…a lot of libertarians are into the idea of decentralised knowledge when it comes to Hayek and the market. But when we talk about politics, suddenly they think that there’s no knowledge out there. And I think that… that’s nuts. … politics is just like all these other things – there’s lots of local information out there.
Prof Glen Weyl
Imagine you were put in charge of planning out a country’s economy – determining who should work where and what they should make – without prices. You would surely struggle to collect all the information you need about what people want and who can most efficiently make it from an office building in the capital city.
Pro-market economists love to wax rhapsodic about the capacity of markets to pull together the valuable local information spread across all of society and solve this so-called ‘knowledge problem’.
But when it comes to politics and voting – which also aim to aggregate the preferences and knowledge found in millions of individuals – the enthusiasm for finding clever institutional designs turns to skepticism.
Today’s guest, freewheeling economist Glen Weyl, won’t have it, and is on a warpath to reform liberal democratic institutions in order to save them. Just last year he wrote Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society with Eric Posner, but he has already moved on, saying “in the 6 months since the book came out I’ve made more intellectual progress than in the whole 10 years before that.”
He believes we desperately need more efficient, equitable and decentralised ways to organise society that take advantage of what each person knows, and his research agenda has already made some breakthroughs.
Despite a background in the best economics departments in the world – Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the University of Chicago – he is too worried for the future to sit in his office writing papers. Instead he has left the academy to try to inspire a social movement, RadicalxChange, with a vision of social reform as expansive as his own. (You can sign up for their conference in March here.)
Economist Alex Tabarrok called his latest proposal, known as ‘liberal radicalism’, “a quantum leap in public-goods mechanism-design.” The goal is to accurately measure how much the public actually values a good they all have to share, like a scientific research finding. Alex observes that under liberal radicalism “almost magically… citizens will voluntarily contribute exactly the amount that correctly signals how much society as a whole values the public good. Amazing!” But the proposal, however good in theory, might struggle in the real world because it requires large subsidies, and compensates for people’s selfishness so effectively that it might even be an overcorrection.
An earlier proposal – ‘quadratic voting’ (QV) – would allow people to express the relative strength of their preferences in the democratic process. No longer would 51 people who support a proposal, but barely care about the issue, outvote 49 incredibly passionate opponents, predictably making society worse in the process.
Instead everyone would be given ‘voice credits’ which they could spread across elections as they chose. QV follows a square root rule: 1 voice credit gets you 1 vote, 4 voice credits gets you 2 votes, 9 voice credits gives you 3 votes, and so on. It’s not immediately apparent, but this method is on average the ideal way of allowing people to more and more impose their desires on the rest of society, but at an ever escalating cost. To economists it’s an idea that’s obvious, though only in retrospect, and is already being taken up by business.
Weyl points to studies showing that people are more likely to vote strongly not only about issues they care more about, but issues they know more about. He expects that allowing people to specialise and indicate when they know what they’re talking about will create a democracy that does more to aggregate careful judgement, rather than just passionate ignorance.
But these and indeed all of Weyl’s proposals have faced criticism. Some say the risk of unintended consequences are too great, or that they solve the wrong problem. Others see these proposals as unproven, impractical, or just another example of overambitious social planning on the part of intellectuals. I raise these concerns to see how he responds.
Weyl hopes a creative spirit in figuring out how to make collective decision-making work for the modern world can restore faith in liberal democracy and prevent a resurgence of reactionary ideas during a future recession. But as big a topic as all that is, this extended conversation covers more:
- How should we think about blockchain as a technology, and the community dedicated to it?
- How could auctions inspire an alternative to private property?
- Why is Glen wary of mathematical styles of approaching issues?
- Is high modernism underrated?
- Should we think of the world as going well or badly?
- What are the biggest intellectual errors of the effective altruism community? And the rationality community?
- Should migrants be sponsored by communities?
- Could we provide people with a sustainable living by treating their data as labour?
- The potential importance of artists in promoting ideas
- How does liberal radicalism actually work
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.