Henry Farrell (George Washington University) and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi (Carnegie-Mellon/The Santa Fe Institute) have just posted a paper, "Cognitive Democracy," to Crooked Timber. Farrell and Shalizi argue that neither the "libertarian paternalist" idea of "nudging" people to good choices, nor the market-based approach of letting price signals steer our decisions produce the best possible outcome for all. They see, in the Internet, a means by which knowledge about the world can be shared widely and usefully, to help democracies function as systems for producing good outcomes for everyone.
Yet at first glance, this interchange of perspectives looks ugly: it is partisan, rancorous and vexatious, and people seem to never change their minds. This leads some on the left to argue that we need to replace traditional democratic forms with ones that involve genuine deliberation, where people will strive to be open-minded, and to transcend their interests. These aspirations are hopelessly utopian. Such impartiality can only be achieved fleetingly at best, and clashes of interest and perception are intrinsic to democratic politics.
Here, we concur with Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s important recent book (2011), which argues that politics is a response to the problem of diversity. Actors with differing—- indeed conflicting—- interests and perceptions find that their fates are bound together, and that they must make the best of this. Yet, Knight and Johnson argue, politics is also a matter of seeking to harness diversity so as to generate useful knowledge. They specifically do not argue that democracy requires impartial deliberation. Instead, they claim that partial and self-interested debate can have epistemological benefits. As they describe it, “democratic decision processes make better use of the distributed knowledge that exists in a society than do their rivals” such as market coordination or judicial decision making (p. 151). Knight and Johnson suggest that approaches based on diversity, such as those of Scott Page and Elizabeth Anderson, provide a better foundation for thinking about the epistemic benefits of democracy than the arguments of Condorcet and his intellectual heirs.
We agree. Unlike Hayek’s account of markets, and Thaler and Sunstein’s account of hierarchy, this argument suggests that democracy can both foster communication among individuals with highly diverse viewpoints. This is an argument for cognitive democracy, for democratic arrangements that take best advantage of the cognitive diversity of their population. Like us, Knight and Johnson stress the pragmatic benefits of equality. Harnessing the benefits of diversity means ensuring that actors with a very wide range of viewpoints have the opportunity to express their views and to influence collective choice. Unequal societies will select only over a much smaller range of viewpoints—- those of powerful people. Yet Knight and Johnson do not really talk about the mechanisms through which clashes between different actors with different viewpoints result in better decision making. Without such a theory, it could be that conflict between perspectives results in worse rather than better problem solving. To make a good case for democracy, we not only need to bring diverse points of view to the table, but show that the specific ways in which they are exposed to each other have beneficial consequences for problem solving.