Aumann voting; or, How to vote when you’re ignorant

As Robin Han­son is fond of point­ing out, peo­ple would of­ten get bet­ter an­swers by tak­ing other peo­ple’s an­swers more into ac­count. See Au­mann’s Agree­ment The­o­rem.

The ap­pli­ca­tion is ob­vi­ous if you’re com­put­ing an an­swer for your per­sonal use. But how do you ap­ply it when vot­ing?

Poli­ti­cal de­bates are tug-of-wars. Say a bill is be­ing voted on to in­tro­duce a 7-day wait­ing pe­riod for hand­guns. You might think that you should vote on the mer­its of a 7-day wait­ing pe­riod. This isn’t what we usu­ally do. In­stead, we’ve cho­sen our side on the larger is­sue (gun con­trol: for or against) ahead of time; and we vote whichever way is pul­ling in our di­rec­tion.

To use the tug-of-war anal­ogy: There’s a knot tied in the mid­dle of the rope, and you have some line in the sand where you be­lieve the knot should end up. But you don’t stop pul­ling when the knot reaches that point; you keep pul­ling, be­cause the other team is still pul­ling. So, if you’re anti-gun-con­trol, you vote against the 7-day wait­ing pe­riod, even if you think it would be a good idea; be­cause pass­ing it would move the knot back to­wards the other side of your line.

Tug-of-war vot­ing makes in­tu­itive sense if you be­lieve that an ir­ra­tional ex­trem­ist is usu­ally more poli­ti­cally effec­tive than a rea­son­able per­son is. (It sounds plau­si­ble to me.) If you’ve watched a de­bate long enough to see that the “knot” does a bit of a ran­dom walk around some equil­ibrium that’s on the other side of your line, it can make sense to vote this way.

How do you ap­ply Au­mann’s the­o­rem to tug-of-war vot­ing?

I think the an­swer is that you try to iden­tify which side has more idiots, and vote on the other side.

I was think­ing of this be­cause of the cur­rent on­line de­bate be­tween Arthur Ca­plan and Craig Ven­ter on DNA pri­vacy. I don’t have a strong opinion which way to vote, largely be­cause it’s nowhere stated clearly what it is that you’re vot­ing for or against.

So I can’t tell what the right an­swer is my­self. But I can iden­tify idiots. Ap­ply­ing Au­mann’s the­o­rem, I take it on faith that the non-idiot pop­u­la­tion can even­tu­ally work out a good solu­tion to the prob­lem. My job is to can­cel out an idiot.

My im­pres­sion is that there is a large class of ir­ra­tional peo­ple who are gen­er­ally “against” biotech­nol­ogy be­cause they’re against evolu­tion or sci­ence. (This doesn’t come out in the com­ments on economist.com, which are sur­pris­ingly good for this sort of on­line de­bate, and un­for­tu­nately don’t sup­ply enough idiots to be statis­ti­cally sig­nifi­cant.) I have enough ex­pe­rience with this group and their op­po­site num­ber to con­clude that they are not coun­ter­bal­anced by a suffi­cient num­ber of un­crit­i­cally pro-sci­ence peo­ple.

So I vote against the propo­si­tion, even though the vague state­ment “Peo­ple’s DNA se­quences are their busi­ness, and no­body else’s” sounds good to me. I am pick­ing sides not based on the spe­cific is­sue at hand, but on what I per­ceive as be­ing the larger tug-of war; and pul­ling for the side with fewer idiots.

Do you think this is a good heuris­tic?

You might break your an­swer into sep­a­rate parts for “tug-of-war vot­ing” (which means to choose sides on larger de­bates rather than on par­tic­u­lar is­sues) and “can­cel out an idiot” (which can be used with­out adopt­ing tug-of-war vot­ing).

EDIT: Really, please do say if your com­ment refers to “tug-of-war” vot­ing or “can­cel­ling out an idiot”. Per­haps I should have bro­ken them into sep­a­rate posts.