News reaches me that the British government has teamed up with Facebook on the “largest public engagement project” ever by a British government, the Spending Challenge seeking ideas from the 26 million Britons on Facebook on taming the deficit (through Facebook’s Democracy UK page). It sure sounds good… but it’s not.
The determination of governments to appear to be listening to the public is understandable. But if you calculate that giving one minute of attention to 26 million different people would require nearly 50 years you can see that it is not a technically doable consultation project.
It is also poorly designed for a quite different reason. James Surowiecki, in his fascinating book The Wisdom of Crowds, demonstrates that much elite disdain for the opinions of ordinary people is profoundly misplaced. Surowiecki starts with a discovery by a professor inclined toward eugenics and contemptuous of the masses, that when a crowd at a fair bought tickets with a prize for estimating the butchered and dressed weight of an ox present in a live state, the average of their guesses was amazingly close to the final figure even though many of the individual entries was wildly wrong. He proceeds to discuss a great deal of subsequent research suggesting that the aggregate of a group of guesses about things like, for instance, the number of marbles in a large jar is not only likely to be very good, it’s often better than all but a handful of the individual guesses.
Surowiecki’s conclusion is not that mobs are smarter than philosophers. It’s that the common sense of the common people taken in aggregate is statistically far more accurate than any other method. Which rather vindicates democracy but in a special way and of a particular sort.
For Surowiecki further demonstrates that this sort of aggregation of lay opinions is very good at a structured process of choosing between alternatives (including in the original case of the ox, since anyone capable of purchasing a ticket knew its weight had to be a particular number and their job was just to figure out which one). It is not nearly as valuable in determining alternatives. That is why populism leads to instability while first-past-the-post is, at least, what Churchill said democracy was.
What the British government ought to be doing, therefore, is having experts devise alternatives that are not conspicuously insane or internally contradictory, and then asking the public to choose between them. Also known as developing platforms then having an election. For the rest, if you could spend 50 years sorting through 26 million brief Facebook comments you’d get about what it sounds like: a half century older, deeper in debt, and bonkers.