[Election-Methods] RE : pizza and consensus

Jonathan Lundell jlundell at pobox.com
Fri Dec 28 10:33:55 PST 2007

On Dec 28, 2007, at 9:16 AM, Kevin Venzke wrote:

> Hi Jonathan,
> --- Jonathan Lundell <jlundell at pobox.com> a écrit :
>> With the pizza example surfacing again (and again and again...), it
>> struck me that what bothers me about this example is that, in real
>> life, deciding on a pizza is one of the few places where just about
>> everybody would use informal consensus.
> What concerns me about a pizza-selection scenario is that, assuming  
> the
> participants have some concern for what the other people want, the  
> process
> of participants discovering which options they may want to vote for  
> seems
> to be conflated with the process of voting. I don't find this very  
> similar
> to a public election.

Quite right.

I've been reading Mill recently, in particular "On Representative  
Government", which is fascinating reading. He wants voters to be  
considering the interests of society at large, and sees non-secret  
ballots as important for that reason: voters will be disciplined by  
public opinion for voting selfishly. That seems a bit naive these  
days, though we do see its remnants when representative bodies vote on  
their own wages.

>> (For an introduction to formal consensus: http://www.consensus.net/)
>> I've come over the years to the regretful conclusion that formal
>> consensus is not workable for most organizations, at least not unless
>> some fairly stringent preconditions are met (some are described by
>> Butler at the site above; they include fairly explicit agreement on
>> group goals, along with a lot of time an patience).
> I skimmed the pdf available there. I wonder if it has any  
> suggestions as to
> what to do about a member who is willing to drive the organization  
> into the
> ground rather than yielding on a certain issue.

It's a weakness of the process that this kind of thing isn't  
systematically well handled. The idea is that the group can override  
an individual concern if it decides that the concern isn't consistent  
with group goals. There's also an assumption of sorts that all  
participants are committed to a good-faith resolution of relevant  
concerns. But there's no formal mechanism to enforce these process  
protections. How does the group decide that a concern isn't relevant  
to its goals? By consensus? Presumably not....

Some consensus users (the Green Party of California, for example) have  
a fallback supermajority vote to deal with these issues. The problem  
with that approach is that the process quickly moves from consensus  
seeking to the calculus of supermajority votes.

>> But for pizza decisions, consensus rules. In particular, we try to
>> accommodate singleton minorities with strong negative preferences
>> ("concerns" in consensus-speak): anchovy-haters, the allergy-ridden.
>> It doesn't matter that sausage and pepperoni is the Condorcet or
>> majority winner if there's a vegetarian in the group; we'll find some
>> consensus choice (fresh tomatoes and pesto, anyone?), given a little
>> time, good will, and discussion.
> My claim is that if this were performed as a public election,  
> sausage and
> pepperoni would probably not be the Condorcet winner, if the meat- 
> lovers
> realize there are vegetarians and do not hate them.
> There's not really any understanding that in elections you are  
> intended to
> vote for the option which puts the most goodies in your own pockets.

Quoting Galbraith, "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's  
oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a  
superior moral justification for selfishness."

As he implies, this is not a disease of conservatives only. Cutting my  
taxes is good (in the long run) for the economy. Raising my wages is  
good because it helps attract a better class of candidate. And so on.  
The specific debate isn't really on topic, but we do find ways to  
justify our selfish choices.

That is, in my view (and Mill's, for that matter) an argument for  
proportional representation (Mill was a great admirer of Hare): at  
least our selfish voting results in representation of a wider range of  

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