The Technological Politics of Mechanism Design
14 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2020
Date Written: May 19, 2019
Eric Posner and Glen Weyl’s Radical Markets is dedicated to Vickrey and opens with a preface titled “The Auction Will Set You Free.” Vickrey’s ideas offer a middle ground, according to Posner and Weyl, between the Right’s view that markets must be “strengthened, expanded and purified” and the Left’s conviction that “existing social arrangements generate unfair inequality and undermine collective action.” Vickrey’s spirit animates the five specific proposals in the book — designs for “Radical Markets.” Radical Markets aim to transcend politics and solve the most urgent social ills of the day: income inequality, economic stagnation, and political strife. Further, for Posner and Weyl, Vickrey-inspired mechanism design can achieve an even more ambitious task — that of (as their book’s subtitle suggests) “Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society.”
But how exactly does economic theory mediate a compromise between values of the Left and Right? Such questions get to the heart of what we call in this Review the technological politics of mechanism design: the implicit political and ethical commitments of social institutions derived through the logic of mechanism design. Attending to the technological politics of a mechanism is prerequisite to understanding whether the mechanism in fact earns its claim to ethical or political virtue.
In order to understand the implications and limitations of Posner and Weyl’s capacious vision, we explore the unspoken ethics and politics of two of their proposals in detail. Omitting a discussion of the technological politics of “Quadratic Voting” leaves the proposal unable to address the ways in which pre-existing structural inequality could differentially affect different social populations. Meanwhile, the Authors’ inattentiveness to the technological politics of “Data as Labor” leads them to an overly narrow set of possible solutions to problematic data extraction. Our analysis demonstrates the value of articulating the relationship between mechanism design and claims about just social arrangements. As such, we suggest that Vickrey’s bold economic ideas need political and ethical reasoning in order to realize their radical potential.
Keywords: Mechanism Design, Data, Inequality, Auction Theory, Book Review, Privacy, Voting, Quadratic Voting, Data Labor, Data Property
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