutual respect and cooperation. However, less conflict means fewer substantive policies are crafted on the campaign trail, and candidates win with broad promises without a map to completion. Additionally, voters cannot make informed decisions—without the ability to compare differing platforms or leadership styles, voters inevitably base their decisions on recommendations from peers and name recognition.

At the end of the debate, the uncontested candidate for vice president lambasted the presidential candidates for their remarks about the administration (see it here at 1:00:35), and the audience responded with hoots and applause. The candidates may not like conflict, but the voters sure do.