Efficiency and legitimacy

Any political system is a compromise between efficiency and legitimacy, balancing a government’s ability to act against the certainty that its citizens support the government’s actions. So says Against Elections: The Case for Democracy*, a book I first read a few years ago but which I have been reminded of ahead of the UK elections on the 12th December.

The UK selects its Parliamentary representatives through a First Past The Post electoral system which errs on the side of efficiency (it reliably produces governmental majorities, recent history excepted), but perhaps with a loss of legitimacy (there hasn’t been a party winning more than 50% of overall votes since 1935).

Meanwhile a key factor in the election is the Brexit referendum. We can all agree that referendums aren’t an efficient way to govern a country, but the legitimacy of the Brexit referendum is in the eye of the beholder. Some argue that it is the UK’s most legitimate political result in living memory, voted for by 17.4 million people (more than have ever voted for a single political party in a General Election). While others question its legitimacy on grounds of misinformation (based on what we know now) or technicality (it’s not legally binding). One thing which is clear is that our Parliamentary system is not designed to deliver on the outcome of referendums if there is ambiguity involved, and I don’t know if this election will change that.

Regardless, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we are currently living in a rarefied period of time:

“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

That seems a little drastic to me. But either way please remember to vote on December 12th.

* More broadly the book talks about the mistaken conflation of elections and democracy, proposing a deliberative democracy alternative, but that’s not for now.

Decisions, process and results

I am always interested in what “sticks” when I read a book, what messages or lessons persist once time has passed and the details are forgotten. Call it a “book recall” rather than a “book review”. Human memory being what it is (recalled from The Invisible Gorilla), I am sure that these memories are not perfect, but I will commit to this method and not check my work (caveat emptor).

I read “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts” by Annie Duke some time last year, a former poker player’s take on handling uncertainty and making decisions. Unsurprisingly, we learned that becoming more comfortable with uncertainty is good for decision-making. But the main thing which stuck with me was about assessing our past decisions. It’s all too easy to focus on the outcome of a decision, whether the end result was a good or bad one. This is obviously particularly relevant in poker, where a hand can be won or lost. But what is more important is whether the process that went into making that decision was good or bad.

Probably pretty obvious stuff. But it is so easy to myopically emphasize results, so-called “resulting”, if memory serves. In some cases, the quality of a result can be related to the quality of the process – in these cases there is no downside to resulting. But we all know that results can also be driven by things outside your control. To avoid getting inappropriately disheartened (in the case of bad luck), or hubristic (in the case of good luck), a focus on process not outcome is a useful tonic that is not always instinctive.

I am sure I have butchered Annie’s message along the way. But that is the main thing I recall, and have tried to actively bring to my life since finishing the book. Give it a read!