The American System and Misleading Labels

“How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg? Four. Cal­ling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”
-- Abra­ham Lincoln

So I was at this con­fer­ence. Where one of the top­ics was le­gal rights for hu­man-level Ar­tifi­cial In­tel­li­gence. And per­son­ally, I don’t think this is go­ing to be the ma­jor prob­lem, but these are the kinds of con­fer­ences I go to. Any­way. Brad Tem­ple­ton, chair­man of the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, was pre­sent; and he said:

“The le­gal sta­tus of AIs is ul­ti­mately a leg­is­la­tive ques­tion, and in the Amer­i­can sys­tem of democ­racy, leg­is­la­tive ques­tions are de­cided by the Supreme Court.”

Much laugh­ter fol­lowed. We all knew it was true. (And Brad has taken a case or two to the Supreme Court, so he was speak­ing from ex­pe­rience.)

I’m not crit­i­ciz­ing the Supreme Court. They don’t always agree with me on ev­ery is­sue—that is not a poli­ti­cian’s job—but rea­soned co­op­er­a­tive dis­course, com­pact out­puts, and sheer pro­fes­sion­al­ism all make the Supreme Court a far more com­pe­tent leg­is­la­tive body than Congress.

Try to say aloud the color—not the mean­ing, the color—of the fol­low­ing let­ters:


Now say aloud the mean­ing of the let­ters, not their color:


Which task felt more difficult? It’s ac­tu­ally eas­ier to pay at­ten­tion to the la­bels of things than their sub­stances.

But if you’re go­ing to be faced with sev­eral rep­e­ti­tions of the first task, there’s a way to make it eas­ier—just blur your eyes a lit­tle, so that you can see the color a mo­ment be­fore you’re dis­tracted by the mean­ing. Try it—de­fo­cus your eyes slightly, and then say the fol­low­ing col­ors aloud:


If you want to know what the Supreme Court re­ally does, you should blur your eyes so that you can’t see the words “Supreme” or “Court”, or all the gi­ant signs read­ing “judge”, “Honor­able”, or “ju­di­cial branch of gov­ern­ment”. Then how can you tell what they do? Well, you could fol­low these nine peo­ple around for a few days and ob­serve them at work. You’ll see that they dress in funny out­fits and go to a build­ing where they hear some peo­ple ar­gu­ing with each other. Then they’ll talk it over for a while, and is­sue one or two short writ­ten doc­u­ments, some of which tell other peo­ple what they are or aren’t al­lowed to do. If you were a Mar­tian an­thro­pol­o­gist and you had ab­solutely no idea that these peo­ple were sup­posed to be do­ing this or that or some­thing else, you would prob­a­bly con­clude they were (among other things) mak­ing laws.

Do Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and Se­na­tors make laws? Well, I’ve met one or two Con­gress­peo­ple, and I didn’t see them writ­ing any doc­u­ments that tell peo­ple what to do. Maybe they do it when no one is look­ing? I’ve heard their days are pretty heav­ily sched­uled, though.

Some laws are made by Con­gres­sional staff, but the vast ma­jor­ity of leg­is­la­tion is writ­ten by pro­fes­sional bu­reau­crats, who—if you re­fo­cus your eyes and read their la­bels—are part of the “ex­ec­u­tive” branch.

What if you’ve got a prob­lem with a bu­reau­crat get­ting in your hair? You won’t have much luck talk­ing to the White House. But if you con­tact your Rep­re­sen­ta­tive or Se­na­tor’s con­stituent ser­vice office, they’ll be happy to help you if they can. If you didn’t know how the sys­tem works apart from a high school civics class, you might end up very frus­trated—the peo­ple who help you deal with the ex­ec­u­tive branch of gov­ern­ment have signs read­ing “leg­is­la­tive branch”.

Your Con­gressper­son would much rather help a lit­tle old lady deal with a lost So­cial Se­cu­rity check, than make po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial laws about im­mi­gra­tion or in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty. That sort of thing may please some of your con­stituents, but it gets oth­ers very an­gry at you, and vot­ers are faster to for­get a fa­vor than a dis­ser­vice. Keep mak­ing laws and you might just get your­self un­elected. If you know ev­ery­one is go­ing to cheer you for a law, go ahead and pass it; but oth­er­wise it’s safer to leave leg­is­la­tion like e.g. school de­seg­re­ga­tion to the Supreme Court.

What Con­gress­peo­ple pre­fer to do is write elab­o­rate bud­gets that ex­ert de­tailed con­trol over how the gov­ern­ment spends money, so they can send more of it to their dis­tricts. That, and help their con­stituents with the bu­reau­cracy, which makes friends with­out get­ting any­one mad at them. The ex­ec­u­tive branch has no time for such mat­ters, it’s busy declar­ing wars.

So, bear­ing in mind that noth­ing works the way it’s writ­ten down on pa­per, let’s de­fo­cus our eyes and ask about the role of the vot­ers.

If we blur out the la­bel over your head and look at what you do, then you go to a cer­tain build­ing and touch one of sev­eral names writ­ten on a com­puter screen. You don’t choose which names will be on the screen—no, you don’t. For­get the la­bels, re­mem­ber your ac­tual ex­pe­riences. You walked into the build­ing, you did choose which rec­t­an­gle to touch, and you did not choose which lit­tle names you would see on the com­puter screen.

When Stephen Colbert wanted to reg­ister for a pres­i­den­tial run in South Carolina, the ex­ec­u­tive coun­cil of the South Carolina Demo­cratic Party voted 13-3 to keep him off the bal­lot: “He clearly doesn’t meet the re­quire­ments. It’s a dis­trac­tion and takes away from the se­ri­ous­ness of our pri­mary here and takes at­ten­tion from the se­ri­ous can­di­dates: Clin­ton, Ed­wards, Barack Obama and the rest.”

Hey, South Carolina Demo­cratic Party ex­ec­u­tive coun­cil, you know who ELSE might be in­ter­ested in de­ter­min­ing whether some­one is, or isn’t, a “se­ri­ous can­di­date”? HOW ABOUT THE %#<!ing VOTERS?

Ahem. But the psy­chol­ogy of this re­sponse is quite re­veal­ing. “They want to pre­vent wasted votes” would be a po­lite way of putting it. It doesn’t even seem to have oc­curred to them that a voter might at­tach their own mean­ing to a vote for Stephen Colbert—that a voter might have their own thoughts about whether a vote for Stephen Colbert was “wasted” or not. Nor that the vot­ers might have a sense of own­er­ship of their own votes, a wish to de­ter­mine their use. In the psy­chol­ogy of poli­ti­ci­ans, poli­ti­ci­ans own vot­ers, vot­ers do not own poli­ti­ci­ans. South Carolina Demo­cratic vot­ers are a re­source of the South Carolina Demo­cratic Party, not the other way around. They don’t want you to waste their votes.

(Am I the only one on the planet to whom it oc­curred that the South Carolina vot­ers could de­cide the mean­ing of a vote for Stephen Colbert? Be­cause I se­ri­ously don’t re­mem­ber any­one else point­ing that out, at the time.)

How much power does touch­ing a name in a rec­t­an­gle give you? Well, let me put it this way:

When I blur my eyes and look at the Amer­i­can sys­tem of democ­racy, I see that the three branches of gov­ern­ment are the ex­ec­u­tive, the leg­is­la­tive, the ju­di­cial, the bu­reau­cracy, the party struc­ture, and the me­dia. In the next tier down are sec­ond-ranked pow­ers, such as “the rich” so of­ten de­mo­nized by the fool­ish—the up­per-up­per class can ex­ert in­fluence, but they have lit­tle in the way of di­rect poli­ti­cal con­trol. Similarly with NGOs (non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions) such as the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, think tanks, tra­di­tional spe­cial in­ter­est groups, “big cor­po­ra­tions”, lob­by­ists, the vot­ers, for­eign pow­ers with a car­rot or stick to offer the US, and so on.

Which is to say that poli­ti­cal pow­ers do make an at­tempt to court the vot­ers, but not to a no­tice­ably greater de­gree than they court, say, the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try. The vot­ers’ po­si­tion on the is­sues is not with­out in­fluence, but it is a de­gree of in­fluence read­ily com­pa­rable to the col­lec­tive in­fluence of think tanks, and prob­a­bly less than the col­lec­tive in­fluence of K Street lob­by­ists. In prac­tice, that’s how it seems to work out.

The vot­ers do have two spe­cial pow­ers, but both of them only man­i­fest in cases of great emo­tional arousal, like a comic-book su­per­hero who can’t power up un­til an­gry. The first power is the abil­ity to swap con­trol of Congress (and in years di­visi­ble by 4, the Pres­i­dency) be­tween poli­ti­cal par­ties. To the ex­tent that the two al­lowed poli­ti­cal par­ties are similar, this will not ac­com­plish any­thing. Also it’s a rather crude threat, not like the fine-grained ad­vice offered by think tanks or lob­by­ists. There’s a differ­ence be­tween the power to write de­tailed in­struc­tions on a sheet of pa­per, and the power to grunt and throw a big rock.

Pos­si­bly due to a co­or­di­na­tion prob­lem among in­di­vi­d­ual poli­ti­ci­ans, the party cur­rently in power rarely acts scared of the vot­ers’ threat. Maybe in­di­vi­d­ual poli­ti­ci­ans have an in­cen­tive to pur­sue their goals while the pur­su­ing is good, since a shift in par­ties will not nec­es­sar­ily de­prive them of their own seats in se­cure dis­tricts? Thus, we reg­u­larly see the party in power act­ing ar­ro­gantly un­til the vot­ers get an­gry and the vote swings back. Then the minor­ity-turned-ma­jor­ity party stops try­ing so hard to please the vot­ers, and be­gins drink­ing the wine of power. That’s my best guess for why the bal­ance of vot­ers tends to be ac­tively re­stored around a 5050 ra­tio.

The vot­ers’ sec­ond hid­den su­per­power can only be used if the vot­ers get re­ally, re­ally, re­ally an­gry, like a comic-book hero who’s just seen one of their friends kil­led. This is the power to over­throw the ex­ist­ing poli­ti­cal struc­ture en­tirely by plac­ing a new party in charge. There are bar­ri­ers to en­try that keep out third par­ties, which pre­vents the or­di­nary turnover visi­ble in the his­tory of US poli­tics be­fore the 1850s. But these bar­ri­ers wouldn’t stop the vot­ers if they got re­ally, re­ally mad. Even tam­per­ing with elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines won’t work if the vote is 90% lop­sided.

And this never-used power of the vot­ers, strangely enough, may be the most benefi­cial fac­tor in democ­racy—be­cause it means that al­though the vot­ers are or­di­nar­ily small pota­toes in the power struc­ture, no one dares make the vot­ers re­ally, re­ally, re­ally an­gry.

How much of the benefit of liv­ing in a democ­racy is in the small in­fluences that vot­ers oc­ca­sion­ally man­age to ex­ert on the poli­ti­cal pro­cess? And how much of that benefit is from power-wielders be­ing too scared to act like his­tor­i­cal kings and slaugh­ter you on a whim?

Ar­guably, the chief his­tor­i­cal im­prove­ments in liv­ing con­di­tions have not been from vot­ers hav­ing the in­fluence to pass leg­is­la­tion which (they think) will benefit them, but, rather, from power-wielders be­com­ing scared of do­ing any­thing too hor­rible to vot­ers. Maybe one retro­d­ic­tion (I haven’t checked) would be that if you looked at the his­tory of England, you would find a smooth im­prove­ment in liv­ing con­di­tions cor­re­spond­ing to a grad­u­ally more plau­si­ble threat of rev­olu­tion, rather than a sharp jump fol­low­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of an elected leg­is­la­ture.

You’ll no­tice that my first post, on the Two-Party Swin­dle, wor­ried about the ten­dency of vot­ers to lose them­selves in emo­tion and iden­tify with “their” pro­fes­sional poli­ti­ci­ans. If you think the chief benefit of liv­ing in a democ­racy is the hope of get­ting Your-Fa­vorite-Leg­is­la­tion passed, then you might aban­don your­self in adu­la­tion of a pro­fes­sional poli­ti­cian who wears the col­ors of Your-Fa­vorite-Leg­is­la­tion. Isn’t that the only way you can get Your-Fa­vorite-Leg­is­la­tion, the most im­por­tant thing in the world, passed?

But what if the real benefit of liv­ing in a democ­racy, for vot­ers, comes from their first and sec­ond su­per­pow­ers? Then by iden­ti­fy­ing with poli­ti­ci­ans, the vot­ers be­come less likely to re­move the poli­ti­cian from office. By iden­ti­fy­ing with par­ties, vot­ers be­come less likely to swap the party out of power, or cast it from gov­ern­ment en­tirely. Both iden­ti­fi­ca­tions in­terfere with the plau­si­ble threat. The power-wielders can get away with do­ing more and worse things be­fore you turn on them.

The fea­ture of democ­ra­cies, of al­low­ing heated color wars be­tween vot­ers on par­tic­u­lar policy is­sues, is not likely to ac­count, on av­er­age, for the benefits of liv­ing in a democ­racy. Even if one op­tion is gen­uinely bet­ter than the other, the ex­is­tence of a color war im­plies that large efforts are be­ing spent on tug­ging in ei­ther di­rec­tion.

So if vot­ers get wrapped up in color wars, iden­ti­fy­ing emo­tion­ally with “their” pro­fes­sional poli­ti­ci­ans and is­sues that put them at odds with other vot­ers—at the ex­pense of be­ing less likely to get up­set with “their” poli­ti­cian and “their” party—then shouldn’t we ex­pect the end re­sult, on av­er­age, to be harm­ful to vot­ers in gen­eral?

Com­ing to­mor­row: My shock­ing, coun­ter­in­tu­itive sug­ges­tion for a prag­matic vot­ing policy! (Well… maybe not so coun­ter­in­tu­itive as all that...)