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UATX Series 1 - Consensus and the Culture War
Preferences: Revealed, Shared, and Accumulated
For the first day of UATX-mas, I’ll discuss revealed preferences. Specifically, I’ll tell a story that can be carefully generalized.
It’s a hot Texas day, and 40 of the future’s brightest
poasters intellectuals are sat around a debate chamber with none other than Peter Boghossian. He’s going to teach us How to Have Impossible Conversations, which I’m not actually going to talk that much about because you should buy his book. But before we do that we have to figure out which impossible conversation to have, which sounds like a difficult task all on its own. The room threw out a fair share of topics on its mind: ranging from classics like There is no God, Human Rights Should be Second to the Collective Good, and Peter’s favorite, There Should Be Social Pressure Against Some Ideas, to current things like America is Systemically Racist, Humans are not Created Equal, Racial Differences are Due to Culture Rather Than Racism, Abortion is not a Constitutional Right, Sex is Binary, and five variations of Gender Ideology in Schools. Now all that was left was to decide the top three to discuss.
Many lessons I learn frequently come after failed predictions. This was no exception. After we cast the topics, I sighed in my head. “Oh no, we’re just going to do boring culture war fights”. I mean, there were six different gender ideology topics. Asking around after the event, at least four others expressed the same expectation. Now, we couldn’t do something as simple as a first-past-the-post vote. This is UATX after all. So Peter implemented a 3-round runoff system, in which the lowest topics were cut after each round. The interesting trick was that each of us had three votes in the first round, two in the second round, and a single vote in the third. In other words, the votes shifted in the direction of cardinal preferences (and away from ordinal preferences) as the voting progressed.
Round one seemed to partially confirm my predictions. Several culture war topics received top votes, though interestingly Human Rights Should be Second to the Collective Good placed second or third. Niche topics were the first to be eliminated, as expected. In the second round, we began to notice things were not as they seemed. Support coalesced around Racial Differences are due to Culture and Sex is Binary, but also a dominant first place showing of Human Rights Should be Second to the Collective Good. The third and final round was the shocker. Human Rights Should be Second to the Collective Good retained most of its support (despite half the votes disappearing) for a solid first. There Should Be Social Pressure Against Some Ideas not only retained its votes, but gained one. Half the support fell off of Racial Differences are due to Culture, through it barely placed third, and Sex is Binary lost almost all of its support completely.
Before outtakes come disclaimers. All of my readers should be shouting this in unison: not a representative sample. Of course. But the illustrative point is not about the specific preferences we started or ended with. It is about the potential of the decision mechanism itself to change expressed preferences.
There is a line that I’ve heard quoted often: “Our unique preferences are deep, but our shared preferences are mundane.” Hundreds of years of elections has taught us this is directionally true, but the key idea of this day is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Structure, self-organization, and ultimately freedom, enable this style of experiment and the fruits it brings.