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Explanations and politics

I’m reading Beginning of Infinity, an excellent book by a physicist David Deutsch. It explores diverse topics like critical thinking, scientific method, quantum theory, societies, and philosophy. It looks like it’s all over the place, but it tries, and succeeds, in showing the necessity and importance of good explanations throughout all topics.

And then there’s a chapter about choice and politics. Politics and I mix like water and oil, but I was so intrigued by what I read and how it relates to what is currently happening in my home country that I explored the topic further.

The author writes:

Just as science seeks explanations that are experimentally testable, so a rational political system makes it as easy as possible to detect, and persuade others, that a leader or policy is bad, and to remove them without violence if they are. […] Thus, systems of government are to be judged not for their prophetic ability to choose and install good leaders and policies, but for their ability to remove bad ones that are already there.

Remove bad ones that are already there. This is the keystone of the whole piece. We, as a society, need to test new ideas and if they’re better, replace the old ones. But …

Why would anyone want to replace bad leaders and policies at all? That question may seem absurd, but perhaps it is absurd only from the perspective of a civilization that takes progress for granted. If we did not expect progress, why should we expect the new leader or policy, chosen by whatever method, to be any better than the old? […] Unless a society is expecting its own future choices to be better than its present ones, it will strive to make its present policies and institutions as immutable as possible. Therefore [the previous] criterion can be met only by societies that expect their knowledge to grow.

The way to improve and grow is to be able to quickly try out new ideas.

Let me summarize the situation in Croatia a few months ago. The two biggest parties, one on left and one on right that are always competing and are in power for decades, came on top in parliamentary elections with numbers of seats tied. This meant a coalition with other parties was necessary to form a government. After two months of public circus, the right wing party formed a coalition with the party that got the third biggest share of the seats. They were newcomers to this election and behaved like they were running the show. And it was a show, although a bad one.

Back to the book. The author elaborates on pros and cons of some apportionment and electoral systems. He specifically describes proportional representation, where a number of seats is proportional to the number of votes.

But that is really the least of the irrational attributes of proportional representation [ed. the one used in Croatia]. A more important one which is shared by even the mildest of proportional systems is that they assign disproportionate power in the legislature to the third-largest party, and often to even smaller parties. It works like this. It is rare (in any system) for a single party to receive an overall majority of votes. Hence, if votes are reflected proportionately in the legislature, no legislation can be passed unless some of the parties cooperate to pass it, and no government can be formed unless some of them form a coalition. Sometimes the two largest parties manage to do this, but the most common outcome is that the leader of the third-largest party holds the ‘balance of power’ and decides which of the two largest parties shall join it in government, and which shall be for how long. That means that it is sidelined, and correspondingly harder for the electorate to decide which party, and which policies, will be removed from power.

This makes me sad. There is a weird system that struggles to remove bad actors which in turn makes present policies and institutions as immutable as possible. I used Croatia as an example because it’s recent and close to me, but the book also lists other modern and affluent countries that encounter the same problem.

An additional source of grievance is that there is already a good explanation why this system doesn’t work, but there seems to be no will, at least from the majority, to change it. And according to the author, this means that society as a whole doesn’t expect progress and better choices in the future.


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