Popper Criterion for Politics

The Popper Criterion states that the long-term health of any system is based on its ability to remove bad instances from it.

Let's look at politics. In politics, the Popper Criterion is known as "democratic accountability." People should be able to remove bad leaders through a democratic election. Without this ability, authoritarians like Putin stay in power even if the people want to remove him. But with democratic accountability, governments can remove ineffective or corrupt actors.

Democratic accountability is one of three parts of Fukuyama's three pillars of a stable state:

To simplify it, we can combine Rule of Law and Democratic Accountability into a single pillar, Democratic Accountability. It then becomes a clear tension. On one side: is the state strong and modern enough to make decisions that benefit the general public? On the other: if it's not doing well, is there a way to keep it accountable to the public?

I like to think of the strength of the state as the size of the arrow and accountability as the direction of the arrow.

As an example, China has an extremely strong state, but is not very democratically accountable. India is quite democratically accountable, but their state can't get much done.

The US is in an interesting predicament as well. Sometimes accountability is accountable to the wrong metrics. Democracies are often controlled by charismatic leaders, not necessarily the "best" leaders:

A system that routinely submits control over the largest, most deadly enterprises on earth to the winner of popularity contests between charismatic demagogues is bound to suffer for it in the long run.

FiveThirtyEight shows how the Republican Party in the US is no longer accountable to a majority of Americans. They can meet the desires of folks in small rural states (a minority), while still winning elections. This makes the signals from democratic accountability less strong:

Essentially, what this means is the Republican Party can go off the rails without really suffering any immediate electoral costs. They can win the presidency without winning the popular vote; they can control the Senate without representing the majority of voters. And so the self-correcting mechanism of American democracy—elections—is not working, because they’re not getting the signal that what they’re doing isn’t a winning strategy—because it is a winning strategy.

So the GOP in America isn't accountable enough. However, America also has a problem of too much accountability. This is the problem of vetocracy or the tragedy of the anti-commons. It happens when too many people have a voice over a given decision. Then the government becomes paralyzed and can't get anything done.

There's another negative version of this, which Mancur Olson calls Incentivized Minorities, Indifferent Majorities or Taleb calls Minority Rule:

Small groups (like energy incumbents) are easier to organize than large groups (all Americans who would benefit from nuclear energy) because their direct incentives are greater. Benefits are concentrated and costs are diffused, so by acting legitimately through democratic channels interest groups will secure protection even at the expense of the greater public. The result is that “society, acting collectively through its democratic institutions” sends a clear message: “We don’t want these things.”

The generalized form of this is called Selectorate Theory. It states that a government only needs to be accountable to the "winning coalition." In a dictatorship, the winning coalition is just the dictator. The people don't have a voice. In an authoritarian state, the winning coalition might be the army and the executives of oil fields. In a democracy, the winning coalition is hopefully 51% of the population.

In the image below, we can see a democracy on the left vs. an authoritarian state on the right.

On the left, the government has a strong civil society and an educated populace which leads to lots of taxable revenue (the bottom-to-top arrow on the far left). These taxes then get redistributed in a programmatic way to both the people directly and to the winning coalitions, which represent those groups (unions, companies, etc.).

On the right, the government gets all of their income from natural resources like oil, gold, and diamonds. They give a tiny bit of money to the people but mostly want to keep the population uneducated so they can't rise up. Instead, most of the money goes to the winning coalition of the police, army, and maybe some rich tycoons.


Democratic accountability gives us the ability to express voice in a political system. Or, we can simply exit the system entirely. Don't like the US? Move to Canada. This is a form of meta accountability, where the accountability comes from outside competition.

Hirschman's Exit, Voice, and Loyalty also adds a third variable, loyalty. Loyalty modifies whether someone wants to express voice instead of exiting. For example, I have some patriotism for America, so my loyalty makes me less likely to exit.

Loyalty points us towards a crucial concept in political systems, legitimacy. A political system is legitimate if the populace has faith in the system even when specific policies don't go their way. Legitimacy is a function of a having a strong state that is also accountable.


  • We only send one bit of information per person to the US federal government every four years. That's not nearly enough.
  • Accountability holds for other things like police violence. Qualified immunity goes against the Popper Criterion.
  • Should Arrow's Theorem be connected here?