Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds...

In James Surowiecki's book, "The Wisdom of Crowds", the argument presented is that groups of people are more intelligent than experts. If there is enough decentralization, diversity, and independence among the group, then their "collective intelligence" will typically reach wise decisions - even if most of the people in the group are not well-informed or rational. Asking the experts is a mistake; we should stop hunting and "ask the crowd".

This seems counter-intuitive, but is it true? It's certainly an intriguing argument which fits neatly into the literature relevant to studying the blogosphere, social networking sites, search engine algorithms, and the web in general. However, what happens if we apply Surowiecki's argument to an altogether different context - American political theory?

The super-quickie review of the Constitution and Federalist Papers would suggest how the Founding Fathers sought to implement a republic, rather than a direct democracy. The reasoning was simple - "The People", likened to mobs, were a political force that society should fear. Our constitutional system of checks and balances was set up precisely for this reason - to give The People a say in government (embodied in the House of Representatives), but to have other institutions whose role would be specifically to mitigate the power of The People. Rather than forming a direct democracy, the Founders established a republic where "representatives" were the crucial element.

Back to the point. Political science students are repeatedly told of the important role of expertise in the policy process - as a justification for congressional committees, institutional bureaucrats, etc. If Surowiecki is correct in that masses of people typically make better decisions than qualified "experts", doesn't that not only greatly diminish the role of expertise, but also challenge the very principle of representative government? Of course, the logistics of direct democracy in the 1780s would have rendered any such pursuit impossible on a practical level. However, in the 21st century, two questions begged to be asked. 1) Is direct democracy now possible? 2) Is it desirable?

Surowiecki indicates that, indeed, it is desirable, as our collective intelligence would lead to better decision-making than experts or representatives. Take the "wisdom of crowds" argument out of the narrow context of the blogosphere and internet-related issues, and instead see it for what it is... a direct challenge to the Founding Fathers' principle that you cannot trust The People directly with policy.

Maybe, in that way, we'd truly be better off with taxation without representation.
  

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