The Human Condition:

The Saving Grace of Democracy – November 2, 2014

Show of hands

Although I am conservative by nature, my political leaning of is that of a “little-D democrat.” That is, I believe in the innate wisdom of crowds and trust in the consensus of a large group of people.

In John Brunner’s 1975 novel of an internet-connected future, Shockwave Rider, the main character at one point operates a Delphi poll. The Delphi method is a technique for establishing consensus by asking a group of experts the same question and comparing their answers to find some kind of empirical truth. In Brunner’s novel, using the vastly more powerful resources of the internet, the character posts questions online, invites thousands of average people to respond, and tabulates the results. The questions could be specific—such as “How many cars does Ford make in a year?” or “How many hospitals are there in the U.S.?”—or they could be purely speculative—such as “When will humankind have a base on Mars?” Some people will possess expert knowledge of the subject, like Ford production managers, hospital accreditation examiners, and NASA administrators. And some will just take wild guesses. Brunner’s point was that it didn’t matter. If you averaged the results, you would come eerily close to the correct answer or, in the case of speculative questions, a surprisingly reasonable estimate.1

Brunner’s summation on the Delphi poll: “While nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.”

The Germans call it Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the times,” or more loosely the consensus of a culture and the society it produces. This is the collected knowledge, the folk wisdom, and the expectations and limitations within which any individual operates. It’s the tide along with, or against which, any individual swims. So the Delphi poll and the consensus it samples works within a broadly defined group. You can ask 21st-century Americans about Ford’s production figures and get a pretty good reading. Try the same question with a group of Somalis or Sudanese, and you will probably be less satisfied.

This kind of collective wisdom harks back to the Lincoln quote: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”—where the fooling involves working against what the culture holds as common knowledge or accepted wisdom. So Lincoln was a little-D democrat, too. Any one person can be a damn fool at some time or another, but the mass of men—the common run of the country—is collectively going to be pretty smart.

But as a conservative, I also believe in the wisdom of individuals and trust in the insight that the dedicated expert may amass by training and study. I believe in individual genius, personal responsibility for actions and intentions, and the virtues of contrarian thinking. So I am also a “little-L libertarian.” Furthermore, as a thorny individualist myself, I don’t relish my intentions and actions being judged, let alone constrained, by a crowd of people who operate on guesses and instinct coupled with the fancies and folktales their grandmothers whispered to them in their childhood.

It’s a conundrum—and one that faces all western technological societies most strongly in the 21st century.

The commonest form of government in the developed countries of the West is some kind of representational democracy. Local people elect representatives to go to Washington, London, Berlin, or Tokyo and sit in Congress, Parliament, the Bundestag, or the Diet to decide the issues of the day and make laws for the whole country. Some kind of overall leader may exist, whether a prime minister chosen from among the legislators or a separate executive elected at large, but the power still resides in the collected group of representatives. This form of democracy developed, not from any philosophical principle, but from pure logistics. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when these systems were codified, it was actually impossible to bring all the citizenry of a sprawling, agrarian country together to hear and debate issues. The direct and personal democracy of the village, the tribe, or the Greek city-state did not work among millions of people scattered across a whole country, let alone a continent.

Even then, it might take weeks for an elected representative to travel between his constituency and the national capital, and to communicate with the electorate from day to day in any detail on the current issues—whether by letters, newspaper articles, or published pamphlets—was simply impractical. So each locale voted for its representative, sent him off to the big city, and trusted in his judgment.2 As issues became more complex, as laws became more exacting and tried to encompass more specifics and exceptions, the staffs of the individual legislators had to grow in order to keep up with the tide. And the staffs of the various cabinet posts, government departments, and other agencies and commissions charged with executing and administering the laws also grew. Our laws are now written by staffs recruited from lobbyists, interest groups, and lawyers, and executed by departments full of civil servants and registered contractors.

Today, modern elective governments are pulled in two directions. On side, the actual power of decision in the execution and enforcement all these complex laws is in the hands of non-elected experts who were hired into those government departments, agencies, and commissions. Presumably, they were hired because they had the education, skills, and insight to deal with the actual cases that might arise. So one could hope that people working in the Department of Energy know something about electricity, gas, nuclear power, transmission, and science, and that people working in the Department of Education know something about children, teaching, and psychology. If I am right about trusting educated and dedicated experts, then we would seem to be in good hands.

On the other side of the question, today our modern, computerized communication technologies like the internet, social media, polling techniques, and data mining tend to make the representative nature of modern democracy almost charmingly obsolete. Why pick an individual to speak for a locale, pack him on a horse, and send him off to the big city when any citizen with a telephone and a computer can dial into a polling service, post a blog or comment on one, share in a viral meme, and make his or her views instantly known? We are coming back around to the Greek ideal, where every citizen can pick up an electronic potsherd, make his or her mark, and put it in the computerized jar. If I am right about trusting the wisdom of crowds, then we might be in even more capable hands by working through the new digital democracy.

Except … except … we can see that kind of direct democracy at work in California, where statewide propositions are launched by petition to make laws that bypass the state senate and assembly. Sometimes good laws are made and survive judicial review. But sometimes mischief is set afoot that requires eventual backtracking and rebuilding to set things right. And sometimes the result is just a nuisance.3

So a government of experts might be preferable … except that even the smartest, most educated, most distinguished genius can still have his or her moments of foolishness or suffer from personal quirks that render a considered opinion or decision foolish in one dimension or another. And an expert who has been granted authority of position and the power of decision can lose all humility and come to believe that he or she exercises some kind of divine right over the rest of us. Arrogance is a special province of fools.

So the conundrum remains. Should we trust the wisdom of the many? Or of the few?

I don’t have an answer for this. But sometimes the issue makes me want to retreat to a high mountain valley that has a good water source and defendable passes, and then barricade the road behind me. I would take along only my family and a few friends—but then how are we to organize and govern ourselves? Still a conundrum. …

1. This is not unlike the old carnival challenge of guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar. Any one person’s guess might be laughably far off, but the average of all guesses would fall within a few beans of the exact count. And about a decade ago the magazine Popular Science ran a Delphi poll on its back cover, asking readers to answer speculative questions about science and technology. Although I never saw their published results, I’m sure the editors were looking for insight into the future.
       Something similar takes place in any bookmaking operation: by taking bets on a sporting proposition—such as which horse is faster or which fighter hits harder and has more stamina—the bookie establishes the odds or probabilities based on the wisdom of a crowd of gamblers. Some of them will bet with a keen eye for horseflesh or human heft. Some will bet because they like the color of the jockey’s silks or the look in the fighter’s eye. And some will bet knowing that the fix is in. … It all averages out.

2. Here I would use the gender-equivalent “him or her,” except in this case women were not part of the equation until the early 20th century—and our society bears more shame for that.

3. For an example of mischief, consider Proposition 13 from 1978, which effectively freezes property tax rates for people who don’t move around much but settle in one home for years at a time. Intended to control public spending by slowing the power of taxation, that initiative has created an imbalance in public participation which leaves many cities and counties still struggling.
       For a nuisance, consider Proposition 65 from 1986, which requires every product and public building to post a standardized notice about possible toxins found inside. Since we all live in a dangerous world, and modern science can detect chemicals in increasingly minute concentrations, the warnings are posted everywhere. No sane person stops at the door because of a Proposition 65 warning anymore, and so we are desensitized to all possible hazards.