Radical Markets and cognitive load

One frequent response so far is skepticism that ordinary people can handle the cognitive load some of our proposals would impose on them. Here’s Ryan Avent, for example:

[T]he book seems to dramatically underestimate the cognitive load that is likely to be associated with its proposals, and the likely resistance to those programs on that basis. The authors reckon that apps can be used to make management of these markets as easy as possible. Even so, they are asking people to begin thinking in market-oriented ways about lots of things which don’t currently require such thinking. That, after all, is the point: that aggregating the considered, distributed reasoning of lots of people is likely to produce better outcomes. But contributing to that considered, distributed reasoning is a pain; even if it can all be done on an app, you have to sit, and weigh your actions, and worry that you made an error of judgment. To give just one example: Uber has become far more pleasant to use since surge pricing went away. The system “worked better” in some sense, when riders and drivers had to think harder about how much they actually valued the trip. But that thinking was itself a cost of the service.

This is an important point, and I agree with the Uber example [N.B, updated: actually, I don’t; the airline example below is a better one, as Uber continues to adjust pricing but in a more obscure way]. The same point can be made about the way airlines package and disaggregate different aspects of the service in their pricing decisions. But the problem turns out to be trickier than it first seems. Our COST proposal, for example, requires people to estimate the values of (say) their home, but people have to do that anyway when they sell their home, and also when they buy a home in the first place—and, at least in principle, when they take out mortgages, plan for their retirement, rent out space, etc. And while the COST requires repeated valuations over time, which may enhance the cognitive load for the possessor, this also means that the cognitive load is reduced for all potential buyers, who no longer need to bargain with sellers.

In the case of quadratic voting, the cognitive load is reduced in a more direct way. Because QV effectively allows people to trade political influence over different domains, it allows me to focus on the issues I care about (say, data privacy), or the campaigns that matter to me, or the geographic unit of politics I’m comfortable with. I may be deeply immersed in, and affected by, decisions of the local schoolboard, and I can (implicitly) trade for influence over it with someone who cares much more about the identity of the next president. You might think of it this way: we are all currently generalist producers of democratic outcomes, where QV allows division of labor and specialization in a natural, decentralized way.

Won’t we all be worse citizens then? The current system of democracy puts a massive cognitive load on all of us—we are expected to be informed about literally everything—all issues, national, state and local, dozens of candidates, etc., so that we can vote wisely and responsibly in countless elections and referenda. Of course, nearly all of us duck this load by remaining massively ill-informed, just as consumers do when confronted with complicated products and services. I suppose when democracy was first proposed, someone must have said—“you must be crazy: how are people going to bear the cognitive load?” Or the ancient Greek equivalent.

But I think the better way to think about this is to start with the general problem: all the goods and services in the economy must be allocated somehow. If we gave the task to a central planner, the cognitive load would be far too great for any single person. Central planners of the past tried to solve this problem by creating vast bureaucracies, enabling division of labor and specialization. But as von Mises, Hayek, and others pointed out long ago, the cognitive load (or what economists came to call information costs, but is better understood in psychological terms, I think) is best distributed among all citizens via the mechanism of the market. The more broadly shared the burden, the more easily it is borne by individual citizens.

What they didn’t establish is that the market institutions of their time were a superior bearer of the aggregate cognitive load than possible alternative market institutions, as their focus was the critique of central planning. But having accepted their critique, the next question is: what market design does the best job of distributing the cognitive load among the most people, and among the people best able to bear it?