Electoral Correctness

Chris Betram offers a meditation on the downside of Condorcet, which Will Baude calls “disturbing,” and I guess it might be if you had inflated expectations for democracy. Funny thing about Condorcet talk, though, is the notion that there is something like a “correct” answer to the presidential election.

The probability that each voter will give the correct answer, essential to the formula, obviously requires the existence of a correct answer. Now it is conceivable that there may be some correct answer, relative to some broadly accepted standard of evaluation, on the question of which of two competing policies is better. And so perhaps there is a correct answer on the question of which of two competing packages of policies is correct. We might then think of each candidate as representing a package, and that the correct answer to the election amounts to choosing the guy who represents the correct policy package.

But there are complications. Candidates lie. Candidates sometimes don't have an articulated policy on this or that issue, and often they avoid articulating one. Historical contingencies (e.g., 9/11) can cause an unpredictable but fundamental shift in policy. Etc. And those are just some of the problems about knowing what a candidate actually stands for, or would likely do in office. There is also the reasonable idea that political values are plural and incommensurable, and so there just may be no such thing as the correct answer in certain cases.

With candidates as close together in policy as Bush and Kerry, I think it is in principle impossible to pin a probability on answers to the question of who will leave us better off overall. Unintended consequence are usually unintended because unforseen, and they are often unforseen because unforeseeable. The way policies interact with a dynamic economy, technological innovation, cultural change, and so forth, makes it such that democratic choices tend to be choices under conditions of uncertainty (where it is impossible to sensibily assign probabilities) and not risk. We either get lucky with our leaders or we don't. So, it's not clear what, if anything, the Condercet Theorem could have to do with the election.

Now, that said, I happen to know that the correct answer to the election is, naturally, Michael Badnarik. And Badnarik's infinitesimal electoral returns will be just about what we'd expect given the Condorcet theorem, and a realistic assumption of voter competence.