The update in question was later dubbed Panda, a charmingly cute moniker that struck fear into the hearts of many a content farm. The reason such updates are necessary, as Google’s chief spamfighter Matt Cutts will tell you, is that people are always trying to game Google’s algorithms. Ironically, Google’s own ad network—AdSense—is one of the big reasons why millions of dollars ride on even marginal changes in a site’s search ranking. But even without AdSense, there are other networks, affiliate programs, and direct ad sales. To say nothing of sites that make money off of selling products directly—to them, Google search traffic represents more potential customers.
If you suggested to Matt Cutts that Google make its algorithm open to public scrutiny, he would laugh in your face. People are already gaming Google’s rankings by inferring its logic through trial and error. If everyone knew, for certain, what all of the rules were, the quality of search results would plummet. This is because the people with the time and resources to figure out how to game the rules most effectively do not just so happen to coincidentally be the people that users want to find when searching. If that were the case, then an open source search engine would already have come along and eaten Google’s lunch.
Unfortunately for us, political systems by their nature involve rules that are made explicit and public. And it would violate most of our notions of fairness if it were otherwise. Try to imagine a scenario where a Matt Cutts of government was constantly changing how, say, people’s votes translated into a decision of who to elect. Perhaps some people’s votes will be weighted more than others, or known members of groups associated with government corruption will have their votes discounted heavily. How could this end with anything but tyranny in practice?
But the fact remains that if the rules are known publicly, they can easily be gamed, and in ways that are zero-sum. With this in mind, the success or failure of different institutions in different places and at different times in history must rest solely on something beyond the explicit, articulated rules. This may include tacit norms, lower level knowledge, and, yes, even backroom dealings away from public scrutiny that operate under unclear and shifting criteria. We all know that the latter occurs; but it requires the constraints of the first two in order to be directed towards positive-sum ends.
These are thoughts that came to my mind while reading Crooked Timber’s seminar on Jack Knight and Jim Johnson’s The Priority of Democracy. Knight and Johnson acknowledge that direct democracy isn’t the best decision-making process for all questions of governance, but take the novel position that democracy is a good process for determining what the non-democratic institutions should be.
I’m rather skeptical of the argument as presented by the various thinkers in the seminar, and even more skeptical about any of their ability to arrive at some superior set of rules. Pete Boettke goes out to bat on behalf of political theory, so long as we take into account the realities of the imperfections of both the governing and the governed. But it seems to me to be little more than trading stories.
Rather than judging institutions on the basis of theory, we ought to be looking at their resilience; how they stand the test of time. The electoral college is frequently a target of criticism and ridicule by people who feel it is outdated, but it is precisely because its life can be measured in centuries rather than decades that we should trust it by default. At least, we should trust it more than the simple stories proffered by pundits and scholars.
The more I learn about the Swiss canton system, the crazier it seems to me. Yet there are some cantons that have been in continual existence for something like 700 years—and Switzerland is a very wealthy and very peaceful nation. We should not conclude from this that their system of government should be spread to every corner of the Earth, but it is clear that there is something about the system as it operates in Switzerland that works. The lesson from Google’s ongoing struggles suggest that it is something beyond the formal, articulated rules of the system.