Sunday, January 30, 2005

Crowds, Civilization and Democracy

Bill Bonner reviews James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, over on LRC:

Mr. Surowiecki seemed to us like a teenager who had just discovered sex. He didn’t quite know what to make of it, but he was clearly looking forward to it. [...] He is so fascinated by the mechanics of it, he has not yet thought about the perverseand cynical possibilities.

What he had stumbled upon was civilization, the infinite and subtle private arrangements that allow people to get along and make progress, without anyone in particular telling them what to do.
[...] What he is describing as "wise crowds" is really the fluid, unfettered interactions between individuals in a civilized society.

[...] a group of people working together is not the same as a crowd. And a crowd is not the same as a mob.
[...] where the crowd really goes wrong is where it turns from cooperation to force...when it begins to insist...and build concentration camps. This is where it becomes uncivilized. [...] When the crowd takes up a corrupt wish – to get something for nothing...or to make the world a better place by killing people – the last thing it wants is another point of view. It is already too late for that. The few people who are able to think clearly can only try to get out of the way.
Democracy, says Surowiecki, demonstrates the wisdom of the crowd. And yet, it seems to demonstrate the exact opposite. [...] Democracy replaces cooperation with force...consensual civilization with the tyranny of the majority...the wise crowd of independent citizens with a mob of voters, with silly slogans on their bumpers and mischief in their hearts.
These are just some salient points; the piece is definitely worth reading in full.

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