March 29, 2005
The "Genius of the People"
That term was a popular one among the framers of the Constitution of the United States (and others of that time.) It shows up in the Federalist Papers and in the minutes of the constitutional convention. Usually they were referring to what we might now call, "public opinion", but at times the idea expressed is a richer one, implying that the people as a whole have a peculiar capacity for knowing what's best for them, a shocking suggestion at the time.
The common thinking has always held that people become mindless and foolish in numbers. A very famous early work of economic theory is titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds (Charles MacKay, 1841) convincingly made the case that there is madness in the mob. Much more recently, James Surowiecki pointed out that the "madness of crowds" is far from the rule. In his book, "The Wisdom of Crowds", Surowiecki demonstrates that under the right conditions many people are much smarter than any individual in the group, and that many important social institutions have long depended on this phenomenon.
In fact, he does more than that. The crowd, he tells us, is smarter than a small group of experts, or any elite, no matter how brilliant they may be. This is not how we think. We turn to elites whenever we can find them, and resort to more democratic methods of decision making out of a sense of fairness, rather than "rightness." It turns out, if the evidence Surowiecki presents is correct, that crowds have a strange capacity to cancel out error and converge on a best-case solution that would evade an individual or small panel. The conditions need to be carefully managed, however. The "herd madness" that MacKay described is a real phenomenon that is well documented. It too requires a particular set of circumstances. The key is the regulation of feedback into the group.
I won't try to recap Surowiecki's entire thesis. The important point is that groups of observers, making independent assessments, are very accurate in aggregate. This finding is important to me for the support it lends to my thinking about centrism. As I have described earlier, I don't define centrism as being moderate or in the middle in each issue. To me the key is a thriving democracy in which the full range of opinion is captured, the goal being to find the "center of gravity" of the electorate, the aggregate genius of the people. Apparently my faith in the intelligence of the people in total was well placed. As individuals we can be quite foolish, but as a large body we will center around the best solution. That's the key to my theory of centrism, "finding the center".
In truth, Surowiecki's findings are a stronger statement that I would have made, or than I believe is required. In a political context, "accuracy", or finding the best solution is not really the goal. The problem is defining a "best solution" in a public policy context. Who's to say what the objectives of our society should be? The highest standard of living? The longest life span? The most education? There would be advocates for each and some who would accept none of those. The only way do define it, the only moral way to determine our direction, is to let the people choose themselves. In the operation of a Democracy we are determining the societies goals, and priorities as well as the specific plans. Indeed the most important role for the voters is to set those priorities and high-level goals; we often leave the details to a small elite group of experts (in the Executive Branch).
On any one decision, many pundits and experts will announce that the people are making a great "mistake", but that is one of the more important rights the people retain, the right to make their own mistakes. Even if they come to regret their decision later, the people have a right to their decisions. When the question is "what to the people want?" no group of smart guys and policy wonks can do better. The People, in the maximum aggregate, are the best judge of their own interests. Anything that interferes with the fullest function of the democracy distorts the result and makes things worse. You can pick this argument apart on a case by case basis but I believe that over the long run the honest democracy will come out ahead; well ahead in fact. That's why I like a government that finds the center and reflects the full range of opinion in its thinking and governing.
Surowiecki is convinced that large groups can be "wiser" on the more objective questions as well, which is even better from my point of view. In my lifetime most governments seem work from a point out to either side of the general public center. Rather than a destabilizing mob the population has always been a moderating influence on the government. While chasing polls is a bad habit, a government that reflects the genius of the people and the tenor of the times is likely to give the people the best government they could ask for. But this is supposed to be a review of Surowiecki's fine book; do find a copy<\a> and learn to trust the wisdom of the people.
February 23, 2005
Radical Middle by Mark Satin
I need to correct an oversight. When I moved to this site last fall I neglected to bring in reviews of books I want to feature but had read some time ago. I heard from Mark Satin a little while ago and realized to my embarrassment that I did not have a review of his book on the site. I need to get that fixed right away.
Mark is one of the tireless fighters for the new politics of Radical Centrism (as I prefer to term it.) He maintains a site chock full of links and news, and publishes the Radical Middle newsletter. His book was released last year before the fall election but it is just as relevant today, perhaps even more so. Mark comes to centrism from just about the opposite direction that I do. 30 years ago Mark was an activist for SDS, and I was a teenager going door-to-door for Nixon's re-election. Funny how life works....
Most everyone promoting a "radical center" view these days has a slightly different take on what the term means. Mark's is a bit more specific than mine, focusing on a specific set of policy positions and principles that he believes are not well represented in the major parties (he's right about that!) I don't disagree with his principles nor, for the most part, the policies he supports, I just tend to think of centrism as a more open and accepting political tent. That said, Mark's four key values are good one's to rally around:
1. Maximize Choices for Everyone
2. Give Everyone a Fair Start
3. Maximize Human Potential
4. Help the Developing World
Somewhat in jest I have described this centrist approach as "Compassionate Libertarianism." Only somewhat in jest, however. There are ways to give people help and allow them to develop themselves, without taking over their lives.
Underneath the umbrella of these four ideas Mark makes a case for a number of centrist policies, including Universal Health Care, Law Reform, improving education by supporting great teachers, need-based affirmative action, and others. Thirty years after he was leading a rebellious "action faction", Mark is still an activist, but not a "player, not a rebel". The book is refreshing short on political philosophizing and long on real ideas, programs and organization you can support. He ends each chapter with a very useful section of references to other books, articles and website (something he does as well on his website). And he end the book with a call to action, something I need to do more myself, and listen to myself.
One of the most exciting thing about Radical Centrism in my book are the people you find yourself associating with. Mark is one of the more visible characters in this young movement but his enthusiasm, what he calls "idealism without illusions" is infectious and genuine. Go ahead and read this book and them pass it on to your friends.
January 18, 2005
David Lebedoff comments on the election
It seems redundant for David Lebedoff to be publishing comment on the election. If you want to know his thoughts about it, just read his book (here's my review.) Of course he wrote it well before the election, but he clearly has access to a time machine, because he describes how the "New Elite", those folks who are sure that they're much smarter than the rest of us, have behaved throughout and after the election season with uncanny accuracy. Now he can comment on the election results without benefit of his time machine, posting over at PowerLine.
There is indeed a new social class comprised of those who think that they're smarter than everyone else. I call them the New Elite. This new class has been waging war, very successfully, against majority rule for decades now, through a combination of altered rules, political correctness, and judicial activism, so that now most people in both parties really feel left behind.
Most Democrats aren't members of the New Elite but most (not all) of the New Elite are Democrats, and they're the ones who the voters see. They're the ones that say the things that make people (vote) for the Republican. And what they don't say is important, too. They never talk about tradition or experience or values. Because if you're smarter than everyone else, what really matters isn't values but rather the newest untested idea that you've just come up with. The silence about values turns off even more voters than does the habit of calling "stupid" anyone who disagrees with you.
The New Elite are not exclusively Democrats, they can show up among the Republicans, but right now its the very vocal bunch with the blue wrist bands that are getting the press. If you want some insight into this crowd and their crusade against democracy, read this book (I have an Amazon link to it in the right hand sidebar.)
I hope Lebedoff's book and political terminology become widely recognized, it makes it so easy for me to describe my political position. Wherever the "New Elite" is, I'm on the other side.
December 17, 2004
Chrenkoff interviews Aurthur Vincent
I'm back from some travel to the northeast and able to catch up on the blog universe. Arthur Chrenkoff is adding interviews to his already feature-rich site. The inaugural interview is with Stephen Vincent, author of a new book based on his recent travels through Iraq. Unlike most journalists in the country, Vincent was not there to cover the military activity. He spent his time with the Iraqi people and is trying to tell their story, a story that is until now largely untold.
He has a particularly vivid way of describing the current emotional state of the Iraqi people.
Imagine children whose father physically and emotionally abused them for years. Now imagine that the authorities jail the father and tell the children they're free to live their own lives. Theoretically, they are free, but the traumas of their past will still haunt them, limiting and afflicting their freedom. That's the condition of most Iraqis. As if that weren't bad enough, add in the regressive pull of tribalism and reactionary Islam, and you have a very bleak psychic picture indeed.
How will Iraqis overcome this legacy? It will begin with time and a slow restoration of their sense of nationhood, citizenship and even personal self-esteem. Victories will help: curbing terrorism, managing a successful election, writing a Constitution, building a strong economy. In this way, the Iraqis can work through the humiliation and trauma of being raped by Saddam.
Refreshingly, Vincent is able to discuss the failures of our Iraq policy in an unusually calm and evenhanded manner. Reports that are clear and open-eyed without becoming anti-administration polemics are going to be very important if we are to see Iraq through to successful democratization and peace. Like many other observers, Vincent feels that American planners underestimated the need for military police and other trained law-enforcement personnel after the country was taken. What's refreshing is that he does not focus on assigning blame, which is irrelevant at this stage, but keeps his sights on the much more important and relevant effect that the widespread looting and lawlessness has had on the ordinary Iraqi citizens.
I can't stress how disastrous and demoralizing the pillaging of Baghdad was to Iraq. Not only did it damage the country's infrastructure and destroy many buildings, it weakened Iraqi faith in the U.S. Imagine if your police department suddenly stopped pursuing criminals - how much respect would you have for them? I remember an Iraqi man clutching my arm and pleading, "If you're going to occupy our country, occupy it!"
I will say this: what we can do as free people is support the Iraqi resistance. By that I mean the people fighting the paramilitary death squads: the Iraqi police, National Guard troops, politicians, judges, bureaucrats, businesspeople and every last person who votes on January 30. They are the true "resistance." ...Grasp a sobering thought: the fate of the Iraqi people is in our hands - and, for better or worse, ours is in theirs.
This is a wonderfully astute insight. By far the "easiest" thing for the Iraqis to do is to fall back into old habits. Tribalism, violent religious conflict, disregard for the rule of law, and brutality towards opponents have been standard operating procedure in Iraq for decades. Some of these "old habits" go back and for millennia. Efforts to create a democratic society out of totalitarianism, a lawful society out of lawlessness, and a multicultural and multifaith society out of tribalism, is far more difficult and dangerous than any comfortable American can fully appreciate. One way we can rebuild Iraqi pride and counter the "humiliation and trauma" Vincent has described, and also counter European claims of American arrogance, is to recognize the extraordinary heroics of these people who were fighting for freedom against very real and personal dangers. Americans are not the only heroes of democracy in the world nor should we want to be. The noble fight that earlier generations of Americans took up has moved to other battlefields, but it is still the same fight. As Vincent points out, the future of freedom worldwide, including here in America, is very much in the hands of some brave "resistance fighters" in Iraq.
December 06, 2004
The Uncivil War - by David Lebedoff
With the election behind us, I've been eager to getting back to reading and blogging about the many fine books stacked on my desk waiting for attention. I did recently get a chance to read somethign that struck a very responsive chord, in light of recent political events:
The Uncivil War - by David Lebedoff
In 1981 David Lebedoff published a book titled "The New Elite". He was not celebrating a new elite but rather warning of the rise of a new, self described elite class that had ceased to believe in majority rule, and was "busily cutting the wires between the people and their government." 20 years later Lebedoff's thesis seems remarkably prescient. The new elite he warned out has become even more visible and powerful and virulent in its hatred of what it sees as the foolish majority. He has updated and expanded the original idea in a new book, "the Uncivil War" subtitled "how a new elite is destroying our democracy."
Lebedoff wrote his most recent book before the 2004 election. He describes the presidential election of 2000 as "perhaps the best example so far" of the pattern he describes. He'll need to issue an updated edition now. As you read this book you'll be struck by how accurately he predicts the events of the 2004 election. The behavior of the anti-majority elite, which was once a subtle trend, has exploded into clear, and shocking view. If you are at all surprised by the reaction to the recent Bush victory, read The Uncivil War and learn about the long roots of this syndrome.
That opponents have attacked George Bush and his administration is really no surprise; this is standard procedure in any political contest. What has shocked me personally, and, as I have written in earlier postings, pushed me towards supporting Bush in the recent contest, are the over-the-top attacks on any citizens who support the president, support the war in Iraq, attend religious services, or even believe in the rights of such people to their opinions and a fair vote. This kind of thinking is extremely dangerous in a democracy. While there are always extreme opinions at either end of the political spectrum, I've been disturbed by the way that some of the most outrageous voices are celebrated and repeated in liberal politics.
An important part of my centrist political position is a belief in the democratic process and in the rights of majorities to see their decisions enacted. In any election there is a loser, sometimes multiple losers. The proper response to an electoral loss is to redouble efforts to convince opposing voters and turn them towards your way of thinking. Lebedoff points out that this new elite is not interested in working hard to sell its ideas to the majority. It wants to rule on the basis of its own self-evident brilliance. This group is too impatient to build support for its ideas because it lacks respect for the audience, and for the most part does not have any ideas to sell.
Obviously, I am very much in agreement with Lebedoff. One area however where I think he runs the risk of overstating his case, is on the sticky question of morality. He does not go so far as to claim that the new elite has no morality or values, but he does claim that they do not consider values when making decisions.
Some people --- guess who --- don't like to acknowledge that a thing as subjective as values could possibly affect a public policy decision. To members of the New Elite, it is the central to one's sense of self-identity to believe that their actions are based entirely on reason.
I'm not sure that this is entirely fair. Despite the rantings of a vocal minority, many people who oppose our war in Iraq do so on genuinely heartfelt moral grounds. I know a few, and I believe that their concerns are honest. What does seem a consistent fault of the new elite, hoever, is suspecting or misrepresenting the moral opinions of their opponents. They continuously ascribe the worst possible motivations to support for the war, or limitations on abortion, or any cause identified with political conservatism. Lebedoff also points out, quite accurately I believe, that much of what passes for moral argument from the new elite is better described as "moral posturing". He uses the infamous memorial service for Senator Paul Wellstone as an example of the Left's tin-ear for simple moral values. Millions of those who viewed that event, both Republicans and Democrats, did not need to refer to party "talking points" to see that behavior at this service was grotesquely uncivil. I personally came to the same realization watching leading Democrats celebrate on the White House lawn minutes after Congress voted to impeach President Clinton. A somber and sober statement of support for the embattled president I could understand, but a wild celebration of a man who had admitted perjury suggested a people without any real moral compass. That some of the extraordinarily hateful statements made following the election have not been expressly rejected by more Democrats is yet another good example.
Lebedoff is clear to point out that the new elite he describes is not strictly a liberal phenomenon. There are prominent Republicans among "the new elite" and prominent Democrats among the opposing group, whom he describes as "The Left Behinds". He takes the ups and downs of the battles between President Clinton and Newt Gingrich to demonstrate that the phenomenon crosses party lines, and that the public will consistently reject the new elite when they get a good look at it.
Still, in the most recent election the lines were very clearly drawn. The Democrats have fallen deeply under the power of this new elite, now more vocal and virulent than ever. The Republicans are more consistently and clearly speaking to those "left behinds"; the people we now call "red staters". The elections of 2006 and 2008 may well turn out to be largely about the election of 2004 and its aftermath. The way the recent campaign was fought, and the response t the result, ought to be remembered and debated in future political contests. I wrote in an earlier post quoting Mark Twain that "history does not repeat, but it sometimes rhymes". It certainly has rhymed very strongly this year if you look back a decade to the election of 1994. Commenting on that important election, Lebedoff said this:
This point was missed by virtually every commentator who couldn't understand why the election of 1994 turned out the way it did. And at the base of this disbelief was the refusal to a knowledge that most voters really do know what they are doing. The electorate may be imperfectly informed about what or whom they voted for, but it's very hard to argue that they didn't feel strongly about what they were voting against. The New Delete never got it, either. When one loses an election, the reasonable question is quote what did we do wrong?" And not "what did the voters do wrong?"
All too many were asking this absurd question. The New Yorker, commenting on the 1994 election, said, "disappointed election night commentators tied themselves into knots to explain away the repudiation... underneath these rationalizations you know they really wanted to shout simply, 'The people are wrong!' The New York Times' major editorial on the subject, defending the counterculture against attack by Newt Gingrich, actually asked, "Would many Americans truly like to imagine a society returned to the dictatorship of the majority culture?"
And there you have it. One cannot understand, let alone reverse, the results over the election if one sees the majority as the enemy --- and a stupid enemy at that.
I really hope that that the Democrats are able to learn from this election and told him cells together. Nothing would please my centrist heart more than to see the antidemocracy and anti-majority a lead discredited by their performance both before and after this election. If we can mend it, a bit, the distrust and distaste between the "red state" and "blue states" voters, I'm sure that the country will be better for it. I'm not holding my breath, I have to admit, but I'll be doing my best to see that some sort of minimal mutual respect, if not actual "civility" returns to our political discussion, and I hope that this fine book is widely read and discussed.