The Court of Values and the Bureau of Boringness

If you had a choice between voting in a farcical reality-TV-like election for a purely symbolic court, and voting in a serious election for critical government policy-making positions, which would you choose?

I want to persuade you that you would—and should!—sometimes cast a symbolic vote.

And I want to persuade you that giving everyone that choice might be the best way to save democracy—maybe even civilization.

The Beeblebrox Gambit

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox is the President of the Galaxy. He is immature, irresponsible, and insensitive; a hedonistic, charismatic narcissist; a clueless, grandiose buffoon.

The position of President of the Galaxy is purely ceremonial, with no actual power or responsibility. The true decision-makers created it to attract attention away from themselves. An outrageous, charismatic narcissist is exactly the sort of person you want in the job.

Beeblebrox has been voted “Worst Dressed Sentient Being in the Known Universe” seven consecutive times. He has two heads, and grew a third arm to grope Eccentrica Gallumbits, the famous Triple-Breasted Whore of Eroticon Six. Some find that unnatural and immoral, and say it makes him temperamentally unfit to be President.

If you want to distract people from significant decisions, getting them to vote based on ridiculous clothing and controversial “values issues” seems an excellent strategy.

In 1978, when Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide, this was an entertaining satire—an absurd exaggeration of something that one might imagine happening in a much less flamboyant way in real life.

But now it’s just true. Public politics in major Western democracies is mostly culture war drama over personalities and symbolic virtue issues. One cannot help suspecting that controversies are engineered deliberately to distract voters from the most important (but boring) policy issues. Those get quietly captured by unnamed economic interests in backroom deals.

In elections, many voters choose based on what candidates wear, what they look like, their sex lives, and the outrageous, clueless, and narcissistic things they say. Most voters are neither curious nor realistic about policy issues, and so are astonishingly ignorant or have dire misunderstandings about government and its functions.

Policy is captive to symbolic politics—popularity contests and debates about which demographic groups get how much ritual status. It’s not surprising that government works less well than one might hope. How can we free it, so it can get on with the boring pragmatic business of governing?

A shadow coup

A nihilistic approach would be anarcho-capitalism, or some extreme form of libertarianism. The government can’t do its job—democracy is structurally incapable of producing sane policy—so get rid of most or all of it. Especially, get rid of all the symbolic nonsense: the many harmful policies whose only function is virtue signaling.

Or, just the opposite, but equally nihilistic. A technocratic shadow coup, after which the real decisions are made by competent, impartial, unelected people elsewhere, and the legacy state is converted into a Beeblebroxian reality-TV drama whose purpose is only to distract the populace.

But… to a significant extent, this has already happened. We’ve had a slow-motion coup by too-big-to-fail banks, the prison-industrial complex, the medical industry, and government departments that run themselves for their own benefit, to the detriment even of the rest of the government. In defense of the current American President, whose main accomplishment in eight years was to increase the subsidy to insurance companies, the position may now be purely ceremonial. The difference between what we have and the “technocratic coup” scenario is that the decision makers, inside or outside government, are often incompetent and self-interested.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory, with big drama and explosive secrets. It’s all out in the open; but everyone just shrugs and says yeah, well, what can you do.

This is wrong. We shouldn’t give up on government; that is indeed meta-political nihilism.

Making democracy safe for the world

Although in 2016 it is not working quite as well as we might wish, I believe in democracy. Not because it is The One Cosmically True Political System. (Believing that would be systematic eternalism.) But because it has usually worked better than alternatives, historically; and because it does give voters a veto on the worst outcomes. Maybe voters are poorly informed, maybe they mostly elect mediocre governments, but usually they can at least prevent drastic misrule.

So I reject the nihilistic alternatives of anarchism and unelected technocracy—and the nihilistic status quo of bumbling kleptocracy.

Some say voters get the government they deserve; if you want better government, you need better voters. Better educated or better values or better something—but this does not seem very realistic.

Alternatively, we could restrict suffrage to the best voters—those who are informed, impartial, and intelligent. This proposal has an exalted and venerable lineage, culminating in the publication two months ago of Jason Brennan’s much-discussed Against Democracy. It faces both moral and practical objections. Morally, it violates intuitions of fairness and equality. Practically, deciding who is “informed, impartial, and intelligent” would become the main political conflict; and any procedure enacted to vet voters would inevitably get gamed by interest groups.

The question is, how can we restore informed democratic control over pragmatic policy, without restricting suffrage or expecting miraculous improvements in the quality of the electorate?

I have a modest proposal.

I offer it in the tradition of Swiftian satire—outrageous, over-the-top, and tongue-in-cheek—because:

  1. There’s no point arguing about the details, so making them ridiculous is a reminder not to get hung up on practical objections
  2. It’s a few days before the 2016 American Presidential election, and you could probably use some light entertainment.

So most likely it wouldn’t work, and it’s probably infeasible to get from here to there even if it would.

It may still be useful for provoking the question: could something else achieve the same goals? And somewhere in it, there is a grain of serious meaning. Perhaps even a small pastry. At the end there will be cake.

A fundamental division of government functions

The book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work finds that most people don’t want to know how the government works, and don’t want to be involved in its decision making. They want a competent, impartial technocracy that silently delivers sensible solutions like a smoothly-functioning washing machine. This is essentially the “shadow coup” scenario; except that people do, sensibly, also want veto power when the government gets jammed and shorts out and their laundry catches fire.

The problem with voters is not so much that they are ignorant and stupid, it’s that they are playing a different game. They don’t care about government, but they do care intensely about politics. Political conflict, for many, is a critical source of meaning, tribal belonging, and personal identity, comparable to art, ethics, religion, and psychology.

Many are highly informed and intelligent—but about the “wrong” things. They may not know much about the national infrastructure policy—because they simply don’t care about it—but they are keenly interested in the distribution of social status. Much of current politics concerns issues like: Should married white heterosexual church-goers get more or less status than they do now? How about young black males? Lesbians, police, immigrants, veterans? Many voters have extensive, detailed, passionate opinions about such matters.

These are questions our current systems of government were not designed to address, however. Our governments were designed to deal with highway maintenance.1

So there’s a profound mismatch between what voters think politics should be about and what the electoral system was designed for. Here in thought-experiment land, we can fix that! Let us take voters seriously, and give them the form of government they say they want. Let us make a fundamental division of functions:

Both divisions are democratically elected, according to an extraordinarily clever scheme described below, which solves all social problems here in Aretopia, the nation that implemented this thought-experiment.

The Values Court

Cadillac receiving letters patent for Detroit

I mean “Court” in an archaic sense: a branch of government largely concerned with status and ceremony. Although neither monarchical nor religious, it might show much of the texture and function of both. As our current national politics already does, according to Jonathan Haidt:

At the local level, politics is all practical stuff; dogcatchers and property values. It’s not very ideological. National politics is much more like a religion. The president is the high priest of the American civil religion.2

The Court is not a legal tribunal, with cases and lawyers. It does pass judgement on questions of social justice—insofar as those are purely symbolic.

The Court decides values issues, like whether recycling is virtuous, whether immigrants are good or bad people, whether smoking marijuana is degenerate, and whether frogs are racist. Most people enjoy symbolic drama, and many want to engage in ritual tribal conflict. That intensifies feelings of group membership, and provides an opportunity to climb intra-tribal status ladders. The Court grants these symbolic goods.

Lord Justice Sir Christopher Pitchford

The Court has no power over practical matters; it cannot set immigration policy, or put you in jail for drug use. Mostly, all it can do is officially pronounce its official opinion. Such opinions can ritually exalt or humiliate people, which is a symbolic issue. The Court also has coercive powers to regulate certain symbolic activity, as we’ll see below.

The Court should be somewhat ridiculous. In fact, the voting scheme makes that nearly inevitable. It winds up full of outrageous charismatic buffoons. Some may have two heads and three arms, or fluorescent yellow hair and bright orange skin. They wear fancy hats, and grant themselves preposterous titles: The Grand MC for National Togetherness Day, the Chief Marshal of Drama Guns, The Lord High Censor of Outrageous Words, and the Fount of National Status. I explain these roles later.

This division of government resembles the Beeblebrox gambit. However, the Values Court is not fake. It’s not a cynical reality TV show put on by the elite to fool and distract the masses with trivia.

It’s a totally sincere reality TV show, put on by the masses to manage matters that matter—as I shall attempt to persuade you below.

The Boringness Bureau

The Bureau, by contrast, is full of tedious policy wonks, popularly referred to as Grayfaces, or less politely, Vogons.

The Bureau has no hats, and no head, because it is not a ceremonial institution. The President of the Court of Values is by definition the high priest head of government.

The most important members of the Bureau have titles like Second Deputy Undersecretary for Financial Services Regulation (probably the most important Bureaucratic position) and the Assistant Attache to the Ministry of Buffer Bounds Checking (in charge of cyber security).

Need I say more? No, because you are already so bored you are about to go check twitter instead of reading more of my post.

The incredibly clever hack that makes this work

Really need to do laundry, but torn between SLUT and COWBOY settings

Court and Bureau elections are held simultaneously, and you can vote in only one of the two—whichever you choose. People who care about symbols vote in the Values election; people who care about policy vote Boring. This gives more people more of what they want.

The people who vote for Values candidates get all the colorful drama and excitement and status-signaling opportunities they want from politics-as-sportsball. Boring people get to help set boring policies without having those hijacked as tribal symbols.

The Boring voters have, on average, more realistic opinions about boring stuff, so everyone gets better policies. The Values voters get the competent, smooth-running government they want, without ever having to think about mortgage derivatives and particulate emissions and Teh Cyber.

Everyone gets much of the benefit of a benevolent technocratic coup, or of restricting the vote to the competent, without the unfairness of depriving anyone of democratic rights. It also preserves the people’s veto in case of severe government malfunction—if the Bureau ever goes off the rails, everyone can vote in the Bureaucratic election and throw the Vogons out of office.

But, you object, this is transparent; everyone would realize that the Bureau is the real government and the Court is a sham. Therefore, nearly everyone would do the responsible thing and vote Boring.

So I am going to try to convince you that’s not true. I’m going to try to convince you that you would vote Values, at least sometimes. I’ve convinced myself that I would!

I’m going to slowly ramp up the pressure…

What would make you vote Values?

Let’s start with the elections themselves. As a ceremonial matter, the election process is decided by the Values Court (although the Boring Bureau is in charge of ensuring the count is accurate). The Values Court is of course full of people who think everyone should vote in their election, so they make Values campaigns as exciting and entertaining as possible. Elections are held annually, and the hoopla runs year-round. Unconstrained by any need to pretend to care about Boring matters, the candidates can devote 100% of their campaigning to ethnic insults, sexual innuendo, conspiracy theories, and promises to make the nation proud of the flag.

The voters elect the top Court officials, but many lower-ranked positions may be selected in reality-TV contests, running throughout the year. It’s up to the Values Court to decide how to run its own affairs. If you don’t like it, you can vote for candidates who promise to replace the bug-eating event with something more dignified. Probably involving bathing suits.

Are you prepared to vote Values yet?

OK, no, I didn’t think so. But maybe you will now admit that some people are. And maybe you’re glad they won’t be voting for the Undersecretary for Financial Services Regulation.

To make you want to vote Values, we need to increase the cost of voting Boring. A monetary cost would be discriminatory and wrong. But there has to be something you give up if you vote Boring—or, equivalently, something else at stake in the Court.

We have to give the Court more bite. Maybe giving the Court power over the ceremonial functions of government is not enough to make most people choose to vote there. Maybe it has to have symbolic power over citizens too.

What am I, personally, willing to sacrifice in order to get competent government?

I hold the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights as sacred as anything. The Bill, and especially the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression, make America the greatest country in the world. So contemplating any lessening of those freedoms hurts. But the First Amendment limits the symbolic powers of the state, and in Aretopia I am willing to compromise on that—if we get good government in exchange.

So now I’ll suggest three possible powers of the Values Court. In Aretopia, there may be dozens or hundreds; I’m sketching just three to give a sense of its function.

The Lord High Censor

Many passionately political people seem to want, more than anything else, to ban bad words. That would violate the freedom of speech, so currently they are only partly successful. However, this is a purely symbolic matter, and so within the purview of the Virtue Court. I, for one, do not want people for whom this is the most important issue to have much of a say on electrical grid policy. So, to ensure that they vote in the right election, let us give the Court some limited authority.

A branch of the Court of Virtuous Values, overseen by the annually-elected Lord High Censor, bans one word every month. Each ban lasts for two years. After that, it has to be re-banned, or else it becomes legal again.

There are more than 24 offensive words, so there is a non-stop year-round controversy about which one to ban this month. Many are derogatory demographic epithets, so the battle is largely over which groups are most oppressed. Other bad words are those considered vulgar by social conservatives. Fortunately there are plenty of those as well, and demanding their elimination keeps another tribal-politics sector of the populace enjoyably occupied.

This small abridgment of freedom of speech is met with great joy by many, for whom the main point of politics is, through social solidarity, to force Bad Tribe members to shut up. The opportunity to use the coercive power of the state to do so—even in such a limited way—is wonderfully gratifying.

I think it’s horrible that anyone can do that—but if it eliminates their influence on energy infrastructure decisions, I’m willing to compromise.

Choosing the National Dress for National Togetherness Day

In Aretopia, participation in the yearly National Togetherness Day celebration is mandatory. During the festivities, everyone must wear the National Dress. The Court decides, annually, what the year’s National Dress will be.

This is purely symbolic, of course. Most sophisticated people loathe National Togetherness Day, and go on long, cynical, boring rants about how it should be called National Tribal Hatred Day, and why making it mandatory was an outrage.3 But many less-pretentious people care intensely about the National Dress.

And, of course, there’s the choice of music to be played at the National Day parade, and speeches to be made, and…

What percentage of voters care more about choosing the Grand MC for National Togetherness Day than about the Assistant Attache to the Ministry of Buffer Bounds Checking? I would guess at least a substantial minority; maybe a majority. Do you want people who care that much about the National Dress to have any influence on internet policy? I don’t.

You are probably an exception. You probably do care more about cybersecurity than anything symbolic. But I promised I would try to convince you otherwise…

This year in Aretopia, a substantial dickhead contingent—who are totally not an allegory for any emerging American political movement—is campaigning for the National Dress for women to be a teeny weeny bikini, and a WWII Nazi officer’s uniform for men.

Now how much do you care about cryptographic standards? How likely is it that they will get significantly screwed up in one year, if you chose not to vote Boring this time? If it looks like the saner voters in the Values election will get split among multiple factions, and the Dickhead Contingent may win, maybe it’s time to vote Values?

National Status

The symbolic issue everyone cares most about is personal status. Since the Great Rotation, that’s what politics is mostly about. So instead of trying to reform politics to not be about that, let’s co-opt it.

The Aretopian Constitution mandates that everyone gets assigned a National Status ranking every year. It ranges from 1 to 100, and the Constitution mandates that 1% of the population will get each grade. The Values Court decides annually how to award Status.

In public, everyone has to wear their National Status Symbol at all times.4 It’s a badge, required to be visible, that shows your status number. It’s up to the Values Court to determine details, but maybe they come in ten colors, corresponding to the ten deciles, so anyone can see from a distance approximately what your National Status is. For the top 1% only, there is a specially distinctive badge—a gold star, maybe. And, there are certain symbolic privileges that come with high Status. If it’s above 50, you are allowed to carry a flag in the National Day parade. If it’s above 80, you can wear a National Order of Virtue hat. Above 95, you march at the front.

So, you might say, this is ridiculous, no one would care what their National Status is. It won’t accurately reflect real social status, and everyone would realize it’s nonsense.

And, yes, no one took it seriously at first. But in year one, the Court was packed with progressives—conservatives mostly voted Boring—and it decided to award National Status based on how much of your garbage you recycled. Conservatives didn’t care, but progressives… well, actually, they started noticing who was recycling. You can’t help seeing whose pin is green and whose is red. Or black. Nobody cares that much about recycling, but… isn’t this a good way to “nudge” people gently toward civic virtue? So in year two, they knocked points off for people who smoke. And for buying too-large bottles of cola. The formula started to get quite complicated.

And then, they decided that racial minorities, who are historically discriminated against, ought to get a National Status boost. If you are of the Aretopian dominant ethnicity, you couldn’t get above 75 even if you recycled everything.

Conservatives got really mad about that, and voted in massive numbers to elect a Values Court that awards National Status for church attendance. Meanwhile, the Boring Bureau had legalized most drugs—since drug policy is a practical matter, that’s in their remit. But drugs are immoral, and morality is the Values Court’s remit. Conservatives added a heavy penalty for drug use to the Status formula.

And… racism hasn’t gone away. Employment law is Boring Bureaucracy, and job interviews are the one time you are not allowed to wear your National Status Symbol. But racial status? That’s the job of the Values Court. The racial majority is sick of the Status preference for minorities. The conservative Values Court rolls it back.

Is that good enough? Many in the racial majority say immigrants—who just happen mostly to be of a different race—hurt the country economically. Is economics really the issue, or is that a smokescreen for racism? In America, we don’t know for sure. In Aretopia, you have to decide which you actually care about. Do you vote in the Boring election, which influences immigration and economic policy; or for the Values Court, which could award low National Status to immigrants—or even penalize racial minorities outright?

The National Status auction

Progressives might want to give a National Status boost to poor people. But… let’s think outside the box for a minute. Maybe you should be allowed to just buy Status? And the purchase price would go toward the national budget, to be used as the Boring Bureaucracy decides.

Consider an annual Status auction. You can bid however much you want for National Status; the bids are sorted, and where you are in the rank order determines what Status you get. How much would you pay?

You’d probably bid more if the formula depended partly on the auction, and partly on virtue. No one knows for sure if you have a 73 status because you recycle dutifully and go to church every week and eat a balanced diet, or because you just bought your status. Now how much would you bid?

Rich people would, of course, all have high National Status. Extremely unfair! Except, I think they might wind up spending a substantial fraction of their income in competition for it. I would guess that a Status 100 gold star badge might get bid up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Everyone would know that it was just money—but that’s what yachts are, too. For the 1%, it would seem worth it.

That would decrease everyone else’s taxes. Taxes, of course, are a Boring matter, and the Virtue Court couldn’t impose any. But the more money the Status auction brings in, the lower the tax rate the Boring Bureau could set.

Perhaps, ideally, this could make taxation entirely voluntary. The Status auction would wind up being so lucrative that no actual taxes would be required. Pay whatever you like, and accept the National Status consequences.

Isn’t it awful that income would largely determine Status at the high end? But isn’t it great that the effective tax rate would, on average, be much more progressive than now?

I said buying Status is just like buying a yacht. Except that does no one any good. Buying Status contributes to everyone else’s well-being (so long as the Boring Bureau spends the money reasonably well). So actually, buying Status really is a civic virtue.

If your doctor’s National Status Symbol—remember everyone’s has to be visible all the time—says 63, won’t you think “geez, that guy is selfish—maybe he recycles, but he sure isn’t contributing his fair share to the national budget, not with what doctors make! He could easily afford to be in the 90s, even if he didn’t do anything particularly virtuous besides making his Status Auction contribution!”

Getting the details of the National Status calculation right is, you see, going to be quite tricky—and quite important.

Now are sure you will always vote Boring?

Maybe at this point you object that the national budget is so important that the Court of Virtue shouldn’t be involved. But Americans can make a voluntary contribution to the national budget any time they like. All that involving the Court does is symbolism. Symbolism is important! Do your civic duty: vote for Values!

If almost everyone voted Values almost all the time, the Bureau would be captured by cranks and trolls. So you should be strategic. When it seems like the Court has been doing an adequate job for the past few years, and pre-election polling suggests that much the same set of Courtiers will be elected this year, you can vote Vogon. Especially, you should do that if it’s looking like the Bureaucratic election is shaping up to favor economic policies you disagree with. Contrariwise, even if most years you vote Bureaucratically because you recognize that cybersecurity is an urgent priority, when it looks like the Court is going to do something unusually insane, you should switch.

In which I defend this travesty against numerous excellent objections

You aren’t serious

This post addresses the same problems as Brennan’s Against Democracy, and my proposal seems (to me, offhand) to be at least as good, and more original.5 Since its publication two months ago, Against Democracy has been reviewed by Very Serious Pundits in Very Serious Fusty Old Publications like The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Plus many major pundish political blogzines.

(Note to Princeton University Press: I am open to a book deal.)

You are just proposing another unrealistic system

In my last post, I suggested that advocating particular systems of government is mostly unhelpful. Proposing clever, logically elegant systems that supposedly solve all social problems is completely delusional. So, wtf, dude?

That is one reason I made the current post deliberately ridiculous. The point is not the system as such, which—I am sure you will hasten to point out—has numerous obvious and fatal flaws.

My actual intent is meta-systematic, or meta-political. I want to clarify the problem, and to prompt thinking about how it might be addressed in a less silly and totalistic way.

This doesn’t prevent the Vogons from becoming corrupt

Yes, but neither does the current system. The Aretopian scheme increases democratic influence on the Vogons relative to the status quo. That won’t eliminate principal/agent problems, but it may help. Bureau voters are likely to at least understand the problem of regulatory capture, whereas most voters currently don’t.

Also, didn’t I say that practical objections are not relevant to this preposterous proposal?

This hands the dominant social classes even more power

Many studies have found that in America, men, the well-off, white people, and other dominant groups are better informed about policy issues, on average. They vote more on the basis of policy preferences than candidates’ hair styles. This is one of many reasons government policies generally reflect their agendas. In Aretopia, those groups often vote Boring, whereas women, the poor, and racial minorities tend to vote Values.

It is reasonable, then, to object that even if the Aretopian scheme is democratic in form, it would be undemocratic in outcome. Elites would leverage it to increase their already disproportionate power and wealth.

Income redistribution is perhaps the only actual policy issue most people care about.6 If they feel they have to vote Boring to influence it, that would wreck the whole thing.

If I was trying to be serious, I might suggest dealing with this problem via some additional mechanism. Brennan recognizes the issue, and suggests several tentative solutions.

The most mathematically elegant would weight Boring votes according to demographic representation. If (for instance) only 6% of Boring voters were black, versus 12% of the total population, each black Boring vote would count double.

This might result in the Bureau being elected primarily by informed, impartial, intelligent Aretopian Aboriginal lesbians. Maybe that would be good.

This wouldn’t work, and/or is immoral, because—

Stop it! You are taking it too seriously.7

If you want serious, I made many boring proposals for improving politics in my previous post.

They have a Worthy Canadian Initiative flavor.

You said there will be cake

Morning bun
Morning bun image courtesy cacaobug

The cake is a lie.

Maybe there’s a morning bun of meaning concealed in this comical maze, though.

  1. 1.Some libertarians would argue that the government shouldn’t be in the highway business, any more than in the social status business. I’m somewhat sympathetic to small-government views, but I won’t address that here. I will suggest, instead, getting the government explicitly into the social status business, thereby increasing its role and powers—although in general I am wary of doing so. Such is the miraculous transformational power of thought-experiment land.
  2. 2.Paraphrased from a conversation with Tyler Cowen.
  3. 3.The penalty for refusing to wear National Dress is ritual humiliation. You get a bucket of cold spaghetti marinara dumped on your head on live TV while being interviewed by an obnoxious reality-TV host who tries to make you feel bad about about not being Together and National enough. Since the Court’s ability to interfere with speech is strictly circumscribed, you can say anything you like, including that you hate National Togetherness and you want the old First Amendment back. Which is exactly what I would do. Secretly, this whole proposal is just my sneaky plan to get to go on TV every year and rant in support of the Bill of Rights.
  4. 4.Many well-known science fiction stories feature similar schemes. They are usually presented as dystopian. I am a contrarian.
  5. 5.Two somewhat similar proposals are futarchy and liquid democracy. Thanks to Joshua Brulé for pointing me at these.
  6. 6.Curiously, opinion on this topic is nearly unanimous. Virtually everyone agrees that they (and people like them) morally deserve more slices of pie than they currently get. I am unusual in having no particular take on this. My opinion is that “everyone gets the same regardless” and “let the disabled starve” are both wrong. Nearly everyone agrees. After that, the question is usually treated as purely quantitative—should tax rates be more or less progressive?—and I don’t see any principled, moral way of resolving that. The answer is: 42. What exactly was the question, again?
  7. 7.Actually, I would welcome objections on the comment page. I don’t promise to give serious replies, but I’m at least curious.