Rory Sutherland and Glen Weyl apply quadratic voting to market research, with an excursion on the voting behavior of bees (yes, they vote quadratically). Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy, and a famous market-research guru. You can read an interview of him here (“Tweed is like sex. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. But when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”).
Cowen believes that QV would encourage extreme preferences:
I would gladly have gay marriage legal throughout the United States. But overall, like David Hume, I am more fearful of the intense preferences of minorities than not. I do not wish to encourage such preferences, all things considered. If minority groups know they have the possibility of buying up votes as a path to power, paying the quadratic price along the way, we are sending intense preference groups a message that they have a new way forward. In the longer run I fear that will fray democracy by strengthening the hand of such groups, and boosting their recruiting and fundraising. Was there any chance the authors would use the anti-abortion movement as their opening example?
There are two possible interpretations of this argument.
First, QV would encourage people with extreme preferences to engage in activities that are disruptive of democracy. But the opposite is more likely the case. The problem with one-person-one-vote-majority-rule is that minorities are shut out unless they can organize. This is why minority groups so often resort to civil disobedience, protest marches, strikes, and boycotts. They can vindicate their preferences in the political arena only by making life miserable for the majority. By contrast, QV allows them to vindicate their intense preferences, and in such a way that partly compensates the majority.
Maybe a more attractive version of this argument is that people with intense preferences would lose the incentive to try to persuade the majority to agree with them. Under QV, they pay them off instead. But the difference between the two systems is marginal along this dimension. The cost of buying votes becomes expensive very quickly; so if persuasion can be effective, then minorities will adopt that strategy instead or (more likely) in conjunction with voting.
Second, Cowen might believe that QV would actually change people’s preferences, causing moderate people to become extreme. There are no good theories about how preferences change, so it is hard to evaluate this claim. Perhaps his idea is that under ordinary voting systems people with extreme preferences who are always outvoted somehow become persuaded that their preferences are wrong and drop them. Maybe. But it is just as likely that they give up on a political system that disregards their deepest commitments and search for extra-legal or disruptive means to vindicate them.
We can’t wish away people with intense preferences, and shouldn’t want to. Indeed, nearly everyone has intense preferences along different dimensions; that is why there is a sense in which our rights-based system, which provides judicial protection to minorities with intense preferences under certain conditions, is supported by the majority. But QV provides a better way to incorporate intense preferences into the social welfare function.
Glen Weyl has uploaded a new version of his paper, Quadratic Voting (written with Steven Lalley), to SSRN, which now includes the completed proofs. Quadratic voting is the most important idea for law and public policy that has emerged from economics in (at least) the last ten years.
Quadratic voting is a procedure that a group of people can use to jointly choose a collective good for themselves. Each person can buy votes for or against a proposal by paying into a fund the square of the number of votes that he or she buys. The money is then returned to voters on a per capita basis. Weyl and Lalley prove that the collective decision rapidly approximates efficiency as the number of voters increases. By contrast, no extant voting procedure is efficient. Majority rule based on one-person-one-vote notoriously results in tyranny of the majority–a large number of people who care only a little about an outcome prevail over a minority that cares passionately, resulting in a reduction of aggregate welfare.
The applications to law and public policy are too numerous to count. In many areas of the law, we rely on highly imperfect voting systems (corporate governance, bankruptcy) that are inferior to quadratic voting. In other areas of the law, we require judges or bureaucrats to make valuations while knowing they are not in any position to do so (environmental regulation, eminent domain). Quadratic voting can be used to supply better valuations that aggregate private information of dispersed multitudes. But the most important setting is democracy itself. An incredibly complicated system of institutional self-checking (separation of powers, federalism) and judicially enforced constitutional rights try to correct for the defects of one-person-one-vote, but do so very badly. Can quadratic voting do better? Glen and I argue that it can.
Glen Weyl and I have posted a revised draft of Voting Squared on SSRN. We argue that quadratic voting can and should play a role in democratic decisionmaking.
Quadratic voting is a voting procedure where people are allowed to buy votes for or against a proposal (or candidate) by paying the square of the number of votes they cast (e.g., 3 votes cost $9). The votes are totaled up and the majority prevails. Quadratic voting enables people with strong interests in an outcome to exert influence in proportion to the strength of their interest, so a passionate numerical minority of voters may be able to outvote an indifferent majority. Weyl shows in another paper that with a sufficiently large population (say, a few dozen), a proposal will win a quadratic vote if and only if the aggregate gains to the winners exceed the aggregate losses to the losers in willingness-to-pay terms.
The main point of our joint paper is that conventional voting rules (for example, one-person-one-vote with majority rule) do a very bad job because they provide people with no way to exert influence on outcomes in proportion to the intensity of the effect of those outcomes on their well-being. This leads to the familiar tyranny-of-the-majority problem. We then discuss all the ways that have been developed to address this problem–judicial review, cost-benefit analysis, supermajority rule, and so on–and show that they do worse than quadratic voting would if it were implemented.
Finally, we address the objections to quadratic voting for democratic politics, including:
- It would favor the rich.
- It would violate a taboo against vote-buying.
- It would lead to political instability.
We show that these objections are mistaken.