Democracy and Mediation

Some more post-election thoughts.

"The conscious & intelligent manipulation of the organised habits & opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power..."

Edward Bernays


If you grew up in the United States (and presumably elsewhere in the West), you will remember the pseudo-mantras that were pounded into your head in school:

“Voting is your civic duty!”

“Our founders fought and died for democracy!” (lol)

“Let your voice be heard!”

Whether or not these mantras were faithful to our founders isn’t particularly relevant here. What is relevant is the claim that democracy is a Good, perhaps even the highest Good that one can have in a “free country”.

The problem is that this “Good” appears to be heavily perverted the moment you step outside of the small/local scale.

How Democracy Becomes Perverted: An Example

Let us assume there is a debate over the local budget of a small town. The town only has $250 thousand dollars left and needs to decide between:
1. Fixing the potholes on some streets
2. Giving tax credits (worth 250k) to entrepreneurs to help fill a new mall.

So, there is a local debate. Some people want the potholes fixed because they drive over them and they’re ruining their tires! Others never drive on those roads and couldn’t care less. They want some new stores to go to!

Now, the important point: If someone were to tell you “the roads don’t have potholes” you could turn around, point, and go “yeah they do dipsh*t. F*ck off.” Any attempt to lie to you would be laughed at.

But now imagine that Congress is making a decision about the national budget. They wish to devote $1 billion to LA for some new transit thing. "That seems like a lot of money", I say to myself. I need to figure out some way to know whether or not this is a good use of money.

I do not live in LA and don't know many people who do, so I need to rely on intermediate institutions (media, academia, government, etc.) to tell me what the facts on the ground are. This is mediation (or MEDIAtion, ba dum tss). I cannot literally see and experience the facts on the ground myself (absent spontaneously manifesting telepathic powers), so I need intermediate institutions. But this leads to a critical problem…

“Hidden” Rule by Elites

We place our trust in different institutions. And these institutions are, by and large, asymmetric: the institution is smaller than its audience. And if the audience believes the institution, then a large number of people will make decisions based on information that a small number of people give to them.

Mediation has occurred. Experience has been replaced with Narrative. Our trust has been placed in institutions run by small cadres of elites (and their algorithms) who determine what one sees, what one hears, who one meets, and what one is even allowed to say.

Democracy doesn’t fail because “muh rubes are too dumb”. Democracy on a large scale fails because we all have access to different mediated information.

And so long as there are incentives for small cadres of elites to craft narratives, we will always operate with different information, as elites tailor and curate the information they provide the masses to ensure the masses agree with the elite’s desired policy goals.

In other words, democracy on a large scale is nothing more than a legitimization scheme for the interests of competing groups of elites.

Spreading Misinformation Works

A great example of how misinformation peddled by a trusted institution can destroy the “wisdom of the crowds” is explained by WM Briggs:

You might look at that jar of pennies…and know that it can’t contain a million pennies; no, nor a hundred thousand. But we all know pennies and many of us have jars of change, so we could all form a crude but not insane idea of the number. The average of many in this case is likely to be a good guess.

Then imagine a moustachioed slickster standing by the jar whispering, “Psst, buddy. There’s a solid cone of cork in the middle. Only looks like there’s a lot of pennies. Word to the wise.” Finger on the nose and everything. Hey, he might be in on it: could be a hot tip—and if many think so there goes the accuracy of the average (supposing he’s fibbing).

Recapitulation. Wisdom of the crowds isn’t worth squat when individuals are ignorant of the subject matter they’re guessing. Averaging is okay, but only when folks are using unbiased information. The bad news is already well known: spreading misinformation works. People, even groups of them, will come to wrong conclusions conditioning on flawed premises.

So…Now What?

Conclusion: So long as the media and government cannot be trusted (which is, ya know, always), any information I do not acquire through my own senses cannot necessarily be trusted. It may very well be biased. Therefore, my preferences cannot be expressed properly, and so democracy fails.

Question: Can we bring about a system in which we maximize the proportion of decisions that are made by people who don’t need to rely on mediated information, and by extension, are not manipulated by elites as much?

Subsidiarity seems to be the obvious first step here. Workplace democracy as well (it is mind boggling that someone can defend democracy as an important goal yet spend most of their lives in a harsh bureaucratic hierarchy with no accountability).

But it should also be obvious that democracy beyond a local scale may not be worth much. In fact, it may be harmful! If it simply serves to obfuscate Power, and allows it to hide from responsibility as the elites manipulate the people, what good is “democracy”?

It used to be that if you wanted to get something done you just had to bribe your local lord. Now you need to convince millions of people of the inherent goodness of your position and the inherent badness of the other side. Such an incredible improvement for the social fabric.

People deserve to have a say in how they live their lives. (Call me a Liberal for that at your own peril). “Democracy” means having a say in what really matters in life. The workplace, one’s local community, the schools one goes to, etc. But there is no real “say” when people are simply acquiescing to one elite narrative as opposed to another. And this acquiescence is inescapable beyond the local scale…

Perhaps that means we need to think about ideas and systems of government that may at first appear counter-intuitive. That is fine. We need more creativity. There is no revolution coming. No general strike. Sorry bucko. We need to come up with ways to effect real change, without the eschaton of a glorious revolution. I hope you will continue to join me on this journey.