May 19, 2021 • 1HR 5M

PODCAST: Hexapodia XV: No-Bullshit Democracy, Starring Henry Farrell

Noah Smith & Brad DeLong's 30:00 < [Length of Weekly Podcast] < 60:00

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Episode details

Key Insights:

  1. Henry: We need to be critical of other people in the public sphere, but we need to be critical in an extraordinarily humble way—to recognize that we, all of us, are incredibly biased as individuals. We see the moats in our brothers' eyes very well. We do not see the beams and our own. We have a duty to others to try to help them to remove the beams in a polite, quiet, sometimes insistent way... think very carefully about the ways in which we can genuinely be constructive in criticism...

  2. Brad: We are in huge trouble: organizing our 7.8 billion person anthology intelligence to actually get done what we need to get done in the next century appears beyond our capabilities. It may be time to go back to the trees, or even to devolve completely and let some other more mature species more capable of collective action and organization come up—the raccoons, or something. Nobody has a gospel. So the next move has to be, somehow. with the head...

  3. Noah: Perhaps this is just the optimism of relative youth but I think that we're going to break out of our local maximum and find a better way. If you were in the 1930s, and you looked at the state of both America and the world, you would see even more cause for despair. Yet we got our way out of that without having to leave the planet to the raccoons. I think we will this time as well. The key insight is that we are still in the process of learning about what democracy means and about how, you know, humans can participate in their own government without turning it into an unwieldy shout fest.

  4. All: Hexapodia!

  5. P.S.: Marko Kloos's Paladium Wars <> series is excellent.



Jason Brennan: Against Democracy <>

Bryan Caplan: The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies <>

John DeweyThe Political Writings <>

John DeweyThe Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry <>

Henry Farrell: In Praise of Negativity <>

Henry Farrell & Jack KnightReconstructing International Political Economy: A Deweyan Approach<>

Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier, & Melissa Schwartzberg: No-Bullshit Democracy <>

Alexander Hamilton: Federalist 9 <>

Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, & Cass Sunstein: Noise <>

Philip KitcherScience in a Democratic Society <>

Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber: The Enigma of Reason <>

Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, & David Lazar: Politics with the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy <>

Josiah Ober: Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens <>

Melissa Schwartzberg: Epistemic Democracy and Its Challenges <>

Ilya Somin: Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter <>

Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein: Nudges: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness <>

&, of course:

Vernor VingeA Fire Upon the Deep <>

Share Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality

Alexander Hamilton: ‘It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should pervert the direction and tarnish the lustre of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated. 

From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty. They have decried all free government as inconsistent with the order of society, and have indulged themselves in malicious exultation over its friends and partisans…. It is not to be denied that the portraits they have sketched of republican government were too just copies of the originals from which they were taken. If it had been found impracticable to have devised models of a more perfect structure, the enlightened friends to liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government as indefensible.

The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided…

Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier, & Melissa Schwartzberg: No-Bullshit Democracy: ‘Over the last decade a prominent academic literature tied to libertarian thought has argued that democracy is generally inferior to other forms of collective problem-solving such as markets and the rule of cognitive elites (Caplan 2007, Somin 2016, Brennan 2016). These skeptics appeal to findings in cognitive and social psychology, and political behavior, to claim that decision-making by ordinary citizens is unlikely to be rational or well-grounded in evidence.  Their arguments have received prominent media coverage (Crain 2016), and have been repeated in conservative critiques of democratic voting (Mathis-Lilley 2021), while provoking rejoinders from political theorists whose “epistemic” account of the benefits of democracy invokes mechanisms such as deliberation, the Condorcet Jury Theorem, and the “Diversity Trumps Ability” theorem (Landemore 2013; Schwartzberg 2015). 

This debate has been largely unproductive…. We set out a different approach. We show that democratic skeptics’ claims tend to rest on partial, inaccurate, and outdated understandings of human cognition. However, we do not retort with a general defense of democracy on cognitive or epistemological grounds. Instead, we advocate a scientific program investigating the conditions under which specific democratic institutions do better or worse in discovering solutions to collective problems, building in particular on results in experimental psychology… 

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