Crowds are Wise – But not when it comes to Voting

In 1907 there was a very interesting article in the Nature magazine called Vox Populi (The voice of the people) written by Francis Galton. It starts with the following words:

In these democratic days, Any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgement is of interest. The material about to be discussed is a small matter but is much to the point

He went on to state (in a later comment) that the mean of all the guesses made by an 800 strong audience for the weight of a cow (or some such animal) was closer to the real weight than the weight guessed by a set of experts. He implied that that 800 non-experts may give you a more correct answer than a couple of experts. There have been plenty of experiments since that prove the wisdom of crowds but in one very important aspect I believe crowds have failed.

If ever man devised a system which so wholly depends on the wisdom of crowds it is democracy. Early democracy was very different to what we see today – in some senses it is closer to an Oligarchy – where there was a central group and there would be a vote on a number of issues. Only those above a certain age (always much greater than 18) would have a chance to vote. And even so there would always be a central structure (elite group, king(s)) who could quash legislations which were deemed not right. Ostensibly this elite group of decision makers were ‘learned’ men or at least experienced in whetever it is they did (science, society etc) and the king trusted their opinion. The common man – the peasant, the blue collar worker had no real voice at all. He/she was seen as uneducated (and in most cases they were) and incapable of understanding the complexities of the problems that needed solving.

Over time people started to see chinks in this method of governance . The disenfranchised sections of society started to feel their grievances being neglected. They all felt that they too were suitably qualified to take part in the governing process. So after much struggle, we came to the point – where we are now – where we have universal voting. Any human being who has the qualities of staying alive till the age of 18 can play his/her part in choosing who runs the country.

This brings us to the wisdom of crowds. Once you have a crowd so diverse, doesn’t there arise the question of bias? On the basis of mental capacity, upbringing, race, religion, understanding? People don’t vote for the candidate that they believe will govern them well any more. They vote either for personas or for pre-disposed political or social biases.

“I’m voting for him because I’ve always voted for Tories” (Is “he” any good? I don’t care.)

“I’ll vote for the BJP because I’m Hindu and they will do a better job of upholding my values” (Will BJP’s budgetary goals ruin your trading business?

“I’ll vote for Obama because he talks well”

Going back to the “Wisdom of crowds experiment”, think of a situation where the cow being weighed was co-owned by 50 of the 800 people stating the weight and they all knew that the weight would be decided based on what final value comes up as a mean of their guesses. I’m sure the 50 would have stated weights on the higher end thus making a mockery of the exercise.

The underlying question at a vote, I think, should be, which of these guys will manage and run a district/state/country the best. The people who are voting lose track of this question. They vote for people who don’t have a vision and if they have a vision they don’t have the tools to make it work. And no – corruption doesn’t cloud the idea of the democracy as much as badly informed voting in my opinion. In fact – some say that corruption could help democracies work better.

In Sparta, you had to be 30 years old and male to play a part in governance. I feel that 18 is too young an age to start playing a role. At 18 most people don’t have a wholistic idea about life. They have rarely ever worked and even if they have, they have a hollow education lasting only upto school.

On larger issues, like climate change, fracking, communal harmony, benefits and so on – can we expect an 18 year old kid or for that matter a grown adult with a mediocre intellect to make the enlightened choice to change the status quo? This becomes even more difficult and improbable if making such a choice for change has a direct and negative impact economically on the said person. A car mechanic, an oil worker, a rich taxpayer and a defence contractor  would all find it extremely hard to make a choice which would directly affect their livelihoods negatively however much good it might do for the nation or the world.

With that in mind, what is to stop our world from going the way of the Rapa Nui at Easter Island? I don’t think we can trust people who make choices based on bias, people who elect leaders who unabashedly lie to their country and take them to war, people who elect leaders who think it important to raise statues of themselves.

Churchill backs me up with this one “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” But of course, Churchill himself was the first to state that democracy is the best system we’ve got.

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