The complexity of voting
Singapore just finished an election cycle. This was the first time I could vote as a new Citizen. I was proud, disappointed, surprised and entertained.
I started wondering about why we vote at all and why do we often default to feeling that “one person, one vote” is a better/the best. The majority (around 80 countries in the world) practice some form of voting representation where each person is given a vote to cast for a representative. Even the most centrally controlled monarchies in the world still attempt some kind of voting-based-system. Voting gives us something fundamental it seems.
What should I eat for lunch?
When we want to make a decision we have a range of uncertainty. The more complex or time-dependent the topic, (i.e. we won’t know certain things until other things happen in the future) the more uncertainty. And with more uncertainty, we are uncomfortable with our decisions no matter how much information we have. Thus, in high uncertainty decisions, we will decide based on feelings, assumptions or educated guesses.
If I’m completely rational and have a solid understanding of all the topics (or I trust an expert), I would be comfortable delegating the decision. In politics, low uncertainty would make it possible to run alternative voting systems like a Sortition from an expert group to represent a broader population.
However, if I know the topic is complex and interdependent (high uncertainty), I’m unlikely to want to let anyone else decide on my behalf. I will prefer to ignore the choice (not make any decision) or decide based on feeling. In complex political situations, alternative representation is often accepted for similar reasons. Even if the topic is highly complex, if we trust the responsible person, we will be comfortable allowing their representation.
If everything was perfect
We can imagine a perfect information environment where I know absolutely the best answer or have absolute trust in another person being able to make that choice. Then it won’t matter whether I have a vote or not. I have absolute trust that the right decision will be made.
However, in all political decisions we face today, there are no absolutes. Government policy choices impact us over the long term and we are guessing about the short-term and long-term societal impacts. We are guessing whether the people we vote for will do what we trust them to do. It is a balance of short-term pain with long-term possible social benefit. We do not have a guarantee that a policy will result in the outcomes we expect. A pragmatic, experimentation-focused approach to policy making is likely to produce the best long term benefits. And requires general trust in the system that good and bad results will be embraced.
Forcing the population to invest heavily in infrastructure, healthcare, savings and education would likely produce a long-term positive impact to society but at a sizable short term cost. Likewise, investing nothing in those same items would allow lots of short-term benefits to the population at a sizable long term cost. Everyone understands this trade off, yet everyone will disagree about how much of each is ideal. Over the long-term, any given choice will be difficult to prove as the right decision in the past due to complexity.
Can you prove that all the savings resulted in the prosperity we have today? You can correlate the two, but it’s impossible to give an absolute answer.
We all lack absolute information, and we all have different levels of trust in politicians, experts, and other voters/citizens. The best of the worst available options becomes a one-person-one-vote system. In high uncertainty and low trust, the most basic system is “everyone put their decision in a hat”. Society collectively flips a coin.
Trust declines over time
We can apply this same metric to the transition that Singapore has gone through over the last 60 years.
When Singapore declared independence, the People’s Action Party (PAP) had overwhelming trust from the population during a period of high uncertainty. Every decision the politicians made wasn’t guaranteed to succeed. The government experimented, implemented and succeed with various policies. Those choices often included different trade offs of short-term pain and sacrifice in return for the potential of long-term success.
This high initial trust was reinforced by the successes of the government. Trust is fleeting and too much failure can lead the government down a path of low trust and high uncertainty making it impossible to drive long-term high-impact results.
As the country continued to succeed, things that were once uncertain became certain and boring. Institutions stabilized and the political success of the PAP moved on to new challenges.
Over the years, new generations grew up with new problems, concerns and fears and they saw a new set of uncertainties ahead. Understandably, success with past uncertainties does not translate to guaranteed success with future uncertainties. Any high uncertainty situation is influenced by multiple complexities and dependencies. Any successful result is difficult or impossible to link back to a single decision that a party or person can take credit for. We won’t know whether another decision would have also been successful or not. We can only say that we trusted the decider to make the right choice or not. And the outcome today is successful.
In any country like Singapore, it is common for the ruling party to argue “Trust us. Look what we have accomplished in the past.” Where the population will respond “Yes. That was amazing. These are new problems. How can we trust you to solve them?”
Using this framework, the best response for a successful politician is to focus on building and sustaining trust within the population. Too much reference to past successes will be boring and frustrating to people who feel that they are facing new problems. Any time we are successful in high uncertainty, we want to talk about it and celebrate it. However, we can’t use it as a mandate for future success. Since ancient times have we known the risks of “resting on our laurels”.
Broken systems feed themselves
The United States of America is an example of a system that the population doesn’t trust on levels similar to countries with completely corrupt governments.
Below a certain level of trust, people will start making decisions based on feelings. Which can explain why people like Donald Trump can get elected, and people like Kanye West will think it reasonable to try and get elected. Politics in this situation isn’t decided by trust or competency. It is decided by feeling.
This becomes a failure cycle feeding itself. We all know that policy requires some kind of trade off between short-term pain and long-term value. If we make decisions based on our feelings, we will prioritize short-term value and try to minimize short-term pain. Logically, this makes sense.
Why would anyone risk any pain if they don’t have any trust that it will amount to anything?
The solution is much more difficult. Politicians will have to find small ways to change structures and give up power to slowly rebuild trust. This is contrary to what most politicians want to do. They want to argue for sweeping changes and total upheaval. Things that will appeal to emotions and feelings. These impossible promises only guarantee a continued failure cycle.
Too deep into failure, politicians won’t break the cycle. The American political system is deep into emotive, reactionary, feeling politics. There are too many incentives for political actors to consolidate power. It’s better for them to continue the same cycle.
Groups operating outside of the political cycle with answers to challenging new issues may be able to play to the feelings and needs of the population directly. These groups find it easier to work within the high-trust, high-uncertainty areas.
The actions of the Black Lives Matter groups could become a new/old model that helps force progress within a broken system. These groups accept that any solution has to be driven by low-level trust building and implement solutions that work within a broken system.
When voting fails, we suffer until we do it ourselves
When voting isn’t a viable option due to corruption or a lack of any form of central government; progress still happens. People will suffer and solve in small groups. Learning slowly and eventually accepting whatever long-term pain is required.
Individuals will do things themselves when possible. This happens because there is no trust in any form of central government.
When trust at any point on the uncertainty line drops below the point of disfunction (where politicians are seen as dysfunctional), you can easily argue that people are better on their own.
In some places, no form of central government is better than having a completely dysfunctional government. There are also successful central governments with high trust and no formal one-person-one-vote systems.
People in a country with high trust will likely not want to bother with voting system. With such high trust, why bother?
This analysis helped me understand why so many countries are stuck in a political grey-zone. They vote, dislike their governments, and compete politically through emotional appeals.
These grey-zones are stuck with low overall trust and high uncertainty. People will get along with their lives on their own. They learn to ignore the politics that they have lost hope in influencing.
I started writing this article because I was confused about why the opposition parties in Singapore did so well in a time that I’ve found the ruling party has done exceptionally well. I was disappointed with the results as the place where I stay is an opposition stronghold, and I hoped that because of the strong performance of the ruling party, we might have a chance.
The results were clear. A sizable percentage feel that the ruling party isn’t doing something. But I couldn’t figure out what that was. The majority agree the PAP has done exceptionally well until now. A large percentage also aren’t certain (don’t trust) that the PAP knows what to do next.
The Workers Party representing the main opposition in Singapore ran a progressive and trust focused campaign. They took a position of being close to citizens, open to listen and humble. This can be a reassuring message for those people who are uncertain about the ruling party ability to handle uncertainty.
The ruling party
The PAP had a difficult fight to win. Like David and Goliath, people often have interest in the underdog. Because of the PAP successes, people will naturally desire for something different and find it easier to relate to the opposition.
Being a ruling party as successful as the PAP also makes it easy to be attacked and impossible to defend. So many policies, speeches, interviews over the years produce a massive amount of content that the opposition parties can comb through and pick apart. And when the PAP tries to retaliate or defend, they will come across as spiteful and insincere.
This creates an impossible challenge for the ruling party. They must be responsible for their failures and successes and not take them for granted. No matter how successful they are (or are perceived to be), they must constantly build trust and express humility.
The unfair and frustrating thing about this is that even having the right policy with the best possible results doesn’t help when the future is uncertain and people don’t trust you. And continued success doesn’t guarantee continued trust. If anything, continued success guarantees declining trust.
Keeping in mind that the popular vote results this year were still better for the Ruling party than in 2011. So it is an opportunity to learn and not panic.
What can we do?
This article has brought me full circle in my life. When I was young, I remember debating and arguing with my parents about the politics of the time. I couldn’t understand why obvious solutions to serious problems were ignored or implemented badly.
The answer now seems more clear and somehow obvious at the same time:
- Vote for people you trust. If you can’t trust anyone, consider whether you can be humble and build trust with those whom you can then represent.
- Find groups that you can take action with. If you can’t find any suitable groups, see (1).
- Remember that if you don’t build trust, it doesn’t matter how successful (or right) you/group/party is. And even with success, trust is fleeting and needs constant humble tending.