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Democratic Delusion or the Wisdom of the Crowds?

Democracy, as Winston Churchill once said, is the worst system, except for every other one that has been tried.

His comment famously shuts down criticisms of democracy by suggesting that if someone can’t think of a better system, then they had better keep quiet.

But it is not easy to keep quiet in the face of the unfolding chaos of the Republican Party. A hamstrung election could see a charmed stroll to the White House for Hillary Clinton, or perhaps even a Trump presidency.

Republicans who hate Trump want to simultaneously affirm the basic democratic ideal that the people know best and that they have a right to choose their own representative whilst at the same time doing everything they possibly can to stop him.

Being disgusted and appalled at Trump means being disgusted and appalled by a significant swathe of the American people, though the party elites are trying strenuously to avoid this implication.

Which I suppose raises a fundamental question about democracy: if democracy is rule by the people, can they be wrong en masse? Of course this would not be a popular topic around election time – raising the prospect of mass delusion would not help in winning the race to govern the country.

As a Christian, I admit I’ve never been overly taken with the so-called wisdom of crowds. In the Christian scriptures, nations and groups are singled out as morally responsible entities, alongside individuals. And within the narrative, God’s messengers, including Jesus himself, can be the mob’s favourite one day and their meal the next.

You might be more optimistic than I am, but whatever your worldview, your ideas about democracy can’t help but be influenced by your view of human nature, because democracy is a way of harnessing whatever wisdom the crowd has to offer. A famous result in political science is Condorcet’s jury theorem, which says that committees make better decisions through majority voting than individuals do. The implication drawn is that inclusive democracy is better than dictatorship.

For example, suppose every individual in a society has a 70% chance of supporting a brilliant research project which can cure cancer. If you pick just one person – a dictator – there is a 70% chance the project will be supported. But if you select three people and ask them to vote on this, the chance rises up to just under 80%. Inclusive decision-making taps into the wisdom of crowds.

But unfortunately, the math works just as well for mistakes and lies. Suppose every individual in a society has a 70% chance of believing Donald Trump has a PhD from Harvard in Women’s Studies?

If you don’t like math, introspection might take you to the same place of doubting the wisdom of crowds. We tend to be very free with our opinions about how societies in other places and times are deluded – about their politics, societies, and treatment of minorities – even if they are democracies. So if they can be wrong, why are we infallible? And if we aren’t, what do we make of the fairly obvious fact that democracy is powerless in the face of mass delusion?

Donald Trump is interesting from another point of view. Democracy thrives on the idea that “power corrupts”. By avoiding the concentration of power that comes with a monarchy or dictatorship, the system supposedly saves any such ruler from moral ruin, and the people from bad government. But is anyone suggesting that the man we see now is undergoing profound change that comes from being a political figure – or is he still the well-known reality TV star and businessman, with just a little bit more room to play?

Democracy cannot protect us from the failures of human nature.

Which begs the question: can power reveal as well as corrupt? Leaders may experience character formation in their roles, but they may also experience the freedom to display what lies beneath – power can reveal their character, too.

This observation narrows the gap that is so often presented in fairy tales about democracy between the impeccably good and wise electorate and their self-serving manipulative rulers. Maybe the rulers are rather like us, but they play for bigger stakes, and get scrutinised more by the press.

Democracy is no better or worse than the state of its decision-makers – the people – and so it is best thought of as a majority-driven political technology for birthing the spirit of the age, by creating laws and policies consonant with it. At that democratic moment when the people grasp their destiny – namely, election time – they may nonetheless be politically repressive, racist, advocates of the arbitrary imprisonment of refugees, or of the erotic mentoring of teenagers. Welcome to Germany in 1932, to South Africa in 1948, to Australia in 2016 and to democracy’s originators in Ancient Greece.

It would be unfair to pass over democracy’s great and undeniable strength. It has the ability to move us along in a way which is inclusive, or at least not at variance with majority rule. With this comes the ability to liberate any near-majority of people that have traditionally been restricted or oppressed. The undoubted winners of this process have been those large groups which have won the right to vote across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Anyone who values women or economically disadvantaged groups should be proud of this great achievement of democracy.

But it is a shame that Churchill’s comment shuts down the discussion, because the best way to use something is to understand its limits. With due respect to Mr Churchill, and to Mr Trump, democracy cannot protect us from the failures of human nature. Uncritical faith in ourselves is blind faith of the worst kind. This is especially the case if there happens to be a God who can offer us wisdom beyond ourselves.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.

Gordon Menzies is Associate Professor in Economics at the University of Technology Sydney, and Deputy Director of the Paul Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.