The Wisdom of Crowds: How Voting Produces a Better Society

It’s easy to feel discouraged in the United States of America sometimes.

Recently, I was chatting with someone who suggested that a meritocracy might be better than the democracy (of sorts) which we have now. A democratic republic, rather, and a degraded one: our government seems more dysfunctional than ever, overrun with ideologues and pawns of a few moneyed interests, and hyperbole and unreason holds sway over public discourse. A meritocracy, where rulers are selected based only on their qualifications, be it education, political experience, or business acumen, might prove a welcome change.
Meritocracy is, pretty much, just a theoretical form of government. I expect everyone believes it would be best to have wise and qualified leaders (if we must have any at all), and most think it’s good to try to put such people in office. No government exists whose constitution specifically requires that only the smartest people rule. But imagine a real meritocracy, with strict laws in place to ensure that only the most able, most knowledgeable leaders are appointed. Perhaps public officials would be selected by undergoing a series of tests, or elected by a panel of experts in relevant fields of knowledge. Wouldn’t this increase the chance that no dummies, however slick, charming, or pandering, would be allowed to hijack the government and, through their incompetence, ruin it for everyone else?
Not all that long ago, this sounded pretty good to me. When I returned to college awhile back and studied political philosophy, I was very much in the mood for it, or something like it. Like just about everyone else, it felt that I was constantly slapping my forehead (as I still do) over the ludicrous statements and bad laws our politicians were cranking out. Wouldn’t it be much better if they all had to take IQ tests, plus general knowledge tests in political and legal theory, history, English, rhetoric, and the rules of basic courtesy before they were allowed to run for office? (I’m willing to bet that no politicians who call for ‘citizenship tests’ for voters also call for ‘leadership tests’ for themselves.) Like you, dear readers, I have a deep respect for learning, and would be thrilled to see more of it make its way into our government and into our political discourse, let alone into our (to my mind) overly-materialist culture.

Yet through the years, the more widely I read, and the more I listen to politicians, scholars, and other influential people discuss and debate any given topic in any given field of expertise, it doesn’t seem likely that anyone exists, however brilliant, who could know or understand enough about any subject to craft public policy on their own. No one mind can hold all the relevant knowledge that should be brought to bear in crafting a good law. It’s not just technical knowledge that’s the problem: an expert in a field could, at least theoretically, access enough of that sort of knowledge on their own, from their colleagues, their library, and the Internet, though it still seems unrealistic that one person could put it all together in a reasonable time frame. The far bigger problem is that no one person could escape their own biases sufficiently to craft laws that are just for everyone.

All societies are made up of people with different personalities, different points of view, different belief systems, different circumstances of life. Each, therefore, has different interests and different responsibilities, and have different rights they hold most dear. It’s not possible for any one mind to fully understand how the rights, responsibilities, and interests of all interact and conflict. Not only that: a wise leader must effectively predict the entire chain of events that might result from enforcement of the law, or system of laws. We might say well, of course, no one knows all these things. So what we need in order to create an effective meritocracy is many leaders, not one or just a few. Between them all, a governing body of a large number of experts should be able to work out these problems as least as well as the public at large, and probably better.
But here we run into problem of numbers. Aside from the inevitable clashes of ego, think of how many ‘meritocrats’ it would take to adequately take all of the relevant knowledge, all the possible outcomes, all the values and interests of all of its citizens into account while crafting legislation. Is it likely that any one group, so unrepresentative as they are of the general population, could create a society in which the rights and interests of all of society, rich and poor, educated and otherwise, men, women, and children, laboring and not, of all races, are fairly and equally represented? Could they do this even in theory, given the facts of human psychology? Almost everyone, almost all of the time, automatically favors their own interests and those of their peers over those of other groups, and it makes sense that they should. For one thing, they understand why their own interests are as they are, because they arise from their own particular life experience. For another, everyone is prone to availability bias: people form beliefs and make decisions based on examples they themselves can readily call to mind. Therefore, we are intellectually hostage, so to speak, to whatever set of information and experience we are privy to. However much we try to expand our knowledge of the world, we are always limited. These, and myriad other quirks of human psychology, make it inevitable that no one human being on their own, or a relatively small group of human beings, could make sufficiently fair, impartial, and fully informed decisions on policies that effect everyone.

Let’s consider pre-Revolutionary France for an extreme example of how a meritocratic but short-sighted few, ruling over a non-participatory citizenry, can bring about societal collapse. France, like other European societies at the time, was ruled by a heritable meritocracy of a monarch and an aristocracy, and an appointed clergy, who all had the wealth and leisure, unavailable to most people, to afford an education. These ruled a populace which they kept in strict subjection, for the people’s own good, of course. Yet these meritocrats could not put themselves into the sabots (wooden clogs of the peasantry) of the majority of the people. (The Estates General, made up of representatives from various classes, advised the king, but had little power to begin with, and it decreased over time; the Third Estate, made up of the poorest members of  French society, had the least power, and the burden of taxation fell almost entirely on them.) As they saw it, the classes of society were properly kept in their place to fulfill their respective roles, and to undermine this structure would be to undermine the delicate balance of a functioning society. They were proven wrong: the intolerable condition of their lives caused the laboring classes to revolt and overthrow their rulers. While the monarch, the aristocracy, and the clergy considered themselves best suited for rule, they lacked the knowledge, the insight available only through the experience of what it takes to make the life of a laboring person not only bearable enough forestall rebellion, but satisfying and remunerative enough to encourage more productivity. They lacked the epistemic humility that wise people have. If the ruling elites were more informed, say, by the input of the people they ruled over, perhaps they could have thought of ways to harness human energy and facilitate creativity as market societies would later do. But since they shut themselves off from the input of the majority of the population, their policies were ill-informed and short-sighted, and their society eventually collapsed. This was the fate of so many undemocratic societies, that it seems most likely to be the fate of all.

‘But wait a minute!’ you may object. Why would we expect better results in a democracy, when it’s at least as likely and probably more, that the average person’s vote is based on just as narrow, less-than-fully-informed self-interest as that of the aforementioned meritocrats?

In a democratic system, individual voters don’t have to be fully informed about everything for their votes to be valuable. Since the vote crowd-sources knowledge from the entire population, each person, even if voting out of narrow self-interest, informs society of the things they know most about. Our votes tell each other what we want, and indicate why. By the way people vote, we discover what individuals have learned from their own life experiences, from the work they do, their area of study or expertise, their family and peer groups, and the demands of the environment in which they live. We learn what people believe, what their interests are, how far they’re willing to go to help each other out, and where they want the line drawn to protect themselves. We learn how much people know (and how much they don’t), what values they hold, and what kind of leaders they admire.

So it’s not that the average voter must be wise or fair for their vote to count, though it’s better that they are, since this speeds up the process of creating a better government. What matters most is that society as a whole is well informed. A society can only become knowledgeable enough to create a government that’s well-functioning, impartial, and more conducive to the flourishing of all of its constituents, by this crowd-sourcing of information. Since no one mind, or no few minds, can hold enough information or understand enough points of view to do what’s best for everyone, it’s everyone who must provide the necessary knowledge.

This utilitarian argument, by the way, is not meant to replace moral arguments in favor of democracy: that proper respect for the moral equality of all persons entails the right to vote, or that it’s incumbent on all good citizens to fulfill their social obligations through political participation, and so on. I offer it as one of many excellent reasons to prefer a democratic system of government over any other: not only because it’s morally enlightened, it’s also the most practical. Democracy is best because it works best, and the evidence of history bears this out. In modern democratic societies, for example, war is relatively rare, since the transfer of power from one leader to the next is peaceful. Generally, the burdens of war disproportionately fall on the majority of society while a relative few reap the benefits; very few wars in history were revolutions that benefited the majority the most. For those of us dismayed at how many wars we still wage nowadays, compare the state of the world today with the history of Europe : nearly every time a ruler or rulers died, by fair means or foul, either a war would break out to decide who should rule next, or the new ruler(s) would embark on a war of conquest to prove their supremacy, or the favored religion of the new ruler(s) was forcibly, and bloodily, imposed. Most of Europe was at war most of the time, century after century, until their monarchies, aristocracies, and theocracies were replaced with modern, democratic, and largely secular governments. Modern democratic societies, while sometimes at war with other countries, aren’t at war with each other, and there are far fewer wars overall as a result.

Let’s consider a modern example of how not voting not only leads to more oppression, but to well-intentioned yet bad policy resulting from self-imposed ignorance: the disenfranchisement of convicts. Those convicted of serious crimes are punished with the loss of some of their civil rights, at least for awhile, and this often includes the right to vote. While I understand the deterrent effect of many types of punishment, including the loss of some rights and privileges, the loss of the vote does little good in this respect. Each individual prisoner loses little when they lose the vote, but society loses a lot: as we punish criminals by taking away their right to vote, we undermine our society by making it that much less informed.

As we are only significantly realizing now, our criminal justice system is not only rife with mistakes, but with affronts to human dignity and assaults on human rights. For example, we’re discovering that our ‘common-sense’ reliance on eyewitness testimony and police interrogation techniques has led to an unacceptable rate of false convictions. We’re finally discovering that our ‘tried-and-true’ methods of police interrogation and psychological questioning routinely generate false testimony and false confessions. This includes 20%-25% of exonerations for serious crimes based on DNA evidence (an alarming rate, since relevant DNA evidence is available only in a substantial minority of cases). There are a wealth of examples of people convicted because of the brain’s ability to create false memories, especially if an authority figure or medical ‘professional’ induces them, or because eyewitnesses misunderstand or misremember what they saw. Consider the rash of cases in the 1980’s and 1990’s where scores of childcare workers were falsely convicted of ritualistic child rape and torture. Or the Norfolk, Virgina murder/rape case, in which four grown military men (who had passed mental- and bodily-health tests to join the Navy) were coerced into giving contradictory confessions. The list of problems with our justice system does not end there, not by a long shot: there’s our long history of junk forensic science, prison overcrowding, official indifference to prison rape, solitary confinement-induced mental illness, and law-enforcement policies which generate higher recidivism rates and help turn petty criminals into hardened, violent ones through over-punishment.

Yet if those convicted of crimes had been informing the rest of us, through their votes, of their inside knowledge of the criminal justice system, the sooner we could have had the opportunity to recognize and correct these errors. It took centuries for policy makers and researchers and scientists to discover how prevalent, and how serious, these problems are, or to care enough to find out. Of course, it’s important to be tough on crime, and all members of a society have the right and responsibility to protect themselves and their loved ones. But this interest in self-protection must be balanced against the interests of those who have suffered the ill effects of over-zealous, ‘tough-on-crime’ policies. Every time an innocent person is convicted of a crime, the guilty one remains free to commit more, and every policy that encourages the abuse of prisoners and raises incarceration and recidivism rates, the more injustice we commit, the more criminality we foster, and the more taxes we pay.

None of this is to say that merit doesn’t matter, of course it does. In modern democratic societies, we not only vote directly for specific laws and taxes, we vote for representatives, specialists whose job it is to be better informed on the issues than the average person, or have expert advisers, or have achieved a higher level of education. A democratic republic such as ours can be seen as a type of meritocracy, since the idea is that the people, as a whole, elect representatives based on their merits as well as on the likelihood that they will best represent their constituents’ interests. But even so, the fact that they are voted in by all of the people still ensures that the whole range of interests are represented, and the widest possible range of knowledge is brought to bear.

To return to the degraded state of the United States’ democratic republic: the problem isn’t so much that uninformed voters are dragging the country down, though I think they, too, can impede progress. The bigger problem is that the votes of most people count less than ever, in this era where buying power makes right, and where the interests and values of the majority of people are not adequately represented. For example, we have a problem under-regulation, where powerful financial interests have over-ridden the interests of most of the population. These few financial interests, who have grown to such gargantuan proportions that they hold most of the nation’s capital in their (virtual) vaults, gamble with it freely for the sake their own personal gain, to the detriment of the nation’s economy, and of the world’s.We also have a problem with over-regulation, where special interests of a powerful few successfully hijack government, through financial enticements and pressure on elected officials, for the express purpose of crushing their competition. Here, again, the interests of most of the people are trumped by the outsize influence of a moneyed few.

Here’s my two cents on the matter: VOTE! You matter! Your interests, your input matter! Don’t just throw your hands up in the air, sigh, stay home, and play into the hands of those who have, in recent years, been throwing up roadblocks to keep certain people from the polls, disproportionately effecting the poor, those disabled by age or illness, and otherwise disadvantaged people. After all, do you think it’s likely that such an effort would be made by those in power if voting doesn’t matter? Think about it.

Listen to the podcast edition here or on iTunes


Sources and Inspiration:

Berlow, Alan. ‘What Happened in Norfolk.’ New York Times Magazine. August 19th, 2007.

Childress, Sarah. ‘Why Voter ID Laws Aren’t Really About Fraud’. Oct 20, 2014. Frontline.

‘Day-care sex-abuse hysteria’. (2014, December 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

‘Estates General (France)’. (2014, October 5). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Fontevecchia, Agustino. ‘As New York City Crushes the Food Truck Business, Mexicue Pushes a New Model’. Forbes. May 23rd, 2014. ‘

Fraser, Scott. ‘Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong’ TED talk. May 2012

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2011.

Lightman, David. ‘Wall Street crisis is culmination of 28 years of deregulation’. McClatchyDC. Sept 15th, 2008.

Loftus, Elizabeth. “The Fiction of Memory” TED talk. June 2013.

‘Meritocracy’. Wikipedia, The Free EncyclopediaJan 8, 2015.

Mills, Steve and Maurice Possley. ‘Man Executed on Disproved Forensics’. Chicago Tribune, Dec 9th, 2004.

Perrilo, Jennifer T. and Saul M. Kassin. ‘The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions’. Law and Human Behavior (academic journal of tje American Psychology-Law Society). Aug 24th, 2010.

Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief History, Vol II: From the 1400’s. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009,

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Had Declined. New York: Viking Penguin, 2011

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