Praesidium

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Choosing Pubs

At tonight's Political Theory Graduate Student Research Workshop, Dan expressed concern about the fact we always end up going to the KA (which I suppose is particularly justified given that we also go there on Wednesdays now). Here is the section of my thesis dealing with this problem:

A political theory graduate students’ reading group meets each week in a different pub around Oxford[1]. Obviously the choice of pub depends on various factors – somewhere quiet, in terms of clientele and music, is appreciated, with the range and price of drinks also an important consideration – which not all agree on. Perhaps the most important, or at least contentious, issue though is location. With few suitable central venues, the group often meets in places like The Old School (west), The Old Tom or Head Of The River (south), Royal Oak (north), or Angel And Greyhound or The Half Moon (east), yet obviously moving too far in any direction imposes costs on those living further away.

The group has no formal decision mechanism – usually the decision where to meet next is reached at the end of the night. Typically, one person suggests somewhere and that is either settled on or rejected. If there are serious objections (e.g. ‘that’s too noisy/crowded/far/etc’) then there is often a counter-proposal and some informal discussion, often leading to consensus or compromise. This system works reasonably well; although it does sometimes involve relatively high decision costs everyone gets some influence. Suppose, however, it was agreed to adopt a more formal procedure. One option might be for everyone to take turns choosing a pub, so that everyone got his or her choice every six weeks or so, for example. The problem with such is that group membership is not perfectly stable – while some people come (nearly) every week, there are others who participate as the timing, location, reading or inclination suits them. In this case, it is not clear whether those not present on a given night should take a turn, or whether the choice should go to the person present whose turn is next. In the latter case, attendance will likely be affected by whose turn is next – i.e. people will be more likely to come if they think they are next in line to choose the venue – but it will likely become very hard to keep track of whose turn it is, if everyone who has or might come needs a place in the rota, but many of those are skipped through absence.

Instead of rotating around people, another option is to rotate around venues – to regularly move in a north, east, south, west pattern, for example. This would mean that everyone should be equally satisfied – for example, those living in the east will find the venue near them a quarter of the time. However, this does not solve all the problems – one still has to define the relevant areas (Why settle for four compass points? Why not treat St Clements, Cowley Road and Iffley Road as separate ‘options’, for example?) and choose a pub within them, which could be more or less central (e.g. The Angel And Greyhound or Port Mahon). The biggest problem, however, is that such a procedure seems undemocratic. Why should the group spend a quarter of their time in north Oxford if no one lives in north Oxford? If half of the regular attendees live in east Oxford, isn’t it fairer (based on a principle of proportionality) to meet there more often? These difficulties mirror those of giving equal chances for each group – discussed in chapter 3.9, above – and, thus, the same solution suggests itself.

Instead of rotating round individuals present, if we want each to have an equal say, we can give each person present an equal chance of determining the venue for the next meeting by implementing a lottery (‘random dictator’). This will produce a form of proportionality: for instance, if half the group live down Cowley (east Oxford), and therefore favour meetings in that direction, then the group will tend to meet there around half the time. There is, however, a serious danger of extremism. If the decision simply represents the will of one person, there is no need or incentive for them to moderate their demand – to give an example, why stop at The Angel And Greyhound if Port Mahon is closer to home? There is a danger that one person getting all of what they want can impose greater costs on others. Moreover, the group may become in a sense self-selecting – if the group meets far enough out, then it is likely that only those from east Oxford will attend, and in that case they will be the ones who decide where to meet next and it will be east Oxford again – the group has been ‘captured’.

This illustrates a danger with lottery-voting. While one problem with compromise is that it may satisfy no one (see 3.12 above), allowing a ‘random dictator’ to have their way may result in a decision that almost everyone else finds greatly unsatisfactory. I will return to some ways of dealing with this, including constitutions and thresholds, in chapter 7, where I discuss the practical logistics of lottery-voting. For now, one thing to say is that such a proposal may require some restraint on behalf of the voting demos. That one could have all one’s own way does not mean it is reasonable to totally exclude others. In particular, since no one is guaranteed victory, each may be more inclined to consider others – that is, those in east Oxford may not propose anywhere too far out because they know that then those from other directions will not only be able to say ‘how would you like it?’ but actually be able to retaliate by doing likewise when they get chance to decide. Obviously, this self-restraint may only be effective in solidaristic groups, but that is not unrealistic when I am talking about small groups who meet face-to-face. Perhaps the successfulness of democracy depends on each side having some sympathy with their opponents, and thus limiting what they demand when they win, to ensure they can bear the costs when they lose[2]. If each side is willing to press its demands to the fullest, then it will be no surprise if the group breaks up – the result, in the case I am describing, might be two separate groups, meeting in north and east Oxford – the small-scale parallel to secession. This would be unlikely in this case, not only because each individual limits their demands out of a sense of reasonableness, but also because the success of the group depends on participation. If each person wants both to visit a variety of venues and enjoy discussion with many other people, then they are forced to compromise their own preferences as to the location to realize these other goods.

Note that, while I do appeal to compromise to produce better outcomes, it is left to each individual to make the compromise. There is no mechanical way in which compromise can be struck between two different people (for example, if one proposes Gardener’s Arms and another Port Mahon, we cannot simply look for somewhere equidistant between the two – even if there is a ‘middle ground’ it may be a pub that, for other reasons, pleases no one). What we can do is rely on each individual to make compromises themselves, and demand only what is reasonable – for instance, moderating their respective demands to the more central Royal Oak and Angel And Greyhound. Thus, rather than each demanding the ‘whole cake’, we rely on each to propose something they think a fair division. Because each compromise is made by a single individual, we can assume it to be consistent and to satisfy at least that one person – it is what they want, given the demands to consider what others want. We recognize, however, that they are unlikely to agree unanimously on some ideal that will please everyone. While each is willing to move to a more central venue, out of consideration for others, there is still a divide between those who favour somewhere north-central and those who favour somewhere east-central[3].
In this situation, I think the ‘random dictator’ method would be a democratic way for the group to decide where to meet on an equal basis. Of course, this does not mean it is necessarily the best decision-method all-things-considered: I have also pointed to some dangers of such a method, which show that democracy is not the only value when it comes to group decision-making. If we want to encourage independently just or ‘middle ground’ positions, that is another matter, which may not be best achieved through a democratic machinery. Nonetheless, lottery-voting respects the equality of all in that each person will have an equal chance, on each occasion, to be the one who decides where to go next time. This does not give each person an equal chance of satisfaction – if there are more people from east Oxford, then there will be more chance of them all being satisfied – but this is for the reasons given earlier (chapter 3.9) to favour proportional rather than equal chances. Moreover, this practice will ensure no one is excluded – it is not like majority rule (which might lead the group to always be in east Oxford), or turn-taking (which distorts incentives to participate) – even if the decision has not gone one’s way, there is always an incentive for each person to turn up, because they know they might be the decisive person next time.

[1] Again, this is loosely based on personal experience, though at present the group has no formal decision procedure.
[2] Sartori (1987) p.32 and Vernon (2001) p.75-90 both emphasize the importance of looking at losers rather than winners.
[3] I think the ideal of some deliberative democrats – that unanimous consent be reached – is unrealistic because, even if all are sincerely motivated to search for such there may be multiple possibilities that are equal or incomparable with respect to justice and reasonability. Moreover, aside from the fundamental point that there may not be ‘one right answer out there’, people’s conception of what is just may be affected by cognitive biases about which they can do nothing.

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