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The Wisdom of the Crowd

I have always been suspicious of what has become almost conventional wisdom that there is something called the “wisdom of the crowd.” It is generally interpreted to mean that the collective somehow knows what is not knowable by any individual. That notion is one of the motivating factors that recommends democracy to some. I disagree: I think the crowd collectively does not “know” since the act of knowing applies to individuals and not to abstract collectives. (Actually, it is superfluous to write “abstract collectives” since there are no other kinds of collectives; all collectives are abstractions.) Each individual knows something but those particularized “knowings” cannot be meaningfully aggregated to something that can be called the “knowledge of the crowds” or some such.

In any case, I interpret the “wisdom of the crowd” to mean that individuals in the crowd have different understanding of any particular matter and therefore some particular individual knows the best (however defined) about it. That bit is axiomatic and does not need further elaboration. What does need stressing is that ex ante we don’t know who among the crowd is the one who knows best regarding that particular matter. If everyone among the crowd has the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding, we (not collectively but as individuals each making our own judgement) could recognize ex post who knows best.

That is one of the many reasons why liberty and freedom of the individual is important. Liberty for people to demonstrate their understanding (through their actions of course), and the liberty for people to assess for themselves the actions of others. Since nobody knows a priori what or who is best, the most we can do is to have the liberty to explore the space of possibilities and then choose what to accept. Freedom is instrumental in this venture. Hayek makes the case for freedom with his characteristic elegant eloquence:

If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty. And, in turn, liberty of the individual would, of course, make complete foresight impossible. Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable; we want it because we have learned to expect from it the opportunity of realizing many of our aims. It is because every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it. [Source: The Case for Freedom. Oct 1960.]

Go read that essay very seriously. You’ll be much wiser than the crowd. (I should take this opportunity to plug another book that I think all smart people should read — Gustave Le Bon’s THE CROWD: A STUDY OF THE POPULAR MIND. 1896.)

Atanu Dey on India's Development

Atanu Dey
Chapters
PJ O’Rourke: Every government is a parliament of whores
The Amazing Power of Technology
Swami Vivekanand: To the 4th of July
No True Islamic State
Herbert Simon — Information consumes attention
Yoga has no Religion
Hayek on “The Mirage of Social Justice”
An Open Letter to PM Shri Modi
Prefer a Functioning Economy
Political Discrimination is Socially Harmful
Markets & Competition
Ministry of Power, Coal, and New and Renewable Energy
John Stuart Mill on the Liberty of Thought and Discussion
Reading Ronald Coase
Universal Literacy
Man versus the State
What Comes Before
An ad from 1947: “The Uphill Task Ahead”
Pohela Boishakh, Vishu, and Puthandu Greetings
Rich People Spend More
Goodbye, Mr Lee Kuan Yew
Friday the 13th, Pi Day the 14th & Beware the Ides of March
Money is the root of all Evil
Warren Buffet’s Letter to the Shareholders
The Man Lee Kuan Yew Admires the Most
An Informed Citizenry is the Bulwark of a Democracy
Problems and Solutions
People I Admire – Part Doh
Nelson Mandela on Education
Criticizing Modern Indian Holy Cows Considered Dangerous
Richard Dawkins on the Monotheistic God
List of Pages on Teresa the Merciless
People I Admire
Lee Kuan Yew is under Intensive Care
On Monkeys, Cats & the Generality Principle
The Great Indian Bamboozle has to Stop
2400 hours of electricity for Delhi — every year?
Make India first to “Make in India”
Republic Day Thoughts on Reading the Constitution
A Day of Shame and National Mourning for India
The most dangerous man to any government
Socialism, Competition and Politicians
Open Thread: Ask me anything
Aakash, the “iPad Killer”, Vaporware has Evaporated
The Dreamer and the Dream
Circular Firing Squad of Flying Attack Monkeys Target Rajiv Malhotra
We need more Anandamide, not Jihadamide
Constitutions Matter in our Daily Lives
The Only Home We’ve Ever Known
Adam Smith on the Division of Labor
The Passing of Former President Mr APJ Abdul Kalam
Socialism Works its Wonders in Venezuela - also in West Bengal
Why the terrorists killed the satirists of Charlie Hebdo
Islam Poses an Existential Threat
The Wisdom of the Crowd
On Knowing Enough to Know that You Don’t Know
NITI — New Initiatives for Transforming India
Will India Recover?
The Unbearable Stupidity of Controlling Prices
Nov 14th as the “Day of Shame and Lamentations for India.”
The Indian Constitution — Part 2
Hayek on Valuing Individuals
Mr Modi goes to Washington