deletedJul 8, 2023·edited Jul 8, 2023
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deletedJul 8, 2023·edited Jul 8, 2023
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Even if legislative votes were to become secret, legislators would make it known what their preferences were and the price of their support.

For that matter, even though electoral ballots are formally secret, legislators and political parties know full well who their constituents are, who is wavering, who supports their opponents, and what the respective goals and priorities of those constituencies are.

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One worry is that you could have Machiavellian politicians who lie about what they suppprt to get votes.

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Another related point I recently saw discussed (https://philarchive.org/rec/NGUTIS) is that expert judgment works best when not second-guessed. When it is exercised in public, it tends to get dumbed down to the thing the non-expert would have done.

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I once had a conversation with a 20yo college libertarian. He was very passionately trying to convince me that the world would be so much better if literally everything was privately owned. Private water and private air, private rivers and private oceans, private police and private military. And the argument does seem appealing, in the "streamline everything" sort of way, but only if you don’t ask any questions about any of the details.

I get the same feeling here. "If government proceedings are private, then lobbyists will have no way to know whether a senator they paid off has done what he was paid to do." Huh? This makes sense as long as you spend no more than 0 seconds thinking about it.

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Jul 8, 2023·edited Jul 8, 2023

A lot of things changed in the 1960s and 1970s. Attributing them to sunshine laws via graphs is not an adequate attribution, unless you control for the enormous range of confounding. For example, what about economic policy? Laughably, we could claim using the same graphs we ought to go back to the gold standard (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixon_shock).

Furthermore, grandstanding idiocy took place before sunshine laws and after. If we are playing a game of correlation = causation, then it can go both ways. See the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and then the legislative response (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Tonkin_incident) which needlessly enmeshed the US further into Vietnam. How could this happen if the lack of sunshine laws truly protected politicians from the invidious influence of public inspection?

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I wonder if there's other ways you could test that. For instance, pick some local government official, as a totally made up example, say, sherriff, or whoever is in charge of the local-government-owned municipal utility. I imagine for at least some particular office, in some states that's an elected position, and in other states it's an appointed position. I wonder what you could determine by comparing the behavior of elected officials who are appointed versus elected, but have more or less the same duties. Or elected local officials that have approximately similar duties but have very different levels of public visibility on their deliberations/choices. Might be tough to control for all the variables in play, but seems like it would be a way to get at this sort of question.

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Can someone explain why special interest groups and industry groups (i.e. money in politics) don't fall into the "allowed exceptions" under "Some individuals have no interest in politics, and no wrong is done to them if they have less influence than individuals that are very interested in politics." And "Some individuals have technical expertise in a particular area such as nuclear power or human behavior. They ought to have more influence than the lay public on those issues."

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Making congressional votes secret, might make it hard to buy a congressman's vote, but if most of the influence comes from power to influence what goes into a bill, basically no amount of secrecy will stop them from saying "please make sure that the following language [...] ends up in the bill". If the bill ends up with that language (and they didn't give the same instructions to anyone else on the relevant committee), they can be pretty sure that it was their agent's work.

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I take the point that transparency isn't any sort of cure all, but I have a strong suspicion that politicians would find a way to communicate how they voted on particular legislation if there was money at stake.

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Jul 8, 2023·edited Jul 8, 2023

Hm. Throat-clearing first: I spent the better part of a decade as CTO of the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency-focused nonprofit in DC. During that time I hired/was the boss of Lee Drutman while he wrote http://leedrutman.org/the-business-of-america-is-lobbying, which I recommend. Much of our organization's work focused on money in politics, through both the lenses of investigative and data journalism; as well as general pro-transparency measures like scraping federal and state bills and exposing the normalized data through apps and APIs. I currently work in DC for a non-gigantic software company as head of policy, and while legislative lobbying is only a small part of the work I do, it is something I have done a fair amount of over the years through lobby days, work with individual offices, testimony, coalition letters, and saying hello to staffers while collecting free sandwiches at New America events.

My time at Sunlight was highly educational and only mildly disillusioning. I learned a lot about transparency and its limits. This piece is right that fully transparent processes often lose their value as their original functions are overwhelmed by performative concerns (most committee hearings should probably not be broadcast, imo; calls to put cameras in SCOTUS are a bad idea unless we're collectively writing that institution off and trying to speed things along). I also agree that providing the electorate with better information is probably not a realistic path to significantly better outcomes. But this account falls short in a few ways.

First, it underestimates the opacity currently available to legislators. Legislative language is generally drafted behind closed doors, often during a process of negotiation with potential cosponsors. If a bill is meant for more than signaling purposes, coordination with leadership and across the caucus is inevitable. In many cases leadership will also try to organize votes in ways that enable vulnerable members to avoid taking stances that will cause them problems. But this is usually about avoiding attack lines in future TV spots more so than obscuring their activity from funders. Because...

Second, this account overestimates the practicality of opacity. Legislative activity is carried out by hordes of staffers, many of whom later go work for trade groups, lobby shops and other influence operations. A big part of those people's jobs involves maintaining relationships and the flow of information that they enable. It's true that legislators themselves can occasionally act in surprising ways. But the imagined opacity-enabled defection scenarios discussed here are game theory daydreaming, not anything close to how Congress actually works.

Third, the influence ecosystem is more complicated than is being imagined here. At the nonprofit we were <em>highly</em> incentivized to find stark quid pro quos. But these are quite rare (I still think fondly of Duke Cunningham's handwritten grift receipt). Generally, money reifies relationships and preferences that already exist. It doesn't twist a legislator's preferences; it finds and empowers the potential legislator, out of a field of many, whose preferences are aligned. It doesn't get an obviously corrupt measure added, but it surfaces a plausible concern that might otherwise be ignored (and perhaps should be). And in most cases, its presence reflects the attention of a legitimate and significant political bloc: most commonly an employer (polisci is unambiguous about the primacy of economic conditions to electoral outcomes, after all), but also--particularly with the internet small donor revolution--often just genuine voter passion. It's rare for money to arrive in and influence the system without some substantial and politically legitimate coalition behind it, though of course there are examples (with apologies for the cheap shot, SBF comes to mind).

None of this is to say that I think our current influence ecosystem is good, mind you. It's clearly a wasteful red queen's race, at a minimum. But I don't think it's the case that we've got a bunch of actors who would deliver different results if their actions were less visible. Their actions are already varyingly opaque. Reducing transparency would preference insiders who would inevitably still be able to glean information they need about hypothetical defections, if that was actually how things worked. And the actors are usually more aligned with the influencers--often because they correctly understand their voters' preferences--than it's pleasant to believe.

With all that said: I appreciate this thoughtful post and think the complex effects of transparency are worth considering.

(Those correlation graphs at the end are embarrassing, though, c'mon)

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This makes some great points and has been a significant update for me. However, I'd like to push back on some things:

> If all groups are equally uninformed, loud, well-informed, well-organized special interest groups would no longer have an outsized influence on the political process. It would not be clear which legislators were and were not cooperating, so there would be no information for the members of the interest group to act on.

This argument only seems to apply to coercion, not to persuasion.

When an issue has concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, I imagine politicians will tend to hear more and better arguments in favor than against, and may come to incorrectly-but-honestly *believe* that something is a good idea, due this bias in the information they receive. This would still give special interest groups an outsized influence (though perhaps less of one than they have now).

> Anticipatory representation is, however, fully consistent with opacity.

This only seems true for a very extreme and crude form of anticipatory representation. Opacity does still allow you to say "in hindsight, this new law made our lives worse, so let's throw out all the politicians who presided over it". However, it does NOT allow you to say "in hindsight, this new law made our lives worse, so let's throw out the politicians who supported it but keep the politicians who tried to stop it."

This seems like a pretty substantial reduction in the effectiveness of anticipatory representation to me. Or at least, a substantial reduction in its *potential* effectiveness; I could perhaps be persuaded by data that the extreme and crude version is the only one that the public actually does.

(One could declare that they are defining the category "anticipatory representation" to not include the cases that are being lost, but those cases absolutely do not fit into either of the other categories you defined, so if one did that then one'd need to add a new category for them.)

> Unfortunately, [transcript accountability] would come at the cost of removing all the benefits of secret deliberation. We actually have a natural experiment to demonstrate this. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has always deliberated in secret, but in 1993 started to release transcripts of their meetings on a 5-year delay.

I broadly agree that releasing transcripts __soon enough to let voters directly act on them__ directly undermines the whole point of secret deliberations, but it still seems like an obvious good idea to release them after a LONG delay, like maybe 50 years.

I don't think this would appreciably help with accountability, but it would be good for historians, it potentially acts as a weak-but-nonzero safeguard against the legislature becoming permanently corrupt, and it seems harmless if you set the delay high enough.

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> (p2) the quality of their argument

Depends what you mean by quality. I want lots of influence given to asymmetrical weapons but I want to minimize the influence of symmetrical weapons. https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/03/24/guided-by-the-beauty-of-our-weapons/

An argument can be "better" in the sense of being more persuasive even if it only uses symmetrical weapons, but that's not the kind of "quality" I'd like to give influence to.

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Interesting review. In particular the concluding comments.

Let me as a contrast give an entertaining example of how high-level politics is carried out in Sweden, which is a rather different type of democracy than the US. (Sweden is sometimes uncharitably described as a someone-has-talked-together democracy.)

Sweden did something dramatic in the mid-1990s: The government totally revised - and significantly scaled down - its old age pension system. It is an interesting story from a US perspective, and should be for ACX readers more generally, since trying to do something with the US social security system is regarded by everyone as the "third rail" of US politics: Touch that, and you are dead. How did the Swedes none the less succeed, also with no-one protesting in the streets (compare that also to the recent modest pension retrenchment poor old Macron barely managed to squeeze through the French political system). Here is the story, including (translated) quotes from Urban Lundberg, a Swedish historian who interviewed key actors and analysed the process:

The Swedish pension reform was facilitated by a high-level, interparty working group which met between 1992 and 1994 and prepared the reform proposal. Lundberg describes the working arrangement as follows:

"The will to compromise was apparent in the way the pension committee worked, which in my interviews was described as very close/confidential ("fortroendefull"). The idea was first to agree in the committee. Then the agreement should be anchored in the respective party leaderships. Only after that should mass media and the general public be informed. [The shared opinion was that] No one would win on a new principled fight over pensions. Thus the desire was for any price to keep the discussions of the working group away from the public. Even the internal discussions in the parties were held under strict control....Officially the committee did not work to create a new system but to "reform" "improve" and "modernise" the old. The Social Democrats made this an absolute condition for even considering participating in the committee. It was strictly ruled out even for the Conservatives to say something different." (p 30-31, own translation from Lundberg).

Within-group psychology also played a part in bringing about the path-breaking pension outcome. It turned out that the members representing the two most antagonistic parties, the Social Democrats (Anna Hedborg) and the Conservatives (Margit Genser), liked each other. Lundberg interviewed Anna Hedborg:

"I think it played a role that Margit Genser represented the Conservatives. She is a very independent and systematic person. She loves logic. If you challenge her with a very logical line of reasoning she cannot resist it - and I am a little like that too. Könberg [representing the Liberal party] is also a bit like that. We are all very issue oriented, somewhat engineering types...Somehow I thing it was a very lucky mix of persons. Both that we were the persons we were and then not more than us." (quote from Lundberg 2001, 32; own translation)

Lundberg argues that this favourable personal chemistry created a "we" identity among the committee members, and made them define the situation so that "we" have to convince "them" (the leaders of the respective parties) that "we" are right. This bonding between high-level committee members, making them present a united front vis a vis outsiders, is rare even in Scandinavian politics. In probably helped bring about the path-breaking outcome.

The general take-home point is that elite-elite interaction during a political reform phase involves a complex social process, where actors must find out if they can trust opponents to stick to informal deals. The core structure resembles an assurance game. Each elite will be wary if they can trust other elites to cooperate, rather than to defect and reap the benefits of attracting disaffected voters. Reputations for being cooperative or uncooperative (which depend on political culture and traditions) act as signals in this game. In addition to reputations, elites can employ strategies such as self-binding (publicly announcing their intentions), bonding and reputation-building (e.g. engage in joint committees) to signal their intentions to other players (where deception may also be part of the game). It must be borne in mind that the world of elite politics is somewhat similar to a village community, in the sense that most people know each other and expect to meet and interact also the day after the reform. Hence social controls (including the risk of social ostracism) discourage disloyal behaviour, and help make informal agreements stick.


Lundberg, Urban (2001) Socialdemokratin och 1990-talets pensionsreform. [Social democracy and the 1990s pension reform.] In Joakim Palme (ed): Hur blev den stora kompromissen möjlig? [How was the big compromise possible?] Stockholm: Pensionsforum.

See also:

Lijphart A. 2001. The pros and cons - but mainly pros - of consensus democracy. Acta Sociologica vol 36, p. 129 - 139.

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The opening focus on votes is a bit unfortunate because the later discussion of lobbying dynamics reveals that votes are a minor issue. If an approach based on secrecy were to be really beneficial, it would need to involve secrecy at all stages of drafting and passing legislation. But not only would this require a sweep of other unrealistic changes to the political process to even attempt to secure confidence and accountability, it also starts from a naive belief that politicians who are 'free' (in Bentham's sense) would act more in alignment with public interest. The reality is that our social and economic structures drive a lot of unpopular policy making; lobbying might grease the wheels and get certain things prioritized but much of the same legislation would get passed anyway.

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I don't mean to be flippant, but I cannot get past this citation:

(Ansolabehere et al. 2003:116)

I can't read the rest until I understand and pronounce that name and I already gave up. Is that real?

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We say that the influence of special interest groups and wealthy individuals is a violation of political equality, where "a democratic society realizes political equality if and only if influence on political decisions is insulated from features of persons other than (p1) their desire to participate in politics, (p2) the quality of their argument, (p3) their relevant expertise, or (p4) their unique position to advocate a particular cause".

But how do we know that special interest groups and wealthy people aren't disproportionately high on (p1), (p2), and (p3), in which case they should disproportionately influence politics? Maybe what we want is not political equality (which we may have in some sense today) but more power taking the side of issues that we're on?

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As my Substack points out today, there is NO transparency of real-time (meaning within two days of) Congressional actions. To get such data, you have to pay between $4800 and $9000. dollars. There are reasons for this. There are real legislators causing the lack of transparency. If we want to endeavor toward mental health, we should first find a way of putting our feet on the ground. Then Scott et al can bring in as many charts as he'd like.

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Democracy is indeed dying in darkness, because real legislators are doing thiings in real time (even in the last four weeks) to hide transcriptions of live Congressional hearings. These people have names and their actions can be empirically traced. I have no idea why this thread isn't connected to any on the gound realities.

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see Extra! Extra! Read All About It-- for Only $9,000

Why Democracy in America Has Been Hobbled by President Biden and Ironically by the Very Democratic Senators Who Most Recently and Most Fiercely Told You They'd Promote Transparency


JUL 7, 2023

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Many good points here, but I couldn't quite get through it. Am I an outlier in having a deep aversion to the misuse of the term "terrorism"? Threatening to shift one's influence to the opposing party might be reasonably called intimidation, but even that would be stretching the point in the context of professional political machinations.

I live near D.C., and the local joke is "Drive North till you smell it, then East till you step in it." Politics is their full-time job, and they all understand the nature of the transactions in question.

"Terrorism"? ... you lost me completely there.

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>Kogelmann also cites the problem of asymmetric information. The problem is essentially that interest groups tend to form around issues that have concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. This incentivizes a small, well-organized minority to spend a lot of time and energy monitoring Congress, usually pushing policies that do not benefit the majority.

This whole section seems to boil down to "people being heavily and passionately involved in politics around issues they are knowledgeable and care strongly about is bad".

You highlight the NRA and Corn Subsidies, and conclude they are bad because nra positions (not expanded on) are unpopular, and because corn policies don't benefit the majority.

I struggle to think of any policy that actually benefits the majority. The civil rights movement? All about helping minorities. Welfare? Most people aren't on it. National Parks? Waste of money maintaining wilderness far away from me I will never see.

I don't think that a policy should be disregarded just because it doesn't, in a vacuum, benefit everybody. The government is an amalgam of millions of policies that don't all touch everybody, but everybody gets something. Further, I don't think a policy is bad just because it is "objectively unpopular". If something is supported by people who ar knowledgeable and care strongly about it, but doesn't fare as well when the general public hears a 5 second blurb and makes a first impression opinion, we shouldn't just automatically fight those in the know.

People too lazy or apathetic to actively involve themselves in politics have only themselves to blame. Why would we handicap people who actualy want to spend their time working to make the country we all share a better place?

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Those graphs are American only, right? I've never seen any similar information coming out of European countries. Now this could mean that nobody's taken the data from those countries yet - but it could also mean it's an America-specific problem (likely an impact of congressional lobbying being far more advanced over on your side of the Atlantic).

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Mmm. I think it is fairly clear that secret voting would *decrease* the influence of lobbyists somewhat. It wouldn't eliminate it. One obvious tactic would be that lobbyists could simply find people who genuinely hold views helpful to them, and finance their campaigns. Because the candidate's position is genuine and idealogical, lobbyists wouldn't be worried about them defecting, even if they couldn't track their votes. Indeed lobbyists already do this.

I am more worried than the author of the book and this review about the downsides of secret voting. If we have no idea how any representative actually votes, we are essentially voting for plausible, charismatic, good speakers. None of these are obviously desirable attributes in a decision maker.

Policy jurys (where all legilslature votes are carried out (in secret) by a randomly selected jury of the general population) both eliminate lobbying (or very nearly so), and retain the legitimacy of votes by tying them directly to the electorate's wishes. Of course they have problems of their own (if you like the idea of representatives being experts with better understanding than the electorate, you lose that), and no one has ever actually tried them on a large scale.

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"Legislators’ votes in committee used to be secret"

But was there much uncertainty in 1958 among lobbyists how Senator Johnson voted on the corn bill in committee?

It sees like the Australian ballot is secret mostly because it's too much work per ballot to figure out how each voter voted from talking to them and to people they know. In contrast, there are only 100 Senators and 435 Reps so it would pay lobbyists to figure out who is voting how with a high degree of accuracy.

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These ideas don't seem novel. When was the book published and what is the full name of the author? Really feel like a book review should include those details upfront.

Meg Greenfield's _Washington_, from 2002, is a very insightful book about the trade-offs between transparency and opacity in congress. It mostly laments losing the latter, when smoke-filled rooms free from the press allowed for horse-trading. That book is full of salient anecdotes across many decades. I'd argue it is a much better book than whatever book this review was about, but I don't feel like I got to know this book very well.

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It feels like this account of money in politics is undertheorised.

Firstly, "political equality" may entail that individuals with more money are not entitled to extra political influence, but this does not seem to carry across straightforwardly to interest groups. We do want the tech industry to have more influence on government than the tallow manufacturing industry, precisely because there's more money there, so its interests matter more.

Secondly, it's important to differentiate between a concentrated interest getting outsized political influence due to co-ordination issues, and a minority group with deeply felt feelings about an issue. There are millions of individual gun owners in the USA, that's a classic diffuse interest, and to the extent the NRA has persuaded them that guns are a vital interest that should determine their vote, that's classic democratic politics.

Thirdly, threatening to run advertising against a candidate as retaliation seems legitimate and indeed desirable. If Sen. Whitehouse wants to vote against the interests of the fossil fuel industry, they are performing a public service by pointing that out. The Senator's real problem is that "Whitehouse Hates Coal" is a slogan that will cost him more votes than it wins him.

Finally, the reason to control legislators is not just to prevent them voting their self-interest. It is to prevent them having sufficient "slack" as to vote their (necessarily narrow, unrepresentative) conception of the public interest, at the expense of the public's view. The whole reason these lobbying groups exist is because there are lots of broad interests that don't get naturally represented in the legislature.

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Interesting throughout, though too dry to "win". From my German view: a) Bismarck said:"Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." really famous quote here. b) many votes in parliament are secret, but mostly they are strictly along party-lines. Which is fine as we vote for parties, not politicians, really. Following voting patterns of a single politician seems pointless - his party will take care, undoubtedly. - c) Rarely only (abortion/euthanasia), a vote is declared "free" - and the CDU-guy may vote NO while his party leader votes YES. And the SPD-lady YES. Even then, the vote is usu. secret. - d) Most fun are moments, when all in a party/coalition vowed to vote YES - and one defects anonymously (Heide Simonis in 2005: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heide_Simonis ) Or an unloved candidate overplays her hand: Andrea Ypsilanti (the dissenters were pushed to take a handy-pic of their vote to proof they did not secretly dissent. They did then choose to dissent publicly as well.) - Seems Bismarck was kinda right all along.

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"the agenda that I’m trying to push with this post."

I'm glad the reviewer admits to having an agenda; this is more transparent for them than however they are serving the book, which they admit doesn't help the point they want to make.

The issue with transparency, or the lack of it, is that:

(1) We've had non-transparent public voting. We've seen how that goes, from rotten boroughs to the scene Dickens exaggerates about the election in Eatanswill:


"In this chapter, Mr. Pickwick and his friends visit the town of Eatanswill while it is in the throes of an election. The two political parties are the "Blues" and the "Buffs," each party being represented by a partisan newspaper. The town populace is divided equally between the parties, and the agents for the candidates use all their wiles, including bribery and drink and other underhanded means, to win votes from townspeople in the opposing camp.

...After the speeches of the two candidates were given, each promising his utmost to do everything in his power to benefit Eatanswill, the mayor called for a show of hands and declared the Honourable Samuel Slumkey the winner. Mr. Fizkin demanded a poll which then took place amid much frenzy and inebriation. Ultimately, the Honourable Samuel Slumkey was indeed declared the victor."


"The young radical Charles Dickens sums up his derisive attitude towards electioneering even in the name of the fictitious East Anglian borough holding the bye-election: Eatanswill (eat-and-swill). The twenty-year-old former parliamentary reporter's take on the nation's much trumped up representative democracy involves underscoring its follies, rather than, like Hogarth's scathingly satirical scenes in The Humours of an Election (1754-55), exposing its hypocrisy and immorality. As Bruce Kinzer states regarding the continuity of dubious election practices after the passage of the Great Reform Bill in 1832, "Heightened party conflict and the persistence of bribery and treating (plying electors with food and drink) meant that the cost of contesting elections remained high", ensuring that the wealthy (the traditional aristocracy and the newly rich industrial capitalists) would continue to control election outcomes."

The secret ballot is also open to accusations of fraud, ballot stuffing and the like, but at least we've tried the opposite method and we know why it doesn't work.

(2) It's not following Congress or the Dáil or Parliament that is the problem. People know about the laws getting passed, or not passed, as they come to affect them. Televised proceedings are transparent and have shown how few representatives bother to turn up, how long-winded and technical the proceedings are, and how honestly it really is boring to watch the sausage being made.

We also know about "the room where it happens", the "smoke-filled back rooms" and so on, where we the public assume most of the dealing is done. We know about lobbyists and special interests. We know about the pork barrel, and most of us don't mind that so long as our town gets jobs and money out of it, and to heck with the rest of the country.

People are rather suspicious of local representatives that get elected and then decide, once they arrive in Congress or the Dáil or Parliament, that their job is to be statesmen and look after the good of the nation and worry about their place in history. We voted you in to look after us first.

The problem is that we don't get to see the room where it happens, where the deals are done. Then outrage happens when scandals about cosy arrangments and 'tit for tat' deals where I scratch your back and you scratch mine and one hand washes another. Outrage about the Covid parties (and that happened in most countries, it looks like) where the general public were being cajoled, coerced, lectured and forbidden from free movement or association, where you couldn't go visit your sick granny in the hosital, where you had to stay masked in separate rooms and be treated as the next thing to a leper if you tested positive. Meanwhile, our leaders who imposed such restrictions were packing in the tables close together for their supporters (meaning the moneybags donors) at parties and celebrations and functions to beat the band, because the rules are only for the little people.

They forget that they are public representatives, which means servants of the public. They are voted in to represent us and our interests, and they are our employees. They don't get to go for "I went for a drive to test my eyesight" in the middle of a lockdown they agitated for, and that in this case it was unelected advisors who did it was really stoking the outrage.

SPADS, special advisors, little friends - all the unelected ones with the whore's prerogative:


There's enough of that already, without giving even more anonymity and lack of accountability to them.

See the recent mini-scandal about the national public broadcaster in my country, which is funded by a combination of public money (the licence fee) and advertising revenue. It eventually came out that at least one of the 'stars' (in their own inflated opinions) was being paid over and above the public salary figures given out, and that there was a lot of under the table money being passed around (e.g. the five grand for flip-flops).



I very much doubt he's the only one, and it's likely this was going on for years. The people involved all treated it as their own little club where they paid off each other, and didn't even consider their fiscal responsibility. And it would still be going on if it hadn't been exposed mostly by accident.

*This* is why the unwashed masses want transparency: because you can't trust any of the bastards.

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Three points:

1. The people get a secret vote while the legislators must be public because the legislators are the servants of the people and not the other way around. Would you hire someone and allow a stipulation that you could not check on their work?

2. The policy for large lobbyists now is to pay all sides to gain influence. They have enough money and there are few enough legislators to do this. They likely will pay one side more - so they can say to the other, "If you move towards me I will change this." This will not change by adding secrecy.

3. Proportional representation just makes it harder to get rid of legislators, because they're then (partially or wholly) picked from a list of party hacks, rather than politicians who actually have to get out amongst the people and can be fired by concentrated effort. Their job is then to satisfy the party only.

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This was a pretty good review to read.

Having working on the Hill in the late 70s, I have some fly on wall knowledge another aspect of secrecy in "negotiation" - the horse trading and the whipping process.

The book seems to focus on the legislative branch. I wonder about the judicial process. US is essentially the only country in world with grand jury process and it's secrecy. (Maybe Liberia too?). I'm conflicted.

At trial juries deliberate in secret, but may be polled after verdict to confirm unanimity.

Settlement negotiations and plea deal negotiations are done in secret.

I detest settlements that are sealed.

I'm not sure how I feel about cameras in courtrooms, but I think that courtrooms must be open to the public. I do appreciate live audio access. Audio access seems to give the necessary transparency without the spectacle.

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Minor correction: Sheldon Whitehouse is a current Senator, not a former Senator.

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Isn't political equality the assumption that swallows the argument? With the right definition of political equality, one could justify virtually any system of government!

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I don't think this fully grapples with the logic behind the secret ballot. Look around the world (starting around the time nominal republics came to displace unconstitutional monarchies) and see how often a single political party or dictator gets entrenched in power. Without a secret ballot it's very hard for anyone to "vote the bastards out"*, as they will be punished by the incumbent. It's true that politicians today may feel "terror" at the hands of voters, but it's not comparable to the threat governments can impose on their citizens and it hasn't resulted in a single party being dominant.

*That requirement is why Popper rejected proportional representation in favor of first-past-the-post.

> Some are highly articulate and can shape political discourse around their ideas. It would be undesirable and probably impossible to try to deny outsized influence to thought leaders.

The Athenians would disagree, hence sortition.

> The legislator can promise up and down to vote in favor of that amendment, but will have no way to actually prove it. With no way to verify that the exchange took place, the lobbyist would soon give up.

A legislator who has announced his retirement is ending the iterated game described and cannot receive more campaign contributions or "bank" more reputation by doing lobbyist bidding. Studies have been done on how such legislators behave in their last term. Garett Jones is aware of them. Is Kogelmann?

I don't see what proportional representation has to do with the Philadelphia Convention. Political parties as we know them know didn't really exist back then, so there were no parties to be proportionally represented. The fact that the right to vote wasn't extended nearly as far back then as it is now is entirely separate from how those votes translate into representatives.

> Transparency is supposed to increase trust in government, but according to this study by Pew [url], trust in government did not increase and arguably decreased after the 1970s transparency reforms.

This reminds me of Matt Yglesias on the media: many people falsely believe the media was more trustworthy in the past, though we know now they deliberately kept the public in the dark about many things. It's just that now with the rise in transparency & decline in gatekeepers we get more info on media (and government) failings.


In both cases there is the sense that the real problem is the people:


And once one inculcates that it's hard to maintain democratic idealism (related to what Dan Klein calls the "Romance of the People"). But you can't dissolve the people to replace them with another, and it's hard to reform a democratic system to be deliberately less democratic (perhaps 10%, per Garett Jones). The proposed reform of secrecy here would seem to remove the actual purported benefit of democracy, in which case one could just go to 0%.

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I wonder if making campaign contributions cash or in-kind anonymous might not help.

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Seems incredibly naive to think that the problem of lobbying could be solved by simply closing meetings. Lobbyists would still have relationships with the reps, would receive reports from their friends on the substance of closed sessions, and of course, can still observe the outcomes, for just a couple objections that would seem to be enough to nullify the argument.

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I found this very unconvinciing. Lots of comments above have already noted that lobbyists/insiders generally would quickly figure out which legislators vote which way, but I don't think anyone has very explicitly mentioned the reason: there are very few of them. When there are only a few hundred votes up for grabs, experienced political actors literally tally every one. That doesn't happen in constituencies with tens of thousands of voters (though beware, big data will figure it out, and may already know how you vote).

The whole lobbying/special interest groups argument just seems very naive. The book/review author seem to think that if the special interest group have some difficulty identifying exactly who voted on which bill because of a secret ballot, that they will just pack up and go home? Why? Even the analogy with the secret ballot for elections doesn't support this idea. Do politicians not campaign because they are unable to identify which way specific voters vote? No, they just campaign in a slightly different way...

I think the idea of enabling legislators to speak more freely is misconceived as well. I don't want my legislator to speak freely. I want her to be tightly constrained by the requirements of truth, specialist knowledge, and representing my interest. In particular, I don't want my vote for a legislator to mean that that person can go to Westminster/Washington and do what the hell she likes. I see the voters as hiring a legislator for specific job, and she should not be speaking outside the bounds of that job.

I dunno, this rubbed me up the wrong way all over... which perhaps means that I should spend some time thinking harder about it. Maybe there's something there that I'm missing.

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I disagree with the claim that the reason citizens elect representatives is because of their difference in opinion. I want my representatives to make decisions on issues where I have no opinion because I don't have the time or expertise to form one (like "What interest rate should the central bank have?"), but on issues where I do have an opinion, and there is therefore a possibility for differing opinions, I mostly would prefer they agree with me. This isn't perfect, and I acknowledge probably some of my opinions are wrong, but the first factor (them having opinions where I don't) is much more important.

Generally, this post had some interesting points, but I forgot it was even meant to be a book review until the last paragraph.

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Don't know how this one made the finals, they admit they didn't even finish the book.

>and their every action is extensively documented.<

If this is true, then we know exactly who is lobbying them and how, it'll all be there in the documents.

>Kogelmann argues that we should reject the intuitive appeal of promissory representation because it will inevitably lead to pandering: politicians supporting policies they know to be bad or ineffective because of popular support.<

This is, of course, the heart of the entire argument; we should increase opacity so that we can ignore the desires of the citizens we dislike. All the nonsense about lobbyists is sleight of hand.

>terrorism is an even more effective tactic than bribery. Instead of making a contribution to a legislator to try to get an amendment added, the lobbyist can instead threaten to donate to a primary challenger<

Telling the store owner if they don't refund you you'll be shopping elsewhere; you know, terrorism.

>In theory, proportional representation should reduce the legitimacy gap. If any viewpoint large enough to constitute a minor political party is given at least one seat at the table, we have good reason to believe that that viewpoint will be considered in debate. <

No you don't. Why would you? You just said women and slaves were ignored in the Philadelphia Convention, and they surely had more people holding their viewpoint than your imagined one-seat party. Or is the argument that the one seat will be able to tell everyone that they were ignored? You know; transparency?

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The book and the review have better logic than most of the comments.

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This strikes me as the old problem of comparing an imperfect implementation of one system to a perfect theory of another. I cannot imagine a world where sufficiently motivated lobbyists couldn't discover or predict how their legislators voted. In such a system we've just introduced yet another inequity between interest groups and the general public.

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As other posters have written, the comparisons to the pre and post-1970s are laughable. So many things changed during that time period that you can't show causation this way. Also, having a few committee votes be secret is very different than the kind of total secrecy the book seems to be advocating.

The basic assumption here that evil (?) moneyed interests can only influence legislators by rewarding or punishing them for votes is false. In general, people with money can influence politics in many ways. George Soros got a lot of soft on crime DAs elected, just by contributing to their election campaigns. On the right, the Koch brothers have done similar things. Basically, if voters can choose to vote for candidates based on "the kind of people they are" then people with money can choose to donate based on that as well.

In general, I would expect high-status people to learn all the "secrets" anyway. There are hundreds of people in the legislature, and each of those people has a small army of staffers, IT techs, whatevers. If you can convince even one of those hundreds (maybe thousands) of people to spill the beans about what someone said in the supposedly secret session, all the benefits of secrecy evaporate. We could very easily end up in a situation where titans of industry and the head of the FBI know how all the congressmen voted, but the general public does not. Seems pretty dystopian to me.

In general, I think people overestimate the dangers of "money in politics" and underestimate the dangers of the creeping hollowing out of democratic institutions in favor of bureaucratic ones. We already live in a hybrid system where the director of the SEC can wage a private war on cryptocurrency with nary a voter or a new law in sight. Similar things could be said for many agencies, especially the intelligence ones. Rather than worrying about money in politics, we should worry about whether Congress is even relevant in 2023.

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This is a very good case for choosing a legislature by sortition, so that they can legitimately deliberate in secret like a jury. It is a terrible case for secret deliberations by elected representatives: it will select for a group of legislators even more sociopathic than the ones we have, people who are unusually adept at hiding their true preferences and blaming others for their misdeeds. Proportional representation is a very poor substitute for sortition here, since it still empowers political parties, and success within a party will still be unrelated to actual voting behavior and thus select for the same kinds of sociopaths. The root of the problems he is trying to address is the badness of elections: either making elections less bad, or making government less dependent on elections, are promising solutions, but making elections worse by removing electoral accountability is not.

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Secrecy would not stop lobbying or even slow it down much. As this review notes, lobbyists care more about the amendment process than the final vote. The lobbyists are totally certain who introduced their amendment, because they're the ones who wrote the amendment and gave it to the congressman!

I'll give another example from my personal experience. I'm a bureaucrat who has no power whatsoever to make independent decisions: everything I do must be approved by a political appointee. And yet I get lobbied constantly, because the lobbyists know from my job title that I must be the one who talks to the political appointee about certain issues.

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Another one to add to already large pile of Americans trying to come up with a better way of doing democracy while studiously ignoring the fact that many other democracies both, (A) already exist, and, (B) already do it better.

This one at least briefly mentioned the possibility of proportional representation, but then had to throw in a comment about how it was still, apparently, a matter of debate as to whether that is better than first past the post. That made me think: how many states have moved from FPP to PR, and how many have switched in the other direction? I can't think of a single case of the latter (I don't think Greece's bonus system counts as FPP), but dozens of the former.

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I am a huge fan of the political system of Switzerland, and obscurity is one of their main (and unconventional) political principles. It's called "Kollegialitätsprinzip" (principle of collegiality) and says that the government confers secretly, and after their decision all members of the government need to stand in for this decision towards the public.

This is much more remarkable than it would be in other countries because Switzerland does not have coalitions, but rather the government is formed jointly by all major political parties, from left-wing over liberals to the far right-wing.

It's not 100% obscure. For example, each member of the government has a department where they have to be the active part, work out laws, negotiate with the parliament etc., and you usually know how they think about questions concerning their own department. But in general the principle is respected and makes the government much more obscure than in other countries like Germany or the UK.

I have never paid too much attention to this principle of the Swiss system (there are a LOT more unusual and remarkable quirks), but the review made me update that it might be more important than I thought.

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If I ask Sen Senny to add rattlesnake protections to the law, then I can verify the modification is in the law, even if all meetings and votes are secret. Only the law has to be public.

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While I enjoyed reading this, I’m surprised the author of this review resorts to “see correlation? causation!” and seems to totally omit the potential that members of a secret convention wishing to push their agenda would be incentivized to record AND leak recordings from these conventions, if not to the public then at least to the SIGs and elite...which destroys much of the proposed benefits. The essay pushes secrecy as a solution (and there’s merit in trying!), but it does so without discussing or thinking through what new equilibrium might manifest and mitigations one could take.

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The Gilens and Page study is probably not a good proof that the US is an oligarchy. See https://www.vox.com/2016/5/9/11502464/gilens-page-oligarchy-study

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"Important for the current discussion, political equality does not seem to be realized in many modern democracies (despite very high levels of transparency). The classic example of this is the 2014 paper by Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” in which the authors demonstrate that legislators in the United States are highly responsive to the preferences of interest groups and economic elites, but essentially unresponsive to the preferences of average citizens. "

There are at least three scholars from reputable institutions who claim to have refuted this conclusion (link below). I haven't looked into it closely to see who's right or wrong, but I did have a similar objection of my own: the opinions of regular people and elites are highly correlated, so wouldn't you come to the conclusion that elite opinions don't matter if you control for popular support and then plot elite support vs. probability of legislative success, rather than controlling for elite support and then plotting popular support vs. probability of success? The original authors don't do this (as far as I can tell), even though it's an obvious thing to try


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I think secret ballots in the legislative -- paraphrase-able as "The thing which is wrong with Congress is that it is not like Among Us" -- are a terrible idea.

Everyone in Congress wants to advance their own career to some degree, if you don't play to win, you will probably not go much further than a leaflet distributor in politics. At any time, the percentage of Congresspersons whose own career is optimally advanced by making the notional majority succeed is less than 50%. The opposition has the incentive to make the other party fail fast and fail hard. But the backbenchers of the party with the majority would also personally benefit from a spectacular failure ascribed to their party leaders, which will open up prestigious positions for them (if they can hang onto their seat while the voters punish their party).

The rational thing would be to vote against the interests of your own constituents. If your supporters are strongly pro-NRA or pro choice or anything like that, nothing will drive them to the ballot boxes like new laws against their pet interests.

If you don't have attribution to bad decisions (like failure to pass any budget bills), the only thing the voters can do is collectively is replacing all of the legislative. The quality of the legislators will probably change for the worse during each such replacement. After two iterations, I would expect you will mostly get demagogues campaigning on burning the system down.

My model of politics is that during election season, candidates make promises to both the voters and their donors, which may be at odds. The book review makes it sound like a forgone conclusion that when you remove outcome based incentives, the politicians will defect in their alliance with their donors instead of defecting in their alliance with the voters. Call my cynical, but I am doubtful about that. Even when the donors can not control how they vote, they still get preferred access. If you have a diffuse public good on the one hand (like curbing climate change), while you have a very concrete human interest on the other hand (like your golf buddy who worries about the economical sustainability of his company which employs thousands of your constituents), it is very human to pick the concrete particular interest (it is not like climate change killed anyone you know personally, and anyhow the fraction of CO2 emissions your buddy is responsible for will not make a difference anyhow).

"Anticipatory representation", where the smallfolks vote for the incumbent administration if life is good and against them if life is bad is also available to the special interests. Lobbyists can simply reward outcomes instead of voting patterns. The 1%er Interest Group could simply commit to rewarding all the representatives if their tax cuts bill passes. This would be twice as costly for them as just rewarding the ones who voted for them, and also remove the individual selection advantage of corrupt representatives, but still allows for the creation of a misalignment between the personal incentives and the overall effect on the electorate.

The idea that any plenary debate can actually be aimed at finding consent seems absurd. If you have a few hundreds participants, everything remotely interesting will get leaked.

Like presidential debates, college debates and talk shows, parliamentary debates are performed solely for the benefit of the audience. I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument that they are largely obsolete in the age of youtube and podcasts.

The bonmot that "Laws[ ...] like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made" from 1869 feels as true today as it was back then. The horsetrading needed to pass laws a la "I will support your special interest law if you later support mine" is obviously not happening on public record, because such backroom deals -- which I would argue are centrally where the future of the law is decided -- will obviously happen with the smallest viable number of participants.

Of all the suggestions made by this book review, I could maybe get behind the idea to make congressional committee deliberations non-public. I doubt it would help much with big lobbyists figuring out what goes on, though. As the saying goes, three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. If you have instead a comittee of a few dozens, you only have to have a few informants (who are unaware of the identity and number of other informants) to be kept up to date.

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Jul 10, 2023·edited Jul 10, 2023

The issue here is there are three conceptions of what representative democracy’s trying to achieve, and opacity only makes sense for one of them (my made-up names:

1) Substitute Direct Democracy: The ideal is that the policies and laws that are enacted are those which would win a referendum. Direct Democracy on that level is impractical for whatever reason (could be too much going on, equally could be “no one has the time to learn about all this stuff”) so representative democracy is a good enough for government work substitute for either public opinion, or what public opinion would be if the public knew more (but had the same beliefs and preferences).

2) Selective Democracy: We want the best people to make laws, and we want everyone to have a say in selecting the best people.

3) Corporatist Democracy: Different parts of society want different things and have different interests, but we only have one government. The solution is a grand bargain where different groups compromise and get the things they most care about (eg. farmers get price floors in exchange for fishermen getting protective quotas and factory workers getting safety regulations - all of them are a minority on their own so in a direct democracy they’d be sunk). Some of them also have contradictory interests. In parliament, their representatives can all meet up to hammer out a deal. This is much more European than Anglo-Saxon and I’m only including it for completeness, but the US has historically done it to a limited extent between regions.

Opacity is really an argument for 2 over 1; lobbyists will get around it fairly easily, but the public won’t. That means representatives don’t have to pander to voters/can listen to experts/can meaningfully debate and convince each other, which 1 doesn’t want but 2 does (3 probably doesn’t either, but it assumes a different sort of electorate who only/predominantly care about getting their specific priorities). Opacity (which was really killed by the internet, not sunshine laws) is probably the easiest way to shift towards 2, but longer terms, 1-term limits and possibly either indirect elections or approval voting might also work. The main thing would be a cultural shift towards people wanting 2 instead of 1.

My biases are entirely in favour of conception 1, so if I’ve undersold 2 or 3 then I apologise.

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Among the many problems with the proposed system, is that it is based on a simplistically narrow misunderstanding of how lobbying works.

Lobbyists do not simply talk to congressmen and offer them thinly-disguised bribes for votes, whether floor or committee. They also talk to congressional *staff*, both personal and committee. Talk to them, take them out to expense-account lunches, offer to do their homework for them with carefully-prepared white papers on whatever subject those staffers are rushing to become experts in, and offering them high-paying lobbying jobs when their staff term is over.

This is a path to real influence that doesn't require "bribing" congressmen. But it is also a path to *intelligence*. One staffer might not tell a lobbyist everything, might even lie to protect his boss's interests. But talk to a dozen, and you'll know what you need to know. Including who voted for what, if it matters.

The most likely outcome of a "secret" government, is one that is still transparent to lobbyists and other powerful interests, but hidden from the voters. I vote "no".

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There's a hell of a lot of discussion of the USA here, but there are other countries in the world and it would seem informative to examine how they address these issues - eg. proportional representation is the status quo in many countries

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Jul 10, 2023·edited Jul 10, 2023

Strongly disagree.

All your ways of mitigating costs are flawed. Anticipatory legislation doesn't work since people don't know which politicians are voting for the bad thing, and which ones are voting for the right thing. And if things stay bad, they can't tell whether flipping back would make things worse or not, because they have no idea what their elected representative is doing.

Gyroscopic legislation doesn't work since people don't know whether those archetypes will actually votes in those interests. And it would be very profitable for special interest groups to prop up someone in those archetypes who will actually vote against what people suggest.

And this hope that special interest groups won't find out who's defecting seems naive. As another commenter suggested, they can test bribing different groups for different outcomes to test for defections. Hell, a large part of the work special interest groups do is achieved by them directly convincing representatives, not just bribing votes in ways the politicians disagree with.

So many things changed in around 1970 that tying them all to this increased transparency seems wholly unfounded. Do you disagree with the lead hypothesis surrounding increased crime and incarceration, and instead attribute the rise (and later fall) to increased government transparency?

If you want to stop money from influencing politics, consider just limiting donations.

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There's one argument which this piece doesn't address, but is nonetheless quite important. Sometimes politicians don't see the whole picture. It's not malice, it might not even be incompetence, but it's possible to introduce legislation that affects a small and very specific minority (think people without mobile phones, people with a specific disability or condition or believers of a niche religion) in a very significant way. Even in proportional systems, it's impossible to give a seat at the table to all such tiny minorities, and even if it were, it would effectively amount to opening up the debate to anybody who is interested.

If the debate is transparent, even if 99% of citizens don't care, there are a few that do, and those few are often willing to bring the issues up. If we removed transparency for the process, we'd still have to provide some kind of summaries so that people and NGOs would know which viewpoints were considered and rejected and which genuinely were just never thought about.

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One of major reasons why citizens vote in private is to save from the consequences of voting against whosoever ends up being the winner. If the citizens votes are made public, it will incentivize governments to single out the dissenters.

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Jul 10, 2023·edited Jul 10, 2023

I really wish I could get through this but it's just too dry. Can anyone summarize the key takeaways?

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"Some individuals have no interest in politics, and no wrong is done to them if they have less influence than individuals that are very interested in politics. "

I don't have the words to adequately express how false this is.

"If legislators voted by secret ballot, this resolution mechanism would cease to function. Say that a lobbyist makes a contribution to a legislator hoping for an amendment to be inserted into a bill. The legislator can promise up and down to vote in favor of that amendment, but will have no way to actually prove it. With no way to verify that the exchange took place, the lobbyist would soon give up."

Laughably easy to disprove. Why on earth would you suppose a lobbyist would need to rely on public/official sources for information on how votes went? We already have "secret" discussion of all three branches of government leaked to (friendly to the leaker) media and we are supposed to believe that the vote counters/observers will be incorruptible?

"The NRA operates on a similar dynamic. It spends a good deal of its time and money on the task of making sure its members are informed about one particular issue, resulting in policies that are objectively unpopular among Americans."

Strike three.

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"I have only touched on the first three chapters of Kogelmann’s book. The rest is also interesting and worthwhile, but somewhat distracts from the agenda that I’m trying to push with this post."

This contest isn't a partial-book review, Author, nor is it a place to push agendas. On that basis I will not be voting for this review in the final tally and I encourage others to avoid doing so as well.

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I have long been an advocate of actually sequestering the legislators. If it is important enough for a jury trial, it is important enough for running the country. They should be in a fortified bunker with no communications access during session.

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I feel like the take that less transparency would = less interest group influence both unlikely and not necessarily desirable.

First of all, I just find it unlikely that moneyed interests would not come up with ways of influencing legislators with secret votes. Legislators would still come from parties, because parties are one of the main ways we simplify political decision making. Interests groups could buy influence with party leadership, who still need to run and win elections, and then lean on them to elevate "true believers." This is exactly what has happened with the conservative legal movement. There's nothing to stop a given appointed judge from deciding to just become a liberal, but the Federalist society has become very effective at identifying conservative 1L's, rearing them into successful lawyers who agree with the federalist society leadership (and their donors) on >90% of issues, and then getting Republican politicians to appoint them. The same could easily happen in this kind of system.

Second, I'm not totally convinced that special interest groups having influence is a bad thing. When we say "special interest group" we think "bad," but we're all part of one interest group or another. I think the NRA is bad and corn subsidies are silly, but I'm glad that organizations like Planned Parenthood have influence in Washington and like federal grants to public transportation in the Bay Area. Reforms that made interest group influence align more closely with their relative size would be awesome (say, abolishing the senate), but I don't think eliminating influence is necessarily a good thing. I think that the idea of moving to proportional representation is essentially admitting this. You're just going from a system where lobbyists represent groups and lean on legislator to one where the lobbyists are the legislators. Like, instead of the UAW paying a guy a bunch of money to get Hakeem Jeffries to like their bill, they spend a bunch of getting him elected and then he argues for the bill in committee? Maybe that's better, but I honestly don't think its substantially different.

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Identity-based representation makes the problem of gerrymandering much worse, and also disadvantages younger voters who are much less likely to have someone like them in congress.

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What a horrific book this is.

Transparency is bad - secrecy is better - what? The point of transparency is so that interested parties can at least have some possibility of understanding what is really going on in terms of legislative operations.

Nor is the author's/reviewer's understanding of how money corrupts politics, well based in reality. It isn't any one thing - it is everything. For the top tier - throw money on both sides of the donkey/elephant divide. For the next tier - focus on on side. For the next tier down - focus on key states/senators. etc etc.

It isn't just about votes either. Money also brings in consultants ranging from staffers to "free" help pre-writing bills (see ACA).

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Hot take - would a more secret system as proposed work better if there was transparency in how often politicians voted contrary to their public statements? So - we know when politicians frequently lie, but we don't know how they vote on individual committee decisions and in votes on legislation?

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"In order for citizens to hold legislators accountable for their actions, citizens must follow congress, which they do not do."

"Removing the audience allows participants to make mistakes more freely and eliminates the incentive to pontificate and grandstand instead of discussing substantive issues."

These two ideas seem to be in opposition to one another. Either citizens don't care enough to follow the process, or they care too much to get anything done. What gives? I think the way Congressional debate happens in practice takes advantage of both ideas. It's a forum for addressing the public if you're Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Jesse Jackson, AOC, etc. What better place to gain a public name for yourself and ascend to higher office than to blast your principles as broadly as possible.

Alternately, you can bury seemingly important bills in a lot of parliamentary procedure or discussion of minor amendments that you expect to be defanged before passage anyway. While everyone is debating the $5 million amendment that changes a minor point on abortion or guns or whatever, virtually no discussion focuses on the other 1,000 line items from the $2T bill. If ever someone asks why some provision that shunts millions of dollars to ~20 wealthy families for the next 5 years, there will be some minor amendment that an AOC or MTJ can introduce to distract the public.

This means the things that are discussed are either 1.) too idealized/polemic to implement as policy directly, or 2.) too boring to care about. The intent is to only have the public pay attention when you actually want them to pay attention - and to use the spotlight to distract the public and thereby manipulate the effect of 'transparency'.

Yet we still have lots of laws getting passed, and many of them clearly involve complicated debates and compromises. But if Congress is all a big show, where are the debates happening? At dinners/parties/etc. outside the official halls of Congress. In other words, Washington will find a way to deliberate in secret no matter what sunshine policies we put in place. Does it really matter whether that debate happens in a fancy building built by the public or in a fancy building built by private individuals?

I'm not convinced any of the policies proposed would have a measurable impact.

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This is an interesting, if somewhat biased, review of what looks to me like a deeply impractical solution.

Being that there is nothing new under the Sun, and to counteract our tendency to focus on things most recent, it would be useful to consider historical precedent in any discussion of various governmental system models.

Before looking at alternatives we first need to enumerate the key performance indicators to serve as the basis for evaluation. The ones most often heard today are GDP growth, economic inequality, and, less often, national security. This is natural because these KPIs are measurable and and well-known. However, an intense focus on such factors betrays a strong recency bias. In my view, the best indicator of success for a system is its longevity, because longevity implies ability to successfully compete and withstand shocks. Let us consider the most prominent examples.

The system that was most often used by our species would appear to be autocracy. After all, it had persisted for the vast majority of recorded history. Still, a closer look should undermine what might appear to be a strong record informs us that individual autocratic polities tended to have much shorter lives, persisting frequently for mere decades. The most notable exceptions thrived mostly in antiquity and were such household names as the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Roman empires. Notably, the latter two survived longer than 400 years.

A somewhat more successful system in terms of pure longevity has been what I call, for lack of a better term, an oligarchic autocracy. Under oligarchic autocracy the power of the autocrat is significantly constrained by the counterweight of subject grandees. Most of the world-historical empires were organized this way, including Egypt, China, and the Holy Roman. Their record looks impressive, but their success was generally achieved on the backs of long-suffering working populations, and they tended to be vulnerable to frequent change of dynasty and violent upheaval, leading even more suffering.

A point worth noting about the above two systems is the manner of their final dissolution. In every case an end of a long-lived autocracy was disastrous collapse, no matter what revisionist historians will try to tell you.

Direct democracy by this metric does not look good at all - Athenian being the most successful with a lifespan of only about 200 years. Representative democracy did better: the Roman republic endured for about 400 years, depending on how one counts. Both systems succumbed to elite capture before violent demise.

Less frequently discussed is the system of elective autocracy with oligarchic elements. To my knowledge there have been two, one lasting about 300 years and the other exceeding a whopping 1500. This Methuselah of governmental systems was none other than La Serenissima. From the earliest beginnings, her system consisted of a popularly elected autocratic ruler, who notionally had absolute power but in practice was usually obliged to consult with subject grandees, whose support was indispensable to his initial election. After some growing pains, and just in time for Venice’s meteoric rise, the problem of familial capture of the position was resolved, and thereafter the succession had been mostly peaceful and usually went to the best-qualified member of the elite. An important wrinkle of the system was that the doge was liable to be deposed and killed if his policies led to palpable disaster. Judging by the rarity of popular uprising, the system was generally beneficial to Venetian plebes as well, even after they effectively lost the vote. With respect to transparency, deliberations of the ruling council were notionally secret, but in reality all excision-makers were participants with complete information at their disposal.

Perhaps the winning system, should it ever become possible, would be to have an elective autocrat who is subject to deposition and execution following an annual popular vote. After all, few things concentrate the mind more effectively than threat of death. We may recoil before this notion as barbaric, but our descendants may not be so picky.

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I can concede that the drawbacks of transparency sometimes outweigh the drawbacks of secrecy, possibly even most of the time.

However, that hardly means that increasing secrecy is either the best or most feasible solution to today's problems in politics. Let's consider negative ads, for instance:

> The threat is plain: step out of line, and here come the attack ads and the primary challengers

But why do negative campaign ads work in the first place? They work because a vote against my opponent is equivalent to a vote for me. So it works in countries with single-seat districting systems, especially if there is a two party system and first-past-the-post voting system... the U.S. uses all of of this! Take away the two-party system or the single-winner districts, and suddenly negative campaigning is somewhere between worthless and much less effective than positive campaigning.

It's hard to get voters to care enough about the voting system to want it changed. But since transparency (unlike first-past-the-post) is affirmatively popular with voters, It doesn't seem easier to abolish transparency than to abolish single-seat districts.

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Sep 24, 2023·edited Sep 24, 2023

I can concede that the drawbacks of transparency sometimes outweigh the drawbacks of secrecy, possibly even most of the time.

However, that hardly means that increasing secrecy is either the best or most feasible solution to today's problems in politics. Let's consider negative ads, for instance:

> The threat is plain: step out of line, and here come the attack ads and the primary challengers

But why do negative campaign ads work in the first place? They work because a vote against my opponent is equivalent to a vote for me. So it works in countries with single-seat districting systems, especially if there is a two party system and first-past-the-post voting system... the U.S. uses all of of this! Take away the two-party system or the single-winner districts, and suddenly negative campaigning is somewhere between worthless and much less effective than positive campaigning.

It's hard to get voters to care enough about the voting system to want it changed (and when they do campaign to change it, for some reason they often ask for only a minor improvement, such as Instant Runoff Voting in single-seat districts). But since transparency (unlike first-past-the-post) is affirmatively popular with voters, It doesn't seem easier to abolish transparency than to abolish single-seat districts.

> The complete solution he proposes is proportional representation.

Does Kogelman really stress the value of opacity above that of proportional representation, as this review seems to imply? This part makes me wonder.

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