Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Wisdom of Half the Crowd

A lady named Lynda Withbroe has a letter in the New York Times commenting on a piece by Geraldine Ferraro defending the role of Democratic superdelegates in the nominating process:

What does the party say to those new voters and young people who have participated in record numbers this year? Do the superdelegates say, “Thank you for your excitement and participation, but now the wiser elders of the party will adjourn to our back room and make the grown-up decision”?

How does a political party grow if it doesn’t reach out and include new people, respect their opinions and include them in the process? Please keep the process fair and transparent.

Aaron Christopher Cohen has a similar argument further down the page:

Geraldine A. Ferraro, in her defense of the Democratic National Committee’s use of superdelegates, rather casually remarked, “Besides, the delegate totals from primaries and caucuses do not necessarily reflect the will of rank-and-file Democrats.” Here’s a radical notion: let all Democrats vote for their preferred nominee, and whoever gets the most votes wins.

This is a striking example of the adoration of pure democracy, i.e. absolutist majority rule, without much thought given to other ways that one might get good political decisions. Every letter-writer, and every superdelegate, presumably wants to nominate the candidate with the best chance to win in November. So is a rule of majority rule likely to yield this outcome? The (or one) trouble with this argument is that while Sen. Obama will get a majority of non-superdelegates, it will not be a giant majority. The idea that, say, 52 percent of a particular voting public amounts to the truth is a mistake. The argument is made all the time in the context of markets, when it is called “the wisdom of crowds” – the idea that a market is collectively smarter than any individual participating in it. In principle the same is true for political decision-making, but voters don’t compete the way investors or businesses do, nor do they make serious material sacrifices that require them to be careful about the information they collect.

The people who do have the greatest stake, ironically, are the superdelegates themselves, who will have to live with the consequences of the choice that is made to a much greater degree than an individual primary voter will with the consequences of his infinitesimal vote. In that sense, they have the most reason to choose wisely. But alas, this is not an argument that plays well to the sorts of progressives who make up much of the Democratic primary and caucus-going electorate. For them, not just in nominating a candidate but in all things, majority rule is the only source of morality and knowledge, hence is to be obeyed without question. Hence, no superdelegates, no electoral college, no tradition or higher or embedded wisdom should stand between the majority and its will. Ironically, Democratic bigwigs in employing the superdelegate process have employed a very conservative argument – a respect for the wisdom not of crowds but of elders. And that is what threatens to get them into so much trouble.



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