[Election-Methods] a story for christmas

rob brown rob at karmatics.com
Tue Dec 25 22:35:25 PST 2007

I decided to write a little story to share with the voting geeks on
Christmas.  Enjoy and Merry Christmas!


A large housing complex was under construction, and a locksmith was hired to
install the locks on all the apartments.  He suggested that they key all the
locks to use the same key.  There are many advantages, the most obvious
being cost, he suggests.  The landlord doesn't need to keep hundreds of
keys, and if anyone loses their key, they can just borrow a key from a
neighbor to get into their apartment.

The owner of the complex doesn't understand.  "But any resident can simply
walk into any other apartment and take what they want! That seems like a
supremely bad idea."

"Not to worry," says Warren, the locksmith.  "Look, it should be obvious
that what we are after here is maximum net utility, right?  That is, the
most happiness for all"

"Umm, well sure...." says the owner.  "Happiness is a good thing.  I'm
having trouble seeing where you are going with this, though...."

"I can prove that everyone having the same key results in greater net
utility.  More happiness all around.  I've done polls as to whether people
will take items from each other, and based on those results, I've simulated
the situation on my computer.  The net utilities are always greater if
everyone's lock has the same key."

He goes on to show how, if everyone was to honestly rate the utilities
afforded by each thing they own or might want to own, that taking others'
property, on average, causes an net increase in utility.  Typically those
taking other people's things are less wealthy than those they are taking
them from, so they usually will value the item they take more than the
original owner did...meaning an increase in net utility!

Furthermore, he has polled people, and the great majority of them have said
they wouldn't take stuff from their neighbors even if they could.  But even
if everyone *were* to take others' things, that situation is *still* better
than having locks, from a net utilities perspective -- since those taking
stuff probably want the item more.  If it turns out the original owner wants
the item more, well, he can take such an item from another neighbor.

The owner thinks about it.  "Well, that may increase happiness, but it
doesn't seem fair to those who don't take property".

"Nope," says the locksmith.  "The system is perfectly fair.  Everyone has
equal opportunity to take other people's property, so no one is at a
disadvantage.  Anyway....fairness schmairness. If people are happy who cares
about fairness?"

Finally Warren shows, as support for this working, that honeybees have been
shown to freely share property with colony-mates this way for one hundred
million years, and they are no worse off for it.  If it didn't work for
them, natural selection would have eliminated it long ago.

He shows the polling data.  He shows the math.  He shows the computer
simulations.  He talks about bees. It all makes sense.  And the owner just
can't find a good argument otherwise.

They do it, and it works great.  Well, for a while.

At first, only a few people take other people's stuff, and when they do, it
is just little stuff, like grabbing a beer out of their neighbor's fridge.
One resident gets fired from his job because he calls in sick too much, and
he realizes he can just take a low paying part time job, since he can just
tap into his neighbors groceries and such.  Eventually those that previously
didn't want to take their neighbor's stuff start to resent that they are
doing more than their share of purchasing, and they decide to start taking
things from their neighbors.

After a few years, some people have lost their desire to work hard and work
overtime and get raises, since they can live with an equal lifestyle to
those who earn more than them.  This means the total amount of property
within the housing complex is less, so the utility has gone down -- way down
-- even though Warren the locksmith's calculations had shown otherwise.

The owner calls the locksmith in.  "Look, your system didn't work.  It might
have worked in the short term, but you didn't take into account the long
term.  The people you said wouldn't steal from each other....even if they
wouldn't have back when you asked them....seem to have no problem whatsoever
with taking each others' stuff now.  Actually they have no choice, since
most of them don't bother going to work anymore.  This place is miserable.
The residents are demanding a solution."

Warren the locksmith thinks about it a bit.  "Well, sorry that didn't work
out,  I have no clue why it didn't....the math was all in place.  Well,
here, I have an idea.  We could find out what the residents want to do.
Let's put it to a vote!"

The owner says "now there's a good idea, I think I'll do that!"

"And by the way, I have a perfect system of voting for you," says the
locksmith.  "It's guaranteed to maximize the residents' happiness with the

The owner thinks for a moment.  "Ummm....you know what?  Thanks, but,
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