Bee lessons about democracy

London: It will be interesting to learn later this week what proportion of the UK vote is now postal. As postal voting boosts turnout, people seem happy to ignore the risk of in-family coercion, or the fact that a vote may not be private. But should there be a cost to voting? Why encourage people who are indifferent and cancel out the opinions of others who care a great deal? Without the indifferent, society would crash.

Soon there will be pressure to vote online, or by mobile phone. The problem with this is that we will have done what humans often do, which is to use technology to make things easier while missing an opportunity to make them better. Is there a way to use technology to improve democracy — not only by changing the medium but by rethinking the whole interface? Well, there might be. And it is a brand new idea. In another species it has been working well for years. Just as bees perfected the hexagonal honeycomb long before we understood geometry, they seem to have discovered democracy when the ancestors of Cleisthenes were swinging on trees.

Three hundred years ago, the Anglo-Dutch writer Bernard Mandeville caused uproar when he published the book The Fable of the Bees. The hive described by Mandeville prospered while the bees acted in self-interest, but moralistic bees were disgusted by the lack of virtue in their colleagues. The moralists prevailed thanks to di-vine intervention, which instilled the bees with virtue. Then the hive collapsed. With no incentive to improve their lot, the bees stopped cooperating. Thus, Mandeville drew from the bees the lesson that society may do better to rely on self-interest than on virtue.

Today’s Mandeville is the renowned biologist Thomas D. Seeley, who was part of a team which discovered that colonies of honey bees look for new pollen sources to harvest by sending out scouts. When the scouts return to the hive, they perform complicated dances. Bees who have found more attractive sources of pollen dance longer. The other bees will fly to the locations that are signified as most attractive and then return and do their own dances if they concur. Eventually, the colony concentrates on the new food source.

Seeley himself has found in the collective decision making of the bees an inspiration for democracy. Yet the bee system is far from the simple one-individual, one-vote set-up. If it were, there would be no way for Bee X who has discovered a particularly attractive source of pollen to convince fellow bees that his source truly deserves extra attention. Thus, it is the total passion of the bees, not simply numbers alone that ultimately carries the day.

Of course, every bee wants credit for their find. So there needs to be a countervailing costly mechanism to prevent bees from simply over-promoting any pollen source. Bees must spend a lot of energy to bring their fellows around. Seeley’s research shows that the time they spend on dances grows not linearly but quadratic-ally in proportion to the attractiveness of the site they encountered.

In recent work, one of us (Weyl) has tried to explain how most democracies lack the ability for individuals to express intensity of preference — for example, how much gun ownership matters to gun owners, or the value of Scottish independence or a nuclear deterrent.

Under Quadratic Voting (QV), by contrast, individuals have a vote budget that they can spread around different issues that matter to them in proportion to the value those issues hold for them. And just as with Seeley’s bees, it becomes increasingly costly proportionately to acquire the next unit of influence on one issue.
The other of us, Rory Sutherland, believes that one of the most promising applications of this idea is market research. Consider a firm that wants to learn whether customers care about product attributes like colour, quality, price, and so on.

Rather than simply ask people what they care about — which leads to notoriously inaccurate results, often where people affect strong views just to maximise their individual influence — a business could supply customers with budgets of credits which they then used to vote, in quadratic fashion, for the attributes they want. This forces the group of respondents, like the swarm of bees, to allocate more resources to the options they care most about. An organisation can thus learn the nuanced collective intelligence of its users.

Smith was inspired by Mandeville’s bees to use markets to shape self-interest towards social good. We can similarly turn to this other social species for inspiration as we collaborate to help make collective decisions about policies which will better reflect the needs and desires of the public. If you want a better system of voting, the bees have it. When Winston Churchill said that democracy was “the worst form of government, except all the others which have been tried”, he was nearly right: but he failed to consider his Chartwell hives.

By arrangement with the Spectator

( Source : dc )
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