Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …


At this point in time, I have spent almost an equal amount of time between the two largest democracies in the world. Both of them claim to be the land of the free where people elect their representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Sadly though, the outcome of this rapidly degenerating popularity contest guarantees neither freedom nor fairness. Yet we go through the motions every four or five years to pretend that we are indeed empowered to choose the ones that run our countries.

Manifestos of these politicians are hard to read and understand and there are too many interconnected policy positions listed serially for people to follow. Interactions between their stands on different policy issues are not very clear and obvious and even the voters who make rational voting decisions are sometimes not able to discern the nuances. This can be made so much simpler through choice based tradeoffs, where key stands of each of the politicians are presented in the aggregate and people could choose between the different positions and pick the person who matches their “choice profile”.

Moreover, as Prof. Sheena Iyengar’s “jam study” showed many years ago, having too many choices does not make us any happier. To the contrary, people seemed to regret their decisions less when fewer choices were presented. This would be another key step in improving  the decision making process by making it a hierarchial process as well, though at the expense of more time spent on posturing and campaigning as witnessed during every election cycle here in the US – well, is there any time that is not officially active election cycle? But fundamentally having a flat list of a zillion choices does not help make “better” decisions where the notion of “better” is defined based on minimizing regret post-selection (if I remember the study correctly).

Finally, the premise of a cost function that just maximizes votes is fundamentally flawed. There has to be an important addition to this, which narrows the solution space down to just those profiles that minimize the maximum harm done to the citizenry. Since the citizens may not themselves have the power to narrow down the solution space, this calls for proactive action from objective and independent entities within the democracies – judiciary, election commision etc. It is their responsibility to protect the citizens from their mypoia, so to speak, and making sure that the solution space is defined correctly. For example, if we were to ask people to vote on whether their taxes should be used to build roads or pay teacher salaries or many other public amenities that we take for granted, the divergence of responses based on class and geographical location would be pretty surprising. The objective of good governance should be to make intelligent choices on these policy issues, and give people the option to pick representatives that they have faith in on this front.

In closing, you ask what is the reason for this rant? The immediate inspiration was a smaller issue – of elective choices at Wharton and how due to voting patterns of the current class, marketing is not being offered as an option to major for class 37 out west as a core class is not being offered here, unless people find the time to fly out to Philly during Term 5 and take this class there, which seems like a pretty tall ask.

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Comments on: "Democracy and the freedom of choice" (1)

  1. […] I wrote about similar issues in a different context in an earlier post. […]

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