In general, with the kinds of Democracies we talk about, its winner-takes-all (first past the post) voting that makes Democracy inherently antagonistic to the process of Compromise. This isn’t to say that Compromise doesn’t happen under Democracies, but there is a lot to understand here for how exactly Society’s ability to Compromise on subjects is itself compromised.

Real quick, we need to define a couple things. Democracy in this context means voting on topics, issues, candidates, bills, etc. To not make this too complex, let’s just say that a vote is considered Passed if some percentage of the votes cast (threshold) of the present voting members is equal to or greater than the threshold. This definition shouldn’t surprise anyone. Direct Democracy and Representational Democracy are covered here well enough.

A definition for Compromise is a little trickier, but we might write it as: given a lack of specific, truthful, or exact information, Compromise is reached when the Voters perceive all is fair in regards to a specific issue.

That definition has a couple landmines. Firstly, we imply that Compromise itself is done in situations of imperfect knowledge, and with uncertain purpose. We also imply that Compromise necessarily need not reach the “Best” middle-ground of all the factions/individual voters, only that the Compromise is perceived as Best. And finally, we also imply that Compromise itself guarantees nothing in regards to how close it is to the actual “Best” position with regards to all the voting members interests, or their represented interests.

But, I somewhat hinted at a Platonic definition of Compromise: As the information available to all voters reaches perfection, the number of votes cast in the affirmative will converge to unanimously agree on the absolute Best position for all individuals.

And this is an important distinction, because in reality we must decide on issues with imperfect information, and each Interest being represented imperfectly understands itself, its environment, and the effects of any particular point on the spectrum of plausible Compromises.

The next question is, does Democracy push us away, or towards, the Platonic Ideal? For it to push us towards the Platonic Ideal it must solve this one critical problem: imperfect information. Democracy itself does not inherently solve, or even attempt to address, the problem of imperfect information. Democracy only requires, as defined above, only a threshold of votes be cast to pass. It says nothing about the process, how to deliberate, how to vote, how to decide, or how to even craft the issues to be voted on. Its just a method of delegating responsibility and power to a large number of individuals to safe-guard against corrupted individuals. That was literally what was in mind when the Constitution was crafted, and it is what is implicitly known by all voters, and all those who prefer Democracy over other forms of decision making, are thinking about. This ties in with the idea of perceived fairness, as corrupted individuals must at a minimum create the illusion of fairness, hindering their corrupted power somewhat.

With this revelation, the need for Compromise to simply appear fair, rather than reaching some kind of Ideal, is ever more obvious. It doesn’t matter if we are right, only that we prevent a corrupted faction from totally ruining what is imagined as “good enough” for all involved.

However, I stated that Democracy is inherently antagonistic to the Platonic Ideal of Compromise, not merely indifferent to it. If it was just the later, then external systems or perhaps even internal changes to voting could fix this, and we might have better Compromises.

Democracy is inherently antagonistic because it only needs to Compromise with the threshold of voters. For all thresholds below 100%, the perception of fairness to those not in agreement can be wildly off. But, its also possible that those not in agreement don’t necessarily perceive a kind of fairness that is close to the Ideal position for Compromise. This isn’t to say that the majority in agreement are at all closer to the Ideal either, only that they perceive the proposed arrangement fair to themselves. Whether or not the proposal is actually more “ideal” is irrelevant to the voting majority, simply because in a lot of cases they don’t even know what the ideal is.

Even worse, there is a strong case to be made that people themselves don’t care for what’s Best, only what’s perceived as fair. Obviously those with “Perfect Information” will know what’s best, but that might not be easily translated or implemented in a given society; so to get any kind of traction those with Perfect Information may opt for a sub-optimal agreement if it means a threshold of voters perceive it as fair.

Is this surprising? Not if we imagine Democracy as a Repeated game of Prisoner’s Dilemma*. Since each voter must make repeated votes on a variety of issues, they will want the majority of all legislation passed to be perceived as fair with respect to one another and in “Sum”. In this fashion, voters may obviously “throw a bone” to those who are clearly wrong about an issue in order to keep the illusion of Compromise going, since the perception of fairness is much more important than actual truth. If your opponent starts voting in a way that is “unfair”, then you can punish them in the next vote (the next iteration of Prisoner’s Dilemma) by voting in such a way that the compromise reached is damaging to your opponents perceived fairness.

Alright, that was a lot, but the most crucial bit is in the last sentence. We could punish our opponent by voting in a way that is purposefully further from, or closer to the actual Best. If you are trying to punish someone who has more information than you, and their position is likely much closer to the Best position, then you can only possibly choose positions further from the Best to punish them.

But, what if your opponent doesn’t know what’s best, because they have imperfect knowledge, but they have a compromise point which they perceive as most fair. What possible choices do you have to punish them? Only one position (or a small number) will at all be close to the most fair position, however, the infinite possibilities of all other positions are open for you to choose as well. Again, assuming imperfect information by the voter that wants to punish the previously unfair voter, they may randomly choose a position and are unlikely to ever choose a position that is equal to the best. Even a voter with better information may opt to purposefully pick a bad position, because in the next vote when they will have imperfect knowledge, they want their opponents to create a Perception of Fairness that makes it seem like they too are getting what they want.

Meaning, viewing Democracy as an infinite repeated game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, wherein voters must vote one at a time on issues, whose primary goal is Compromise with the intent of Perceived Fairness, has no incentive to converge on what’s best. Worse, for issues wherein players must “punish” one another, those issues are likely to be much further from the ideal or even perceived fairness by necessity and chance.

Democracy in of itself is not a method for Compromise, and assuming imperfect information, will lead to worse outcomes for Compromise. I make this argument, because all too often I see that Society mistakes a voted agreement on an issue as itself a healthy compromise, when in reality its a poor necessity.


* Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma is an extension of the original game. In this version, both participants must decide to be silent, or betray, their friend over many games. If your friend betrays you in game 1, then you can punish them in game 2 by betraying them. This idea works nicely in the real world for a variety of cases, such as companies deciding to invest in R&D or not. In our case, Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma is in regards to legislation. All voters want each other to choose “be fair”, rather than “be selfish” with the voting of legislation.