Thursday, December 6, 2012

Average Rationality

If we take a large number of actions and classify them as arbitrary and as rational, and let us say that the rational exceed 50 percent, then we might say that the society in which these actions take place is, on average, rational. Supposing that one-person, one vote is a rational arrangement. Then presumably the members of the Senate are rationally elected—assuming that voter fraud is minor and largely the same percentile in each party. But let us now take the case of cloture in the U.S. Senate. It requires 60 votes to invoke it. All legislation falling below that number fails, even if the majority are for it. Here is a case where rationality is compromised—and looking at the Senate, we can say that, on average, it is rational—but not really.

In today’s senate the Democrats have 51 seats, the Republicans 47. Two independents caucus with the democrats, producing a majority of 53—well short of the required 60 votes for cloture. This then means that every democrat who voted for a senator only counted as 85 percent of a voter (thus 51 / 60). And if we add those who voted for left-leaning independents, Okay, they all counted as 88 percent. That’s a real consolation, isn’t it?

Now the rationale for supermajorities is what, exactly? That in important cases, thus beyond routine, the majority may be deprived of its vote because the case is important? But importance is not something one can measure rationally. It will vary with individuals and is just a feeling. Therefore, at least in one institution of our society, we embrace average rationality. Must we stop there. Nah. Plenty of other regions of our collective life where rationality is totally ignored.

In looking up “cloture” on Online Etymology Dictionary, I came across this interesting quote from the nineteenth century:

In foreign countries the Clôture has been used notoriously to barricade up a majority against the “pestilent”" criticism of a minority, and in this country every “whip” and force is employed by the majority to re-assert its continued supremacy and to keep its ranks intact whenever attacked. How this one-sided struggle to maintain solidarity can be construed into “good for all” is inexplicable in the sense uttered. [“The clôture and the Recent Debate, a Letter to Sir J. Lubbock,” London, 1882]

Evidently cloture has “evolved.” Now it is used, in our Senate, by a minority to get its way—and the will of the people be damned. But when children are taught their Civics (unless all civics has been swallowed by Social Studies, as I expect it has), I bet the teachers do not go into conniption fits of stress trying to explain to their students how you average rationality.

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