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Wisdom of the Crowd: Hopeful but tenuous clues for the future

Our republic was created in 1788 when New Hampshire (the ninth state to do so) ratified the pending Constitution. When the founders drafted this historic document, they were traveling into uncharted territory by putting sovereign power in the hands of the people, and at that point in time the people were not well equipped to exercise this power with the restraint, prudence, and wisdom that it required. It was hoped that they would grow into the civic responsibility that was thrust upon them.

Was it a wise bet? School is still out on that question: the people have certainly matured and become better informed on political issues over the intervening years, but at the same time we have allowed the governmental structure that was set up to protect our democratic institutions to atrophy and succumb to expansions of power by special interests.

To reinvigorate our republic and protect it from the incessant attacks that would

diminish and destroy it, we must take bold, decisive action to repair its institutions.

While we have not yet affirmatively answered the fundamental question: Is mankind capable of self-governing on a sustained basis? There is a growing body of evidence that gives us hope. Consider these facts:

  • We have sustained our republic for more than 200 years through many severe challenges.

  • In that time we also embraced a free market economy that raised our standard of living to unprecedented heights and greatly reduced poverty in the country.

  • In 1776 Adam Smith wrote about the workings of markets that allowed the free exercise of choices by individuals (later described as the “invisible hand” at work in the markets).

  • In 1787 the Constitutional Congress completed drafting a new constitution and submitted it to the states for ratification, but it was found that it needed modification before it would be acceptable (was this an early example of “the wisdom of the crowd?”). What was deemed missing were guarantees of certain rights to individual citizens and limitations placed on the power of the government. These were subsequently enacted in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which we refer to as our Bill of Rights.

  • In the 1920s Ludwig von Mises wrote of the inability of individuals to know and understand enough information about a large economy to make wise central planning decisions, with better results achieved by a free economy that allows individuals to each make their own independent economic decisions.

  • In recent years our principal national security agencies, in an effort to improve our ability to perceive and forecast global events more accurately, have turned to sources outside the intelligence community to look for better ways of forecasting; some of these have produced notable results. Techniques being tried include crowdsourcing and probability scoring. (Jo Craven McGinty, U.S. Intelligence Community Explores More Rigorous Ways to Forecast Events, The Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2014.)

  • The “wisdom of the crowd”, whereby the collective opinion of a large group of individuals is seen as better than the opinions of small numbers of individuals, is now recognized as a valid concept by social scientists. This has important ramifications for democracy.

These indicators give us hope that we will learn to master the intricacies of our democratic republic and make it work on a sustained basis. But one thing we have learned unequivocally is that democracy is worth fighting for. Yes, it is hard work, but as Thomas Paine wrote:

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

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