Humans are doing democracy wrong. Bees are doing it right

There is a system that accounts for intensity of passion as well as idle opinion – hives have used it successfully for millions of years

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

It will be interesting to learn next week what proportion of the UK vote is now postal. Because postal voting boosts the turnout, people seem happy to ignore the risk of in-family coercion, or the fact that a vote may not be private. Thirty years ago it was assumed that postal voting was for the infirm or for people serving in the military. Now it is presented as just a handy alternative to the polling booth — the drive-thru lane of democratic consensus.

But should there be a cost to voting, even if it’s only a short contemplative walk to the polling booth? Do you want everyone to vote? Why encourage people who are happily indifferent to express an opinion, and so cancel out the opinions of others who care a great deal? Apathy is a noble social virtue: ‘I care so little here that I will not impose an opinion on the rest of you merely for the sake of doing so.’ Without the indifferent, society would break down.

One problem with social media is that the cost of expressing opinions has become too low. You no longer have to buy a stamp, construct a placard or sit down with a pen and marshal your thoughts, nor do you need to bother to collect any supporting information — you press a button. The result of this is that opinions are little connected to behaviour. They have become a form of personal ornamentation; the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail, only without the corresponding burden to the peacock. ‘Look! My hatred of Katie Hopkins is even larger and more symmetrical than yours.’ When there was a cost to expressing an opinion, and a limit to the number of opinions you could express, a belief meant something.

Soon, no doubt, there will be pressure to vote online, or by mobile phone or via your Xbox. You will be able to ‘share’ your vote soon after making it, or pose for a selfie with your ballot. The problem with this is that we will have done what humans often do, which is to use technology to make things easier while missing an opportunity to make them significantly better.

Is there a way to use technology to improve democracy — not only by changing the medium but by rethinking the whole interface? Well, there might be. And it is a brand new idea — in humans, at any rate. In another social species it has been working well for tens of millions of years.

Just as bees perfected the hexagonal honeycomb long before we understood geometry, they seem to have discovered democracy when the ancestors of Cleisthenes were swinging from trees.

Three hundred years ago, the Anglo-Dutch writer Bernard Mandeville caused public uproar when he published a book called The Fable of the Bees. The hive described by Mandeville prospered while the bees acted in their self-interest, but moralistic bees were disgusted by the lack of virtue in their colleagues. The moralists prevailed thanks to divine intervention, which instilled the bees with virtue. Then the hive collapsed. With no incentive to improve their lot, the bees stopped co-operating with each other. Thus Mandeville drew from the bees the lesson that society may do better to rely on self-interest than on virtue to fuel economic development and invention.

The general public was stung by this tale, but the wisest readers saw in it the basis of social reform. Samuel Johnson criticised the book’s definition of virtue, but also acknowledged that ‘it opened his eyes into real life very much’; Adam Smith rejected Mandeville’s open embrace of selfishness, but realised that the right social institutions, in particular the market system of prices, could harness the power of self-interest to promote a social good. Yet while Smith discovered the efficiency of the market economic system, he and economists after him were never able to find an efficient method of government.

To find this missing piece of the puzzle, we think Smith should have studied the very same bees that inspired Mandeville. Indeed, when one examines bees, it is possible to learn how to make the best group decisions about everything from creating the best rail service (or even fizzy drink) to marriage equality.

Today’s Mandeville is the renowned biologist Thomas D. Seeley, who was part of a team which discovered that colonies of honey bees look for new pollen sources to harvest by sending out scouts who search for the most attractive places. When the scouts return to the hive, they perform complicated dances in front of their comrades. The duration and intensity of these dances vary: bees who have found more attractive sources of pollen dance longer and more excitedly to signal the value of their location. The other bees will fly to the locations that are signified as most attractive and then return and do their own dances if they concur. Eventually a consensus is reached, and the colony concentrates on the new food source.

Seeley himself has found in the collective decision-making of the bees a metaphor and inspiration for democracy. Yet the bee system is far from the simple one-individual, one-vote set-up so popular among humans. If it were, there would be no way for Bee X who has discovered a particularly attractive source of pollen to convince fellow bees that his source truly deserves extra attention. Thus, it is the total passion of the bees, not simply numbers alone (one mandible, one vote) that ultimately carries the day.

Of course, every bee wants credit for their own find. So there needs to be a countervailing costly mechanism to prevent bees from simply over-promoting any pollen source they know. Bees must spend a lot of energy to bring their fellows around. Seeley’s research shows that the time they spend on dances grows not linearly but quadratically in proportion to the attractiveness of the site they encountered. Twice as good a site leads to four times as much wiggling, three times as good a site leads to nine times as lengthy a dance, and so forth.

In recent work, one of us (Weyl) has tried to explain this logic and how it could help humans make better group decisions. In particular, most democracies lack the ability for individuals to express intensity of preference — for example, how much gun ownership matters to gun owners, or the value of Scottish independence or a nuclear deterrent. Just as communism rationed to everyone equally the housing, food and cars they were ‘supposed’ to have, today’s democracies say everyone gets rationed exactly one vote on each issue — with varying intensities of preference factored out.

Under Quadratic Voting (QV), by contrast, individuals have a vote budget that they can spread around different issues that matter to them in proportion to the value those issues hold for them. And just as with Seeley’s bees, it becomes increasingly costly proportionately to acquire the next unit of influence on one issue. This approach highlights not only frequency of preferences but also intensity of preferences, by forcing individuals to decide how they will divide their influence across issues, while penalising the single-issue fanatic’s fussiness of putting all one’s weight on a single issue. It encourages individuals to distribute their points in precise proportion to how much each issue matters to them. In fact, Glen Weyl’s statistician co-author Steven P. Lalley has shown mathematically that QV is the only pricing rule that gives individuals an incentive truthfully to report their preferences. (Mathematically inclined readers of The Spectator will be pleased to learn that ‘all type-symmetric Bayes-Nash equilibria of an independent private values Quadratic Voting game converge to an efficient price-taking outcome as the population size grows large’ — as any bee could tell you.)

The other of us, Rory Sutherland, believes that one of the most promising applications of this idea is market research. Consider a firm that wants to learn whether customers care about particular product attributes: colour, quality, price, and so on. Rather than simply ask people what they care about — which leads to notoriously inaccurate results, often where people affect strong views just to maximise their individual influence — a business, or a public service, could supply customers with budgets of credits which they then used to vote, in quadratic fashion, for the attributes they want. This forces the group of respondents, like the swarm of bees, to allocate more resources to the options they care most about. An organisation can thus learn the nuanced collective intelligence of its users. (If you could allocate your BBC licence fee quadratically, you could put all the money towards BBC4 and the World Service.)

Smith was inspired by Mandeville’s bees to use markets to shape individual self-interest towards the social good. We can similarly turn to this other social species for inspiration as we collaborate to help make collective decisions about products and policies which will better reflect the needs and desires of the public.

If you want a better system of voting, the bees have it. When Winston Churchill said that democracy was ‘the worst form of government, except all the others which have been tried’, he was nearly right: but he failed to consider his Chartwell hives.


Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Fried Ch’i

    Limit postal voting to those from overseas. That should fix the issue.

    • Precambrian

      And the disabled.

      • Fried Ch’i

        Only the disabled from overseas. Those born here have family to wheel them to the ballot box.

        • Precambrian

          That actually isn’t true. Some don’t have people to “wheel them there”, and not all disability is solved by wheelchairs.

    • Dogsnob

      Not ‘from overseas’, surely? Just ‘those overseas’.

      • Fried Ch’i

        you heard me, troll.

        • Dogsnob

          Sure did big boy!

    • Technocrat

      So if you’re away on business or on vacation, you don’t have a say?

  • Precambrian

    “One problem with social media is that the cost of expressing opinions has become too low.”

    No representation without taxation (in the sense of voting being a taxing experience)?

    Yes, the easy you make things the easier it is for the ignorant and apathetic to just flick a button with very little thought. The harder things are, the more thought they require. Make them easy, and its another step towards idiocracy.

    Voting should be a privilege that is earned through effort, not a ‘right’ that is granted to all and sundry.

    • Ivan Ewan

      In conjunction with the writer’s “levelling up” idea, what about turning the vote into a video game?

      Every time you beat a challenge, you get a few more electoral points which accumulate. You can spend electoral points on policies, which go up in cost the higher level you’ve reached.

      After you beat the final level, the system approximately scores each party according to the levelling up they themselves have done in their version of the game, against your own policy levels.

      And even when you pick a party to vote for, you have to correctly answer ten questions about their policies before you’re presented with the actual tickbox. Fail and you go back to square one.

      Hacking the game is punishable by life imprisonment.

      How’s that for an earned privilege?

      • Precambrian

        I was thinking more of a minimum educational qualification level and neither a criminal record nor default on a debt payment in the last 5 years.

        Does your option come with save game we can revert to if the election goes pear shaped?

        • Ivan Ewan

          I disagree. Many people have gone to university who did not benefit. And considering the kind of laws the establishment parties are thinking about, you and I could easily obtain a criminal record. But my idea is even sillier I have to admit.

        • Pacificweather

          No bankers get to vote. That’s a bit harsh.

      • Pacificweather

        Excellent! The government has to play the HS2 video game to raise the cost with no borrowing and no money from the taxpayer. Only if it wins can it build HS2. The SNP and the Greens have to win the ‘Beat Putin’ game before being allowed to scrap the Trident replacement program. All matches played live on TV on Saturday night.

    • omgamuslim

      You have to wiggle a lot more to sell that idea. Even the least of us should have the right to express an opinion as to who is going to have the privileged access to power to wield over us. Democracy is supposed to ensure that power does not, as a rule, rest in the hands only of a privileged group.

    • Pacificweather

      The cost is upwards of £350 plus £15 a month for Internet connection. Doesn’t sound too cheap to me. I prefer the walk to the library.

      • Roger Hudson

        I am currently connected via a cafe about a kilometer away, no house phone and a pay-as-u-go with Viber, connection to the world has never been cheaper.

        • Pacificweather

          What do you have connected to the world and what does it cost?

    • Kennybhoy

      “Voting should be a privilege that is earned through effort, not a ‘right’ that is granted to all and sundry.”

      Thirty years ago I would have condemned this…

  • polistra24

    Don’t worry about postal voting. We’ve had all-postal here for about 10 years. Turnout is a bit higher but results haven’t changed. Politics is so utterly repulsive that the only voters are the reliable mechanical partybots. Same before and after all-mail voting.

    No point in worrying about the details of the system. Details have no influence. Math won’t help.

    Dimitri Orlov tells us the only important fact: Empires will automatically grow and become more evil and delusional until they collapse. At this point of seemingly maximal delusion, all we can do is wait for the collapse.

    • rorysutherland

      Ibn Khaldun got there before Dimitri!

  • global city

    I am voting to regain my right to self determination. This article is profoundly wrong, as in ‘Europe’ we are not doing democracy at all!

    • Pacificweather

      Yet MEPs are democratically elected and 2/3 of MPs aren’t. Britain is clearly already a land of bees.

      • global city

        but MEP’s only have the same oversight role that our House of Lords has…… did you not think of that?

        Who ever makes the laws under which we are obliged to live must be under the control of the population. It is a simple principle.

        • Pacificweather

          Similar but not the same. Every vote for an MEP is an effective vote but only 48% of votes for MPs are effective. No votes for the upper house but that isn’t that much different from having a minority elected government as all have been since the last democratically elected goverment in 1931 (except for the accidental one in 2010).

  • Ivan Ewan

    tl;dr version: democracy will be better if we spend experience points to level up our grievances.

    It’s bonkers. I love it.

  • Dogsnob

    If only. Alas, the man was right: we are now a nation of severed wasps: the body still wriggling as if still alive, but the head taken away.

  • Thomas

    Very interesting as ever, Rory. Anecdotally, quadratics were also used for marking Cambridge maths exams. Rather than summing the marks for each question to get a total score, they would square the marks for each question before summing. This gave disproportional credit to people who could do complete questions – one complete question scores twice as much as two half-done questions. I’m told it was too disproportional, so they went back to the usual way.

    As for voting systems, I can understand the desire to make them fairer or to use them to elicit more information from the voter. But I think a voting system only works if every voter understands the meaning of their vote (“your preferences will be weighted quadratically” probably fails this test…). It doesn’t matter if a system is fair if it’s not clear to everyone what is going on. Even systems like d’Hondt are already too opaque – just regularly update constituency boundaries and use FPTP!

    • Pacificweather

      Two thirds of Britons don’t understand FPTP. If you tell them that 52% of votes are ineffective they look at you blankly. It’s like Conservatives saying that Labour left no money when they added minus £500 billion to that “no money left”. It’s as if it was sacrilegeous to connect the dots.

  • Ivan Dilber

    The people who are the most motivated to express their point and take part in politics are usually also the most extreme and fundamentalistically inclined ones. Just open some old magazine and look at the readers’ letters section.

  • ClayShentrup

    The best non-exiotic voting system known of is Score Voting.


    I’d love to see some Bayesian regret figures for “quadratic voting”.

    • I give those in the paper (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2571026). They are very close to 0 in finite populations and go to 0 in large populations. This is far better than ScoreVoting, RangeVoting, etc. which in many circumstances do worse than one-person-one-vote. My results hold across all value distributions.

  • Ok, I had to go read this (http://www.law.uchicago.edu/node/16996) to actually understand how this would work in the real world, and I have one question: Given the income inequality that current societies experience, wouldn’t the 1% or .1% be able to influence any decision without much problem?

    • rorysutherland

      You would not need to use money. That is merely one possibility – which does have the additional bonus of compensation.

      However, if you would like popular democracy extended, with more votes on more things, one thing you would need is a kind of voting currency which would prevent busybodies voting on matters which did not concern them very much. If there is a proposal to build a bypass for a town ten miles away, on a road I rarely use, it would be preferable if I did not vote on it. This system captures strength of feeling – but, just as important, it allows you to store up votes from issues which don’t concern you to spend on things you do.

      • omgamuslim

        Democracy is not about voting on policy but rather about who is to wield power over us and set the policies. If you are proposing that democracy should be about deciding the policies then that is a different matter.

    • No, as the paper shows the quadratic rule stops this. With $100 million Romney could only get 10,000 votes.

      • Got it. That takes care of Romney et al in absolute terms, but in relative terms they still can buy more votes that the average Joe, right? That means that great numbers of average Joes would need to vote in concert to oppose him effectively? I’m not just asking out of idle curiosity; in Mexico we’re going through a political crisis of identity, and everyone’s looking for new ideas.

  • omgamuslim

    There is one fundamental/crucial flaw in what is proposed. The bee that wiggles does not stand for the voter x1, x2, ….. xn, rather it represents the politician trying to sell himself, a party or its policies.

  • Augustus

    How do you define ‘a better system of voting’? the constant jostling of minority parties in most European nations is more like what one might expect from democratic politics. Corporations and markets seem to live comfortably with that. And most of what politicians do has little effect on the economy, especially when there are tight budgetary restraints.

  • rolandfleming

    Superb, fascinating article.

  • Roger Hudson

    As postal and online voting increases so does fraud, ‘democratic’ terrorism.

  • Warren Smith

    Hello, I’m an expert on honeybees and voting. This piece is virtually entirely false
    and was written by Weyl, an academic economist who has an agenda to promote “quadratic voting” and is perhaps the most biased person in world on that topic, and Sutherland, a professional advertising man. In reality bees do NOT use quadratic voting, and also quadratic voting has severe problems which render it horribly BAD in all or most possible applications. A web page refuting the present article is here:

    I would recommend to The Spectator that they perform at least very rudimentary fact checking, which would have prevented this fiasco.