The Wisdom of the Demos

[First published January 2, 2006] James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowd (2004) argues that if groups are diverse in membership and their members are independent, then the collective wisdom of the group is often better than that of even the brightest, best informed members. However, there has to be some way of aggregating and organizing the wisdom of the members to arrive at the wisdom of the group.

For example, consider the question as to how many beans (marbles, pennies, etc.) there are in a jar. Now, if each member of large and diverse group independently makes a guess, and then all the guesses are averaged, the average will almost always be closer to the actual number than any one guess. Surowiecki provides many other examples, some real world, such as how the free market illustrates the wisdom of the group (nation). He arrives at the underused concept that I employ for the working of a free market and a democracy, which is Hayek’s idea of a spontaneous society.

Surowiecki concludes his book on democracy, on which he says that democracy:

is not a way of solving cognition problems or a mechanism for revealing the public interest. But it is a way of dealing with (if not solving once and for all) the most fundamental problems of cooperation and coordination: How do we live together? How can living together work to our mutual benefit? Democracy helps people answer those questions because the democratic experience is an experience of not getting everything you want. It’s an experience of seeing your opponents win and get what you hoped to have, and of accepting it, because you believe that they will not destroy the things you value and because you know you will have another chance to get what you want. In that sense, a healthy democracy inculcates the virtues of compromise — which is, after all, the foundation of the social contract — and change. The decisions that democracies make may not demonstrate the wisdom of the crowd. The decision to make them democratically does.

And thus, democracy is a method of nonviolence



A problem with changing one’s mind in public from X to -X, is that it takes a long time for the public to recognize -X, and then one is stuck with saying, “Oh, I no longer agree with myself then.” Thus, regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Anonymous posted a comment yesterday that I should answer now before it confuses visitors. Anonymous says:
With all due respect: Your arguments seem a bit weak and a bit other-wordly.

1) Real people in the real world have to make judgment calls. Your pretending that the millions of lives saved by dropping the bomb – most of them Japanese civilians who would have been killed in the invasion or in continued fire bombings – were speculative and therefore you seem to disregard them altogether. But any real person in a position of real authority would have had to make an estimate of what the costs would have been. They really are not speculative. Based on all the available evidence, it would have been a long, drawn out bloodbath.

2. Your pretending that “maybe Japan would have just surrendered without a large invasion” is a leap into the realm of let’s pretend; maybe such and such could have happened; – but you refused to do any speculating in Issue number 1, above. Not fair.

3. Acoording to Victor Davis Hanson, the Chinese were dying at a phenomenal rate because of continued Japanese occupation. If I recall correctly, they were dying at the rate of 250,000 per month. And the Japanese probably killed about 15 million total. It is difficult to gather much sympathy for a population that supported that kind of slaughter. Plus, your position that they were all brainwashed automatons doesn’t work – they never heard from the soldiers who came home what was happening? And if you insist on the point, are you willing to grant the same to the German population that allowed the extermination of the Jews? Are they totally innocent as well?

4. The very sad part of this is that people who take your position seem to have unlimited sympathy for Japanese children, while speaking not one word about the truly innocent Chinese, Burmese, Vietnamese, Korean, etc. children who were starved to death by the Japanese, used in experiments or just plain murdered. They continued to die every day the war went on. The critical thing about the war was that it be ended as soon as possible.

War is hell. But when an A-bomb saves millions of lives by finally shattering the Japanese war machine it was a very, very good thing. It was the Japanese who put us in a very bad position. They made it very clear they would go on killing Americans and everyone else in their grasp for as long as they could – only American might saved them from becoming one of the most brutal empires ever known.

How odd that it took 60 years – and the deaths of most of the generation who were alive at the time and who actually witnessed these events – for the brave academy to come out in opposition to the dropping of the bomb. And by selectively looking at the conflict from the side of the country that started the entire bloodbath.

RJR: I agree with all that Anonymous says, leaving aside some of the wording. The problem is that Anonymous must have been reading my earlier post, “Hiroshima-Nagasaki was Democide,” where I made the assertions to which Anonymous is apparently responding. He must have missed my reluctant change of mind to accept the bombing in my “Rethinking Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, and especially, my complete acceptance of the bombing, for many of the reasons Anonymous mentions, in “A Just Democide Doctrine?”

While agreeing with Anonymous, I want to be sure that everyone who reads this understands that what is implicitly involved here is a “Just Democide Doctrine. This is to say that under certain conditions, we are faced with the ugly choice of murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians as the lesser of two evils. I want this upfront and faced directly, for it is taken as a moral absolute that one does not commit genocide or democide.

Facing this virtually indigestible moral dilemma even further underlines and capitalizes the moral good of democracy. For as democratic freedom is universalized, then the wars in which such awful choices have to be made will never inflict humanity again.

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One Response to The Wisdom of the Demos

  1. Greg Gatch says:

    This post is awesome, nice work!

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