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Andrew Rehfeld

Comments on Robert Goodin’s Paper “Epistemic Aspects of

Representative Government”

Washington University Political Theory Workshop, Spring 2010

Despite its value in legitimizing rule, democracy has been derided

as a bad form of government on various bases throughout history. The

central critique is related to a general distrust of voter judgment due to

their ignorance, venality, partiality, or lack of a sufficient stake in society.

Historically 3 kinds of solutions have been offered: education, to raise the

value of citizen judgment; qualifications for office, to limit a voter’s choice

set and thus the potential harm their choice might cause; and finally,

institutional designs that structured both voter choice and the decisional

context of representatives. Despite our modern sensibilities, all of these

interventions were defended in terms of enhancements to democracy

rather than contrary to them, even high property qualifications for the

vote: to those who lack the means, as Guizot put it in the 1840’s,

“enrichez vous!”

One institutional solution to the problem of voter judgment was

supposedly built into the structure of representative government. By

contrast to pure democracy, republican forms, as the founders would put

it, was seen as a way to combine the sovereignty of the people, with the

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epistemic value of an elite class making good decisions for all. There

have traditionally been two kinds of arguments about why representatives

are likely to be better decision makers than citizens generally. First, there

are selection effects of the election that, it is claimed, make it more likely

that representatives will be good decision makers than ordinary voters.

Second, there are deliberative effects that purportedly come to

representatives from being in a relatively small, deliberative legislature;

these lead to better decisions than a voter could make standing outside of

that deliberative body. Putting the two together we get a form of what

Bob Goodin and Kai Spiekermann in their paper “Epistemic Aspects of

Representative Government” term the “federalist conjecture:” having a

larger group of voters choose a smaller group of representatives for the

purpose of choosing a president, the result might be better than allowing

voters to decide themselves.

The problem with the federalist conjecture is that it presses up

against the well-developed Condorcet Jury Theorem. The Theorem

demonstrates that under certain conditions, larger groups are more likely

to arrive at an epistemically correct judgment than smaller groups would.

So on the face of it these two effects—selection and deliberation—actually

may cut against each other: “selection” shrinks the size of the pool of

Condorcet Jurors thus threatening the epistemic gains of deliberation. As

Goodin discusses, in modern democracies this tradeoff would appear

enormous: In the US for example, we have roughly 112,000,000 voters

compared to 535 representatives. Even more troubling is the fact that the

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Jury Theorm proves that voters in the larger group can be individually

epistemically worse than their elected representatives and still produce

better decisions because of their enormous size difference Because of

this, the deliberative benefits of representative government better

outweigh its epistemic costs owing to size.

As Goodin puts it, “it is simply not the case that a smaller group of

more competent people will always be epistemically superior to a larger

group of less competent ones.” (3) And Condorcet’s Jury Theorem in fact

suggests that opposite: so long as individuals are “better than random”

(note 3, p. 3) as decision makers, the more of them there are, the more

likely they will arrive at the right answer. The task of Bob Goodin’s paper

is “to define the parameters within which, and the reason for which” the

federalist conjecture is true. In other words, how much more likely must

representatives be than their constituents to make good decisions? How

much additional epistemic value must deliberation add for representatives

to have an edge over voters generally?

The Jury theorem depends on four conditions (the following from pp.

3-4):

1. The number of people in each group, large and small

2. The independence and individual competence of people in

each group

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3. How the agenda is set and voting is structured in each

group.

4. How much deliberation contributes to the collective

competence of each group.

The argument precedes over five sections section one each of which

spells out the different levels of deliberative effects needed to over come

the problem of size. I’ll summarize briefly in a moment before offering a

critique.

In section 1 Goodin notes the key conditions of the Jury theorem:

Voters must have a better than random probability of getting

the right answer

Voters are independent, that is not influenced by each other’s

vote

Voters vote “truthfully” for the option they really think is

correct

Presuming these presumptions hold, and even if voters were only slightly

better than average, “members of the Electoral college would have to be

individually .976 competent” to recommend them for this decision, a

result Goodin terms “inconceivable.” (8) Thus, we hope that deliberation

among the representatives might make improve this epistemic deficit.

Section 2 specifies the benefits of deliberation and calibrates how

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much they’d have to add to make them worthwhile. Deliberation might

alter the epistemic picture in three ways: it might allow representatives

to uncover new information; it might add new alternatives to the voting

agenda; and it might enhance reasoning among representatives.

Presuming that deliberation makes it 1% more likely that representatives

“reach the correct decision than the electorate as a whole, “then voters

who are p=.51 individually competent only have to choose

representatives who are p=.551 competent” for the electoral college to

have exceeded the collective competence of the whole. Therefore,

Goodin argues, the Fed conjecture is plausible.

In section three, Bob moves to consider Epistemic bottlenecks,

where a bill or other decision must first run through “a smaller decisional

body” (12) before being enacted. Think of the Senate’s veto power over

House legislation (or presumably the President’s veto itself over

legislation, though you don’t take that up in the paper). Here Goodin

considers a number of examples including strong bicarmeralims (like the

Senate and House) and Parliaments with small pivotal parties—small

parties whose support is needed for any legislation to pass. Not

surprisingly, these all have serious epistemic costs, so much so that

subjecting legislative decisions to an even smaller group—whether a

Senate or a pivotal party—produces worse epistemic consequences than

simply letting direct democracy play its course.

In section 4, Goodin takes up the epistemic consequences of so

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called “delegate” and “trustee” style representation. As I’ve written about

elsewhere (Rehfeld 2009) what Goodin describes is not whether they act

as trustees or delegates—but simply and no more than the degree to

which a representative’s judgment is independent of a constituency’s on

any particular question. Framing it that way further emphasizes what

matters to the Jury Theorem as well. Dependent representatives depend

on voters being divided up into electoral constituencies, so there might be

a worry that this would minimize their epistemic value. But the

calculations show otherwise: as Goodin concludes that there is “virtually

no epistemic cost in dividing votesr up into constituencies, so long as they

are represented by delegate-style representatives.” (20) I would add,

critically, that we are only considering the epistemic value of the voters,

and not whether there are no costs if voters are doing something else, like

voting as partisans or following Sarah Palin. In other words, Goodins

results hold just so long as we divide them in ways that do not

compromise their epistemic independence, an issue I’ll return to in a

moment.

By contrast, and consistent with the rest, independent representatives

are worse off because and in such a case deliberation would have to do

more work. However, a mix of dependent and independent

representatives, even a body with only a small number of dependent

representatives—say 20- in a 99 person body—would actually raise the

collective competence of that body to near 1.

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Finally, in section 5, Gooding considers the case where voters are

epistemically incompetent, i.e., are less than 50% likely to decide a

question correctly. Not surprisingly, in such cases the Jury Theorem

indicates that independent representatives would be better than

dependent representatives. In such a case, “the Federalist conjecture will

be vindicated if an donly if the electorate is better at choosing people

than policies in a very precise way. Individual voters must be individually

significantly less competent than p=.5 at choosing policies but

significantly more competent than p=.5 at choosing people.” And as

Gooding puts it, “that seems unlikely to be the case with any generality,

which is what would be required for the Fedearlist’s conjecture to be

vindicated with any generality.” (25)

I want to start my comments on this paper with a small note about

this last claim: that the Fed conjecture must be right only if voters are less

than .5 reliable in policies but more than .5 in representatives. I don’t

think that’s quite right comparison. Instead I believe the Federalist

conjecture would be true if either

i. Voters as a whole were more reliable in choosing

representatives than some other group or individuals. (Would

it still have to be p> .5 for voters or simply p(v) > p (any

group)?

ii. voters were simply more reliable in choosing representatives

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without being unreliable in either, say p=.55 than they were

in choosing policies, say p=.51.

But that’s just a small point.

As a general matter, I think it would be easy both to admire the

precision with which Goodin and Spiekermann develop the epistemic costs

of representation and yet to dismiss Goodin’s paper for its seeming

irrelevance to politics. After all, in what conditions does it make sense

that any of the conditions are true?

But I think the paper is problematic not in what it says—presuming

the math is right, it demonstrates a well established result in the literature

(the Jury Theorem really works) applying it to particular institutional

arrangements, and demonstrating how much deliberation has to add to

representative bodies to make them worth the epistemic costs. My

difficulty with the analysis is that even if all that is right, it leaves too

much out of the epistemic picture. I can think of no operating democracy

in which the voters’ views are independent of the party or partisan

dictates. So as a stylized aspirational exercise it may work, but again the

application seems hard. Even in the terms you set, it seems to leave out

too much, and that’s what I want to turn to.

There were (at least) two other mechanisms that were involved in

the federalist conjecture, other than deliberative and selection effects,

that would raise the epistemic value of representative government. First it

is the “question changing effects” on voters of large constituencies;

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second is the “independence-creating” effects on representatives of large

constituencies. I don’t mean this merely in an historical way, “Ooo look

you got the history incomplete” but rather the epistemic core of the

Federalist conjecture is more complicated than you describe here, and I

think it would only strengthen your analysis to develop it. Because these

institutional constraints on voter judgment that would lead quite quickly

to a vindication of the ability of voters to decide on the rightness of policy

by minimizing the kinds of epistemic errors that you identify towards the

end of the paper. In particular by paying attention to the role that the

make up of a constituency plays in structuring voter choice, and

subsequently in the role of incentives itself to get representatives to act

more like trustees in certain cases.

1. Large constituencies force voters to choose “second best”

candidates; second-best based on their own individual

preferences;

2. Heterogeneous constituencies allow representatives to act as

trustees in cases where there is disagreement.

So first, on the question changing effects of the conjecture. The

Jury Theorem presumes that we are all providing an answer to the same

question, and that does not seem to be the right description of what’s

going on. Let’s consider an “easy” case of health care reform. Let’s say it

emerges as so much sausage from committees and we could either have

independent representatives vote on it, or we could have voters vote

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directly on it. What does a vote “for” that bill signify in this case, what is

the passing of the bill or its rejection a correct answer to? Is it,

“Is this best bill available?”

“Is this the best bill we can hope for”

“Would this lead to better outcomes than our current system

would?”

“Is this a good bill with respect to health care outcomes, but bad

with respect to costs?”

Etc.

In each of these cases I have no reason to think the voters are either

answering the same question, let alone even if they would actually know

what the right answer were to any of them. It seems on the face of it that

the deliberative benefits would be far greater than you model and thus far

more likely to vindicate the conjecture.

Just to be clear, this first objection is not that there are no right

answers to these questions. Rather it is that the Jury theorem needs a

narrow question that we all are answering that has epistemic content, and

I just cannot really think of a case in politics where we are all answering

that one question, or realistically would. Even in the case of up or down

votes on a referendum the same set of issues arises. More probably,

voters are better than random at answering this question: “Do I like the

bill?” But why do we think that is the question for which we are seeking

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the answer? By contrast the vote for a representative—at least as the

Founders had conjectured it—would involved precisely that kind of

judgment: is so and so a good guy, respectable, and yes, do I like him.

So that would be a good reason to rely on voter judgment about

representatives: they are answering the same question “is that a good

guy” and they are all likely to know the answer.

Returning, then, to the conjecture, the relevant federalist conjecture

that you spend most of the paper modeling is not that of Hamilton

concerning the electoral college, but more akin to the situation of the

election of representatives to the House, as Madison wrote in Fed 10.

What’s curious here is how Madison thought size would solve the problem

of democratic ignorance. It was not simply that larger districts would

allow better candidates to be chosen (more objects of a “fit choice” as

Madison would put it). Rather, larger districts would make it less likely

that voters could vote for their partial interests and would lead them more

likely to vote for someone who would be a good deliberator and decider

for the public good. National districts were on average 10 times the size

of state districts, and this meant, again in Madison’s words, that voters

would be less likely to “communicate and coordinate” to get a

representative to do their bidding in office. Largeness would not simply

make possible a Condorcet result; rather the largeness of the district

would force voters to ask a different question than on their they were apt

to: not “who would be best for me” but instead, “who would be best for

all.”

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(Because of this, it might be worth noting that the “pure” federalist

conjecture—in which size operates purely epistemically and without

question shifting influenced,is probably best seen in Harrington’s Oceana

and Hume’s essay “on a perfect commonwealth” in which tiered groups

make decisions…)

Second, largeness not only made coordination and communication

difficulty, it increased the heterogeneity of electoral constituencies. This

again would not have an epistemic effect on voter judgment so much as it

was thought to have a question changing affect on the process in exactly

the same way as the sheer largeness would, by ensuring that voters could

not succeed even if they thought there vote was an answer to the

question “who would be best for me?” But the heterogeneity of electoral

districts would actually make it more likely that representatives could be

trustees more often because they were more likely to be voting on a bill

that was supported or opposed by an equally large number of

constituents. So the heterogeneity of districts enables the independence

of the representatives from their voters.

Third, and finally, the applicability of the examples ignores the work

of agenda setting throughout. It might be worth speaking to that issue.

And to the issue of a range of alternatives.

(Mill’s commission on legislation seems to be what is necessary.)

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