Delphi Pirates

‘You have been labouring under a misapprehension; I reckon. You think that because Albrecht dislikes Ankh-Morpork and has … oldfashioned ideas, he is a bad dwarf. But I have known him for two hundred years. He is honest and honourable … more so than me, that I’m sure of. Five hundred years ago he would have made a fine king. Today, perhaps not. Perhaps … hah … the axe of my ancestors needs a different handle. But now I am King and he accepts that with all his heart because if he did not, he’d think he wasn’t a dwarf, see? Of course he will now oppose me at every turn. Being Low King was never an easy job. But, to use one of your metaphors, we are all floating in the same boat. We may certainly try to push one another over the side, but only a maniac like Dee would make a hole in the bottom.’
“The Fifth Elephant” by Terry Pratchett

If you trust some German media outlets, currently the German Pirate Party is pretty much sinking itself. It seems like some people do not work well with others and they are tearing holes in the bottom. But it also seems to be a problem due to the way the party decides for itself. As long as its easier to voice an opinion via a simple click/a raised hand than to become expert in a subject, direct democracy might be a very bad idea. No matter whether it’s within a party or a country, the quantity dilutes the quality, no matter how much fun it is to participate. Because the important topics are complex and they need knowledge and thought, not numbers. To use a fictional example:

“You’ve got to respect them, Toby. They’re politicians and they’re flying in the face of overwhelming public opinion.”
“I have to respect senators for defying 82% of American people?”
“Can I tell you something, honestly? This is one of those situations where I couldn’t give a damn what the people think. The complexities of a global arms treaty, the technological, the military, the diplomatic nuances, it’s staggering, Toby. 82% of the people cannot possibly be expected to reach an informed decision.”
Bartlet and Toby in “The West Wing”

I can’t help but wonder whether these decision problems are akin to the problems with brainstorming. After all, individuals working alone often produce better results than people brainstorming in groups, no matter how popular brainstorming is with some people. One reason why I like the Delphi method more.

Thinking of ways to organize the creativity necessary to make good political decisions, I wonder whether a party of checks and balances, especially with ways to remove representatives if they misuse power, combined with a Delphi method like advice process, might not be more useful.

Suppose all party members could vote for representatives who stand for the party. These representatives can quickly react to current topics, not having to wait for the whole party to form an opinion. It is clear that they represent the party, yet they speak for their view as well. However, they are encouraged to ask the subject matter experts of the party for advice. Note: subject matter experts, not all party members equally!

Moderators using a computer program ask subject matter experts within and beyond the party to lend their advice via the Delphi method. The results of each round are made public, making the process transparent and open to criticism (Did the expert see every angle? How did they rate the different solutions?). Whereas expert contributions continue to be anonymous, other party members can point out mistakes/biases and thereby qualify themselves as content experts when the next question about this subject is asked. To use their feedback for the current Delphi method, subject matter experts participating in the Delphi method are asked to listen to the comments after each round, thereby filtering and adding this input to their discussion. This way, expertise counts and individual egos are tempered by the anonymity of the Delphi method and the work of the moderators. Violation of this anonymity, e.g., posting your own contributions, would lead to a banning of the party member from future Delphi methods.

So, while representatives should request and listen to advice from the content experts, they are free to follow their own conscience. Of course, this makes the representatives open to criticism and — unless they have very good arguments — they likely to lose their position during the next party election.

Frankly, I think I would prefer such a system to a direct democracy, within a party or beyond. There is a lot of hype about the wisdom of the crowds, but we are not talking about a simple estimation task. Like written, many topics are complex and you need experts — real experts — and a structured discussion that avoids freeloading and ego-trips. To paraphrase Heinlein, adding zeros does not produce a sum. This process would make contributions dependent on the quality of arguments, not on clicks in a voting tool. After all, you can vote on everything, even without knowing anything about it — but an argument takes knowledge and skills.

We have the tools to quickly get sufficient amounts of experts on a subject together, to let them exchange knowledge and ideas, to let them discuss the best course of action. And leaders who are bound by checks and balances, yet stand for their (informed but free) decisions with their personal responsibility.

I am not sure whether the German Pirate Party will finally sink itself. In the spirit of full disclosure, it does not concern me that much as I never got on board. Whereas I sympathize with a lot of goals of the pirate party and might vote for them, the direct democracy bit makes my hair stand on end. But I am curious in which direction it will develop — or what comes after it. No matter whether they succeed or fail.

And after all, to quote a famous American politician:

It is not the critic who counts; Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; Who strives valiantly; Who errs, and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; But who does actually strive to do the deeds; Who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; Who spends himself in a worthy cause; Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worse, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Theodore Roosevelt


To the possible question of why someone would want to participate as expert in a Delphi study — for many people it’s rewarding to share their knowledge and contribute, and it would be possible to offer an “Acknowledgment of Delphi Experts” every year or so. This way it would be clear who contributed, yet the individual contributions would still be protected.