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World Watch - February 6, 2005 - Does Democracy Really Work? - The Ornery American

World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card February 6, 2005

Does Democracy Really Work?

If we're going to follow a foreign policy of persuading, cajoling, pressuring, and sometimes forcing other nations to adopt democratic systems of government, wouldn't it be nice to know if democracy even works?

I know that in one sense the proof is already in place: The United States of America is a democracy, of a sort anyway, and we're the biggest guy on the block, so obviously ...

But it's not really obvious.

Most of the world's superpowers weren't remotely democratic. Genghis Khan didn't set up voting booths in conquered territory. The tsars of Russia conquered half of Asia without a plebiscite. Mohammed and his successors swept through the Mediterranean world and ruled for a thousand years without allowing the people a chance to vote on anything. Not one Chinese dynasty ever consulted with the people on anything.

Rome was sort of democratic, but it gave up being a republic soon after it conquered the known world. The first emperor, Augustus, put a stop to any serious attempt to expand the empire, but even so, the Roman Empire did last as a dictatorship for five hundred years -- and a thousand years beyond that, if you count Byzantium.

So why do we think that being a democracy is any part of the reason for our success on the world stage?

Why are we so sure that putting things to a vote leads to good results?

After all, almost half the country right now, in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, is utterly convinced that democracy is an utter failure, having elected George W. Bush to a second term.

And four years earlier, the other half was deeply grateful that the U.S. is not a complete democracy, so that Al Gore did not become president despite having a plurality of the votes cast.

Plato and many other political philosophers were convinced that the only good government was a meritocracy -- a government by experts who actually know what they're doing.

If opinion polls show anything, it's the profound ignorance of the general public.

And yet here we are, committed to getting Egypt and Jordan, and eventually even Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, to let the people choose their governments by majority vote.

Are we right?

The Wisdom of Crowds

James Surowiecki, a business writer for The New Yorker, says that, under the right circumstances, democracy is absolutely the best way to make right decisions.

And in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations, he shows, through science, logic, and anecdotal experience, why that is so.

There aren't a lot of books in the world that are -- and deserve to be -- transformative of the way we think. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is such a book, completely revising and deeply informing the way we look at history.

The Wisdom of Crowds may well be another such book. In it, Surowiecki demonstrates the improbable idea that a large, diverse group of non-experts will, by the use of common sense and guessing, consistently make better judgments than small groups of experts.

Which is not to say that you can't fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. Democracy is far from perfect.

What's remarkable, though, is that it really does work.

The Fear of the Mob

For a long time, democracy had a bad name, mostly because it was regarded as a synonym for "mob rule." Nothing struck terror into the hearts of serious political philosophers than when masses of people took to the streets with violence and looting.

And they had seen it. In the more tightly packed cities of the past, where cars had not spread us out and people had only to go out of their doors to join a crowd, mobs formed far more frequently than they do now.

And everyone knew that, once inside a mob, an individual person would do terrible things that he would never do alone, where he would bear sole responsibility for his actions.

It was only natural that in the days before universal suffrage, philosophers would assume that, allowed to vote secretly, human beings would make the same kind of irrational, immoral, stupid, and unjust decisions that mobs make.

They would be just as anonymous, wouldn't they? Just as unlikely to be held responsible for their actions; just as likely to indulge their basest motivations.

What they didn't take into account was the dignity of voting -- not just in ballot boxes, but in casual circumstances. Even if no one knows how you're going to vote, and even if you're voting because of gut feelings or passions, you still take the responsibility of voting seriously.

When you think about it, taking a single vote seriously is absurd. Look at the amount of time we take to make up our minds about candidates when our one vote will be of minuscule effect. Most elections aren't even close. And yet we still go; and when we vote, we rarely vote like a mob.

When we act as a democracy, we are not necessarily, as one writer put it, "a gathering of imbeciles."

The Unexpected Answer

The seminal researchers into the judgment of crowds were not expecting the results they got. They expected to prove the stupidity of crowds; which makes their results all the more trustworthy.

For instance, take the story of a naval officer named John Craven, who was part of the effort to locate the missing U.S. submarine Scorpion, which disappeared in May 1968.

The part of the ocean in which it was likeliest to have gone down was small, compared to the size of the ocean, but huge, compared to the size of the sub. Craven could consult "experts," but the truth is the only experts on the location of the sub when it went down were the people who were on it. Nobody else knew all that much.

So Craven "assembled a team of men with a wide range of knowledge, including mathematicians, submarine specialists, and salvage men. Instead of asking them to consult with each other to come up with an answer, he asked each of them to offer his best guess" as to the sub's location, based on several scenarios of what might have happened to it.

He structured the guesses as wagers -- they were betting on why the sub "ran into trouble, its speed as it headed toward the ocean bottom, on the steepness of its descent, and so forth."

Nobody had any privileged or expert information. But when Craven took their bets and processed them using a mathematical formula called "Bayes's theorem," he had what could reasonably be called the group's "collective estimate" of the location of the sub.

No individual member of the group picked that location. No one person had, in his head, a correct picture of what had happened and where the sub was.

But the sub really was only 220 yards from where Craven's group collectively predicted it would be.

One story like that could be a coincidence, like the obvious coincidence involved when, out of millions of phone calls a day, and millions of people thinking about absent friends and relatives, some of those calls are bound to consist of a person calling somebody right after they just happened to think of them.

But Surowiecki's book shows that this is not just a coincidence, it is arepeated pattern.

Collectively, groups know more than individuals.

The Rules

First, crowds are wisest only at solving certain kinds of problems. They are better at guessing definable outcomes (who will win the game; where the sub will be found; how many beans are in the jar).

They are also better at making decisions under circumstances of uncertainty.

Obviously, when you're working on fixing a car engine, a skilled mechanic will have a far greater chance of finding the specific problem and solving it than someone like me, who thinks of the internal combustion engine as a particularly loud and greasy kind of magic.

But when the question is one that nobody can be sure of, like predicting the outcome of a series of events -- or choosing the "best" among candidates for office who are all functionally strangers masked behind image-making machinery -- experts are actually at a disadvantage.

Crowds are wisest when these conditions are met:

1. Diversity of opinion. ("Each person should have some private information, even if it's just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.")

2. Independence. ("People's opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them.")

3. Decentralization. ("People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.")

4. Aggregation. ("Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.")

What happens with groups of experts is that they are usually part of the same intellectual community. So they have already shared a common set of "facts" -- meaning that they see problems through a similar worldview and apply a similar set of mental tools.

This is fine as long as the solution to a problem is obvious -- it fits their worldview and lends itself to the tools they possess.

But when the problem is not in accordance with group expectations, they will not only be wrong, they will all be wrong in the same direction. And, to clinch it, they will not know that they are wrong and will have trouble believing they were wrong even when the outcome is clearly different from their prediction.

One thinks, for instance, of the CIA's intransigent rejection of President Bush's war plan in Iraq, even though the CIA was consistently wrong in the information it provided the President and consistently wrong in its predictions of what would happen at each stage of the occupation.

In fact, this is the primary reason why creating a single intelligence source to filter all our data about enemy actions is exactly the stupidest move we could have made. Yes, the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI let the events of 9/11 take place.

But the solution was not to have a single funnel through which all information had to flow; the solution was to get rid of those funnels and let all the intelligence officers, with all their different sources of information, pool their knowledge and offer many, many guesses as to what would happen.

Centralization is the opposite of democracy; and the only way a crowd of spies can possibly be "wise" is to keep them diverse, independent, and decentralized.

Everybody knows only what they know; and when one person has the ability to quash any idea that doesn't fit in with what he thinks is "likely," you are essentially throwing away every other source of intelligence but that one expert -- who is likely, most of the time, to be wrong.


Groupthink is a pervasive danger wherever elites gain prestige and are able to influence the thinking of others through authority alone. One thinks of the way college students seem to march in lockstep with the ultra-leftist opinions of professors, especially on campuses where political incorrectness will get you ostracized at best, expelled at worst.

The reason why some sciences have advanced so slowly or not at all in recent years is because people who don't share the groupthink conclusions of those academic disciplines are not hired in the first place, or not granted tenure if they somehow do slip through.

(On thinks of "family studies" departments where anyone who actually thinks fathers are needed and day care might be harmful or religion might be a positive influence on a family are actively excluded from hiring or the bestowal of research grants. No surprise: The same wrong conclusions keep showing up again and again from shoddy research, with only a glimmer of real science showing up here and there, almost by accident.)

The Democratic Party is in a groupthink haze right now, enforcing uniformity of thought with increasing rigor and therefore making ludicrous choices -- like Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean. Ludicrous, that is, if their goal is to achieve legislative goals or win future elections; perfectly sensible if the goal is to encourage fanatical extremist thinking and action that will continue to alienate more and more of the American public.

Historically, the political parties have thrived best when they "broadened the tent," making strong efforts to include people who are not "ideologically pure."

Where the Democratic Party's "diversity" these days is cosmetic only -- lots of races and groups, but only those individuals from those races and groups who happen to think exactly like the elitists who rule the party -- FDR's old coalition included groups that really did see the world very differently.

You get a party of labor unions, blacks, Jews, immigrants, liberals, and the diehard Confederates of the solid South, and you will really have diversity.

And it's from diversity, not unity, that large groups of people make wise collective decisions.

Like, for instance, choosing presidential candidates who have a hope of winning the general election.

Read the Book

Surowiecki covers an amazing amount of territory in such a small book, from sports betting to the stock market to politics, from corporations to traffic flow to science.

It's a small book with less than three hundred pages, and Surowiecki is an extraordinarily clear and engaging writer. You won't suffer any pain from reading it.

And at the end, you'll not only know why markets work while market experts constantly fail, you'll know why we -- and other nations -- are right to put our trust in democracy, as long as we maintain the conditions that allow crowds to make wise decisions.

When we think of Iraqis braving the threat of death to go to the polls, what we saw was not only courage and determination -- we also saw a nation adopt the mechanism that will, in the long run, give them the best chance of making the right decisions to ensure their future freedom, prosperity, and happiness.

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.

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