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...)