Futarchy: Vote Values, But Bet Beliefs

by Robin Hanson
This short "manifesto" describes a new form of government. In "futarchy," we would vote on values, but bet on beliefs. Elected representatives would formally define and manage an after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare.
Democracy seems better than autocracy (i.e., kings and dictators), but it still has problems. There are today vast differences in wealth among nations, and we can not attribute most of these differences to either natural resources or human abilities. Instead, much of the difference seems to be that the poor nations (many of which are democracies) are those that more often adopted dumb policies, policies which hurt most everyone in the nation. And even rich nations frequently adopt such policies.

These policies are not just dumb in retrospect; typically there were people who understood a lot about such policies and who had good reasons to disapprove of them beforehand. It seems hard to imagine such policies being adopted nearly as often if everyone knew what such "experts" knew about their consequences. Thus familiar forms of government seem to frequently fail by ignoring the advice of relevant experts (i.e., people who know relevant things).

Would some other form of government more consistently listen to relevant experts? Even if we could identify the current experts, we could not just put them in charge. They might then do what is good for them rather than what is good for the rest of us, and soon after they came to power they would no longer be the relevant experts. Similar problems result from giving them an official advisory role.

"Futarchy" is an as yet untried form of government intended to address such problems. In futarchy, democracy would continue to say what we want, but betting markets would now say how to get it. That is, elected representatives would formally define and manage an after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare. The basic rule of government would be:

When a betting market clearly estimates that a proposed policy would increase expected national welfare, that proposal becomes law.
Futarchy is intended to be ideologically neutral; it could result in anything from an extreme socialism to an extreme minarchy, depending on what voters say they want, and on what speculators think would get it for them.

Futarchy seems promising if we accept the following three assumptions:

GDP is today the most common measure of national wealth. It seems hard for frequent travelers to escape the impression that people in high GDP nations tend to be richer and better off than those in low GDP nations. Economists thus tend to be willing to recommend policies that macroeconomic data suggest are causally related to increasing GDP. It seems that it is not that hard to, after the fact, tell rich satisfied nations from poor miserable ones. GDP may be good enough, and with the full attention of our elected representatives, we should be able to do even better, such as by including happiness, inequality, health, leisure, and environment measures.

If we can measure how rich nations are, we can use such measurements to settle bets. This is good because betting markets, and speculative markets more generally, seem to do very well at aggregating information. To have a say in a speculative market, you have to "put your money where your mouth is." Those who know they are not relevant experts shut up, and those who do not know this eventually lose their money, and then shut up. Speculative markets in essence offer to pay anyone who sees a bias in current market prices to come and correct that bias.

Speculative market estimates are not perfect. There seems to be a long-shot bias when there are high transaction costs, and perhaps also excess volatility in long term aggregate price movements. But such markets seem to do very well when compared to other institutions. For example, racetrack market odds improve on the predictions of racetrack experts, Florida orange juice commodity futures improve on government weather forecasts, betting markets beat opinion polls at predicting U.S. election results, and betting markets consistently beat Hewlett Packard official forecasts at predicting Hewlett Packard printer sales. In general, it is hard to find information that is not embodied in market prices.

A betting market can estimate whether a proposed policy would increase national welfare by comparing two conditional estimates: national welfare conditional on adopting the proposed policy, and national welfare conditional on not adopting the proposed policy. Betting markets can produce conditional estimates several ways, such as via "called-off bets," i.e., bets that are called off if a condition is not met.

For a more detailed and academic discussion of futarchy, see my paper, Shall We Vote on Values, But Bet on Beliefs?, to appear in Journal of Political Philosophy, 2013. See also versions from 2007, 2003, 2000.

Media mentions of futarchy:

Max Bruinsma, Chris Keulemans, De cultuur als markt De Groene Amsterdammer August 12, 2000. (in Dutch) (English version)

Hal Varian, A Market Approach to Politics. New York Times, Page C2, May 8, 2003.

Ralf Grotker, Besser regieren, brand eins, 134-137, October, 2007. (in German)

Mark Leibovich and Grant Barrett, The Buzzwords of 2008, New York Times, December 21, 2008.

Robin Hanson, Open-Source Government: How can we fix our political system?, BBC Focus 206:21, August 2009.