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The madness of mobs, the wisdom of crowds and the paradoxes of democracy

November 20, 2013

The days before the recent elections were filled with interesting, heartfelt, and vociferous debates among my circles of online friends and correspondents—not about any of the candidates, mind you, or any of the particular issues involved, but rather about whether or not we should even bother to vote.

I won’t rehash the arguments back and forth; you’ve heard them all before. It certainly seems that many people have given up on the enterprise; we only had 21% turnout of registered voters here in Wayne County, and Pike County’s response was even more dismal. (In Sullivan County, NY this statistic will not be available for a few weeks, until after the county’s board of elections certifies the results.) To be sure, most of the races had been decided back in the primaries, but still….

My viewpoint is that even if we don’t like any of the choices being offered to us, we should still vote. The “system” writes off nonparticipation as apathy, not anger, but it does still allow us the luxury of write-ins. (Indeed, some write-in candidates have won seats on Honesdale’s Borough Council.)

In the midst of all the discussion, someone pointed me to a useful resource: a documentary series you can find on YouTube, entitled “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness,” hosted by philosopher Alain de Botton. The first episode, a lovely little gem called “Socrates on Self-Confidence” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVA8jX9KQcE, among other places), takes us back to the roots of our democracy, in ancient Athens, and introduces us to the funny-looking little guy who hung out at the agora and had some serious doubts about group decision-making processes.

Human beings, after all, are easily misled—by emotional appeals, by the auras of authority or celebrity, or even by their own sense of self-importance. All these things, Socrates reasoned, distort their decision-making ability, and that distortion is amplified when we get together in large groups. “Socrates,” says de Botton, “would have disagreed violently with… the whole approach that the will of the majority should decide an issue.”

I suspect that most people who stayed at home on Election Day were not engaging in Socratic analysis of the process. But De Botton also talks about Socrates’ approach to individual reasoning, and that brings in Radiolab.