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The results are in

November 3, 2010

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.

– Agent Kay, Men in Black

There’s very little that I would say I’m convinced of. I suppose that makes me a skeptic (though I must admit that I don’t fully trust that word). However, if there’s one thing that I’m now more convinced of than ever before it’s this: People – large groups of individual persons who, for some reason, we trust to collectively make or examine important decisions – suck at everything.

Perhaps that’s just the bitter taste of yesterday’s election results talking, though I seriously doubt it. I’ve been butting up against that conclusion in various forms for quite some time now. I can no longer help but feel that everywhere I look I see a public trusting itself to make decisions together that many of its individuals can barely make effectively on their own – as if by increasing the number of minds involved in a problem we’ll make matters less vague and beholden to chance instead of more so.

I think that Churchill was right when he said (or at least repeated) that “democ­racy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment, except for all the oth­ers that have been tried.” More right than he probably knew. I say this because I believe that while a democratic system is the best form of government that humans can hope for, this is only so because all of the various forms of government are inherently defective. Democracy just happens to be the least so, and is the system that works best within the framework of human society to promote the general values that most of us now see as important – things like equality and freedom of thought.

There is a tremendous volume of literature explaining the reasons why this is, and I have no intention of delving too deeply into any of those reasons now (though I probably will in the future); but I do want to point out that while there appears to be a consensus in this country that “freedom” is good, there are so many varying specific views about what “freedom” actually is that the consensus itself is irrelevant. Freedom to you may include a right to health care, but to someone else that’s called tyranny.

For about 98% of human history, people organized themselves in relatively small groups whose basic purpose for existing was to protect the gene pool from dying out. They, of course, didn’t think about it quite that way; but the fact remains that humans evolved to navigate social groups of no more than about 150 people. I think that this is more important than most of us realize.

Tribal units are able to make decisions for the tribe that are, while certainly never unanimous, at least mostly understood by the group because every person in the tribe is able to maintain a social connection with everyone else. The lines of communication are truly open and work both ways in small groups; and there can thus be an understanding of a common purpose that I don’t believe can ever exist in a group even as large as a small town, and certainly never as large as a state or nation. Thus, when I hear someone speak about what the “American People” want I am forced to shake my head in frustration and often (much to my girlfriend’s displeasure) yell at the person on the television or radio who said it. The American People don’t want anything, they can’t want anything – not collectively anyway. They’re too big a group for “want” to even have meaning.

I tend to think that this is a point of view that gets overlooked in our media heavy, sound-bite laden culture. Many people seem to feel that they can capture a thought and transmit it succinctly in a manner that everyone can understand. In everything from politics to religion and advertising to economics there seems to be a view that, with study, the collective can be basically understood and communicated with; and that through identifying “trends” determinations can be made that will have some real and predetermined benefit. I must admit that I’m having a more and more difficult time accepting that this is actually the case.

Where advertisers see market trends I see chaos, and where religious institutions see truth I see only conflict. This may be a pessimistic way of looking at the world, but I believe in starting with a simple position and working out from there. And the simplest position I can see at the moment is not that People can be understood but sometimes just don’t know what they want (as some recent political pundits seem to want to infer – hopey, changey?), but rather that large groups of persons can never have their desires made clear to us in a truly meaningful way.

There is probably plenty of evidence that one can bring forth to dispute my claim that it’s pointless to try and truly understand large groups of people, and I must admit I would love to hear about it. However, I find it hard to fathom that the general point I’m trying to make is inherently false. Large groups of People, because they cannot all remain socially connected, cannot make useful decisions together on a consistent basis. And thus People suck at everything – even, as it turns out, democracy.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2010 7:29 pm

    I never really put much thought into this subject, but I would think most people would have a tough time arguing your general point.
    The accuracy of polling, or even voting is only as good as the sample (size, demographic, subjects, etc.), so my question to you would be this; is there an answer out there? Are we just stuck with this, best of the worst systems? Is eliminating Federal government an option? The problem with the tribes analogy is there was no need to be connected with the world outside your tribe; you were self sufficient. I don’t think going back is the solution, not that you were implying it was, I just don’t see a different system than what we have now working.
    I think the Democratic process can be successful in a Utopian sense (everyone votes, every voter is fully informed) but that will never happen. Maybe that’s the answer tho; working towards voter education, where we can make sure those that do vote, know exactly* what they are voting for, and not just what a headline or attack ad has to say about a candidate and his or her plans.
    Interesting subject, hopefully there will be a discussion here in the comments that can get people thinking about this.


    • November 3, 2010 8:20 pm

      I think you’re right. Most people wouldn’t argue for my general point. I wouldn’t expect them to. The question is though, what arguments can be made against it? There is no way around the very real limitations of human social interaction. We can’t know what others are thinking even when we have a personal relationship with them, so to think that we can venture an educated guess about what people are thinking when we’ve never even met them can be a dangerous mistake.

      I agree that democracy is the best option we have (or will ever have). And I realize that we can’t go back to a “tribal” system (nor would I want to). But I disagree that democracy could ever be successful in a Utopian sense. That’s my point, people suck at making group decisions.

      Now, it should be noted that the writers of the Constitution understood this. It’s why we’re a Republic and not a direct democracy. We elect people to make decisions, and the point was that communities were meant to be more concerned with their local elections than with the national ones. Americans didn’t elect Senators directly until 1913, and technically we still don’t directly elect the President. The focus was to be on your local Representative who you more or less knew (or could know), as each Representative was to represent no more than 30,000 people. The number each one now represents is over 700,000. That’s roughly difference between Clifton Park, NY and Charlotte, NC. So what we’ve done is taken the representation out of Representative Democracy by eliminating the ability of a Congress person to ever really get to know their own constituency. Of course, if you do the math we’d need to have roughly 10,000 members of Congress to make representing 30,000 people happen again – so I’m not advocating rolling back to those numbers. But that’s partly where the problem lies. We can’t possibly get to know our representatives so our only recourse is to use the media to “find out” about them. It’s a tough problem, but one we have to think about and recognize if we’re going to find a solution.

      EDIT: I realize that even 30,000 is 200 times bigger than a supposedly “manageable” social group of 150, but it’s better than what we have now.


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