It’s been two weeks since New York City held a Democratic Party primary election for mayor and we still do not know the winner. The prolonged uncertainty is not caused by the election being particularly close, since front-runner Eric Adams outperformed his next closest rival by more than 100,000 votes. The exceptional delay is the result of NYC adopting a ranked-choice election system advocated by the super-geniuses at the Arnold Foundation and other bastions of technocracy. With ranked-choice, the election is not won by whomever receives the most votes if that person falls short of a majority of all votes. Instead, voters have to rank their preferences and lower performing candidates are eliminated and the 2nd choice that their voters supported are re-allocated to the remaining candidates until one of them obtains a majority.
The super-geniuses have decided that ranked-choice is optimal because they believe it has the best properties in the various analyses they’ve conducted. Let’s leave aside whether they are correct in these technical claims given that a recent study noted that ranked-choice failed to produce a candidate supported by the majority of voters 61% of the time. The primary defect of ranked-choice voting and the broader technocratic orientation driving many foundations’ policy agendas is its failure to understand human beings and how they are served by public institutions.
People do not want what experts have deemed to be optimal arrangements. What they want are solutions that they can understand and trust. Public policy is not really about optimizing outcomes. It is about maintaining public confidence in civil society. If election systems are not governed by relatively simple rules that produce results quickly and unambiguously, people rightfully begin to lose confidence in those systems. They suspect cheating or manipulation and are frustrated by prolonged uncertainty. In some ways, who wins is less important than that someone wins clearly and quickly.
The super-geniuses at the Arnold Foundation don’t understand this because they really don’t understand human beings. Most of the people running foundations these days have training in technical fields and/or are inclined to devote their resources to people with technical backgrounds. Much of the wealth pouring into new foundations comes from technical fields. Backgrounds and interest in the humanities are noticeably absent in the foundation world.
While understanding history, philosophy, art, and literature are no guarantees of having good sense, these fields are our repositories of human wisdom. Consulting that wisdom may help us avoid election systems that have desirable technical properties but undermine what human beings actually need from elections. In the field of education, that wisdom would us avoid reform solutions that work much better in our working papers than in the actual arena of education policy.
Perhaps foundations, and not just schools, are in need of education reform.