Election Science
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Election Science

ends vs means

i think an under-appreciated distinction in politics is the focus on ends vs means. while people have legitimate disagreements about the ideal state of the world, there’s a lot we all agree about in terms of the end state of things. we all want safety and prosperity. we want our children to be happy and healthy. we don’t want the mentally ill to simply die on the streets.

this applies even to outwardly controversial topics like school shootings. gun rights advocates don’t want school shootings. but many of them genuinely believe that gun regulations aren’t the solution. so this is less a disagreement about the state of the world we’d like to achieve, but about means to get there.

the thing i want us to recognize about this distinction is that one of these concerns (ends) is subjective whereas the other (means) is objective. that is, we might disagree about whether it’s important to stop school shootings, but some policies are going to work better than others at decreasing their frequency—objectively. we may disagree about which policies will work, because we can’t perfectly simulate and predict the impact of various policies. but at least the means are in principal objective, and thus subject to inspection using logic and empirical data.


i believe there’s a direct connection between this ends-vs-means issue and the seemingly unrelated issue of political diversity. an oft-discussed concept in the realm of political reform is the notion of proportional representation (PR). the idea with PR is that elected representatives should reflect the diversity of the citizens they represent.

i want to highlight an insight that the diversity PR ostensibly seeks can apply both to our subjective ends-based goals, as well as to our objective means-based goals. this is crucially important in evaluating the merits of PR, or more specifically of various kinds of PR as compared to non-proportional voting methods.

i’ve long bristled at the capacity for PR to give representation to various “extreme” views, both on the right as well as the left. particularly with regard to economic policy, i believe both the left and the right hold fundamentally inaccurate models of the world. i believe that the ideal is optimal taxation theory—essentially a “free market welfare state”, in which there are few market interventions (e.g. rent control, minimum wage, prohibitions on emailing employees over the weekend, etc.), but the government redistributes wealth to create a social safety net via a negative income tax (essentially a universal basic income or UBI), and addresses market failures such as monopolies and negative externalities (e.g. carbon taxes).

unfortunately, the right tends to reject the redistributive welfare state, while the left tends to support distortionary interventions based on what might be called the “proximity fallacy” (e.g. minimum wage effectively taxes your employer to pay you above the market rate of your labor, rather than simply taxing all of society to provide you with NIT/UBI).

there are multiple objective mathematically provable flaws in the thinking of both camps. yet PR gives both camps ample representation. ergo i believe ideal economic policy (and probably other related kinds of policy, e.g. military policy) is best achieved by a center-maximizing voting method.

of course, to the PR advocate, awarding seats to socialists/communists as well as anti-welfare conservatives is the whole point. representation of the various viewpoints is the very essence of democracy. it’s this same property that ensures that various historically marginalized groups—from women, to gays, to minority people of color—attain a measure of representation to act as their voice in government.

this is an observation that has left me with a deep cognitive tension. as much as i believe centrism is right on some of the most core objective aspects of policy, i can empathize with desire to give representation to groups of people with fundamentally different preferences, especially when they are at risk of exploitation by a dominant majority. we’re not talking here about an objective difference around means. we’re talking about a subjective difference over ends. if you’re extremely poor, you might want a more broadly redistributive social safety net regardless of whether you understand objective economic principles like deadweight loss, tax incidence, hypothecation, etc.

the challenge

for me, the challenge is how to allow for representation of diverse preferences in terms of ends while trying to find the correct (generally consensus) positions on objective matters of means. some spaceship designs are going to get us to a different planet, and some aren’t. we want the objectively correct spaceship design. but when it comes to our subjective preferences around which planet to visit, we need every opinion to count.

eating our cake

there is a certain “no conflict theorem” which may allow us to have our cake and eat it too. and that is to suppose that a center-favoring non-PR voting method may still achieve representation for various minority groups merely via their power to tip the balance of power. to tug the center, so to speak. in a hotly contested election using score voting or approval voting, for instance, a savvy centrist politician may want to court a tiny 5% faction if doing so can win votes from that faction without losing votes among the rest of the electorate. in this way these small factions may actually end up exerting at least their fair share of political power, by playing kingmaker.

if this is true, then centrist-favoring non-PR voting methods may—paradoxically—end up being the ideal, due to their ability to magnify the objectively correct consensus policy positions that tend to match with the ideological center, in spite of their superficial appearance of lacking “representation”.

caveats abound, of course. on the issue of gerrymandering alone, PR stands out as arguably the most powerful solution that’s also politically viable. esoteric algorithmic district drawing schemes may be powerful, but they have yet to see the light of day in the real world.



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Clay Shentrup

advocate of score voting and approval voting. software engineer.