James Surowiecki: the Wisdom of Crowds

In May 2016, at the CMX Summit East, James Surowiecki gave a talk entitled The Power of the Collective. Essentially it was a promotion of much the same message he launched in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, published way back in 2004.

I thought I’d explore it, in order to compare and contrast the message with Douglas Murray’s appearance on this blog on 19 March, and his latest book The Madness of Crowds. Are they contradicting each other?

No.

Let’s get the rhetor stuff out of the way quickly so as to get on to Surowiecki’s message. He speaks well, shooting from the hip as a proper speaker should. Voice projection is good, diction good, generous expressive gestures. Being picky I’d have liked him to maintain broad brushstrokes a little more, as he occasionally gets bogged down in detail. He should try to save the detail for his anecdotes which are excellent – particularly the last.

His only apparent stage-craft failing is a lack of light-consciousness because he too often drifts stage-right, putting his face into the gloomy penumbra of the spotlight-edge, and occasionally actually moving completely out of it into stygian darkness. That spotlight is not fixed, it’s a follow-spot, so a slap on the wrist is due its operator; but if Surowiecki had learned the actor’s trick of ‘loving’ his light in order constantly to be seen at his best advantage, he would never have gone into darkness.

The people are always smarter than their masters.

That’s an anonymous aphorism I first picked up on decades ago, and subsequent experience has always confirmed it. It’s not that the masters are thick, though quite often they are a little – that’s a result of the type of mentality that wants to obtain fame or power – but the main reason is well-described in Surowiecki’s speech. Breadth and depth of experience and opinion will always make a community’s judgement better than those who claim to lead it. That’s why I detest calling politicians ‘leaders’. They are not: they are representatives.

The way optimally to harness the wisdom of the crowd is by democracy, free speech, and small government.

Wherefore therefore Douglas Murray’s “Madness of Crowds” in all this? Murray clearly shows us the consequence of silenced dissent, no-platforming, the revolting bigotry of political correctness, hate-filled hate-laws, and so on. Surowiecki clearly shows us the brilliance of a community consisting of the widest possible divergence of opinion and experience. Murray and Surowiecki are on the same side.

Though small, there has to be a government. There has to be a group of representatives, empowered by the rest of us to take rapid decisions when – for instance – a deadly virus threatens us.

But for my money the most dangerous and widespread disease now threatening our planet and the people upon it is what I call bureaucritis. We are threatened by the inexorable growth of an international army of parasitic, unaccountable, self-perpetuating, self-regarding, and monumentally unimpressive pen-pushers. They are drones when they should be workers. They constantly fail in their judgement and urgently need to be brought to heel – or, in many cases, put out to grass.

How? Don’t ask me: I’m not wise enough to supply an answer to that. I’m not a diverse community.

Daithi O’Ceallaigh is sincere

A reader/trainee/friend, who happens to be Irish, emailed me to complain that I was banging on too much about Brexit. It was amusing not just because most of my blog correspondents tell me the opposite, but because of all my reader/trainee/friends the most ardently pro-Brexit is likewise Irish.

The principal reason that I’ve recently explored so many speeches about Brexit is that there are so many currently around; and I surely don’t have to explain why that is.

Nevertheless that email did prompt me to pull out a speech from my ‘to-do’ pile. It is pro-EU, and delivered by a distinguished Irishman.

Speaking in February 2018, here is Daithi O’Ceallaigh.

Instantly I warm to him. That lectern is a handy piece of furniture to lean on, as distinct from a repository for a script. And he leans on it in a manner that suggests that he just wants to feel closer to his audience – excellent body language! From the outset it is clear that he is speaking with us, not to or at. Also as time goes on it is confirmed that he is shooting from the hip, and any paper on that lectern will hold no more than bullet points.

A proper speaker.

When David Cameron first announced the EU Referendum I welcomed it on this blog, saying that I looked forward to hearing the arguments in the campaign. I was pro-Brexit, but wanted to hear well-reasoned attempts to sway me. In the event I was disappointed by Project Fear and puerile name-calling. That trend has continued ever since, and the current move towards political betrayal is a scandal that besmirches both Westminster and Whitehall. I would add the BBC to that, except they were already an embarassment.

This speech by O’Ceallaigh is the sort of thing I wanted to hear. He is evidently intelligent, sincere, and has proper arguments.

Has he swayed me? No, but if I were Irish, he would have come closer. Being patriotic doesn’t mean you hate other countries, or you’re doing it wrong; but where there’s a conflict of interest we all have to look after our own first. In the event of the oxygen mask being deployed, put on your own before your child’s. Nevertheless it’s more than self-interest.

Every one of his arguments is predicated by the assumption that if it’s not ordered by Brussels it won’t be done (or done properly). It is a variety of bureaucritis, a condition suffered by nearly all bureaucrats: essentially tunnel-vision. It is understandable that when all your working life is spent in a bubble of bureaucracies they assume in your mind an aura of indispensability; but history repeatedly shows that to be false. Bureaucracies are dispensable. They are a luxury, occasionally welcome but always expensive. They make excellent servants but dreadful masters.

If you dispute my term “tunnel vision” I refer you to his dismissal of the Irish Republic’s Irexit movement which he describes as a minority sport. At 1:30 –

There’s absolutely no doubt about the commitment of the Irish government, and the complete Irish political class, to staying within Europe.

I believe him. It is evidently also true of Britain. But the political class – riddled with bureaucritis – is not the country. The people are the country, and in Britain the country spoke and over-ruled the political class. And the political class continue to try to thwart the country.

I like this man, not just as a speaker – as a person; but I believe his misgivings, considered and sincere as they are, to be misguided.