Bryan Caplan  

Ibsen Against the Wisdom of Crowds

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Here's a position even I consider too strong.  But as poetry, it's hard to beat.  From Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People:
The majority never has right on its side.  Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent men must wage war. Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country?  Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good Lord!--you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones I (Uproar and cries.) Oh, yes--you can shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me. The majority has might on its side--unfortunately; but right it has not. I am in the right--I and a few other scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right.
Kind of makes we wonder what Robin would say.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Lori writes:

The majority doesn't come close to having might on its side. All 'democratic' debate is filtered through commercial media to fit a right vs. center narrative, and all policymakers are dependent on special interests, which are mostly business interests, but I'll dignify the right wing talking point by conceding that labor unions are also involved in campaign financing.

Libertarians and other conservatives are constantly harping on about the stupidity of the masses, or some other exercise in egalitarianism-bashing. And they call us 'elitists.'

Clark writes:

The majority never have right on their side. The majority of people believe this. Is this a variation of the liar's paradox? (grin)

Josh W. writes:

@Lori

Do you oppose any type of paternalistic regulation? It's only consistent with your comment.

MikeP writes:

Even Ayn Rand took a softer position than Ibsen in We the Living...

Kira went to school in Yalta. The school dining room had many tables. At luncheon, girls sat at these tables in couples, in fours, in dozens. Kira always sat at a table in a corner -- alone.

One day her class declared a boycott against a little freckled girl who had incurred the displeasure of her most popular classmate, a loud-voiced young lady who had a smile, handshake and a command ready for everyone.

That noon, at luncheon, the little table in the corner of the dining room was occupied by two students: Kira and the freckled girl. They were half through their bowls of buck-wheat mush, when the indignant class leader approached them.

"Do you know what your doing, Argounova?" she asked, eyes blazing.

"Eating mush," answered Kira. "Won't you sit down?"

"Do you know what this girl here has done?"

"I haven't the slightest idea."

"You haven't? Then why are you doing this for her?"

"You're mistaken. I am not doing this for her, I am doing it against twenty-eight other girls."

"So you think it's smart to go against the majority?"

"I think that when in doubt about the truth of an issue, it's safer and in better taste to select the least numerous of the adversaries.... May I have the salt please?"

ajb writes:

The Left has it both ways. They claim to support the masses while promoting systems that always happen to empower the bureaucratic, cognitive, political and educational elites who "of course" are wielding this power for the general public.

I prefer to dismiss both the left and the pro-immigration libertarians.

Hume writes:

Bryan,

In society, there are vast disagreements over the ends of government, the individual, and "society" in general. How ought we to reconcile these disagreements? An assertion of privileged insights into objective truth vis-a-vis morality and justice is besides the point. How ought masses of individuals who live in proximity to each other to decide on such issues of ends? This has nothing to do with voter ignorance, which usually regards means/ends reasoning.

Chris Koresko writes:

If the problems to be addressed by policy are too complicated for even the most clever to find good solutions for, then there's no reason to think that government by the clever would be better than government by the stupid. Clever people are often just better at coming up with and articulating rationalizations for doing what their prejudices dictate.

I suspect this gets to the reason Bill Buckley once said he'd rather be governed by people chosen arbitrarily from a phone book than by Harvard faculty.

What we ought to work for is government by the wise.

BZ writes:

Hmm... why must the majority, a group, or even an individual be right or wrong, per se? If I learned anything from your book, it's that the majority is wrong about some things most of the time. But, despite my educational achievements, my sister knows what my nephew is eating for supper on any given night far better than I do!

vt writes:

This reminded me of minority games:

[E]ach time there is a competition for some limited resources, the winner is the one that stands out from the crowd. In such situations, in order to win, you have to be in the minority. ...
When one makes financial speculations one has to buy before everybody is crowding to buy (thus driving the price up) and to sell before everybody starts selling (thus driving the price down). Thus, the big winners are always managing to be part of the minority. ...
The agents can now both employ effective strategies and have to avoid each others' strategies. It turns out that, on the average, when the game is played for a sufficiently long time, all the agents win. This phase corresponds to the appearance of cooperation. In a certain sense, this is a very simple model of how the division of labor spontaneously appears in a group: each individual stabilizes on a certain strategy (or a small number of strategies) instead of going a random through all of them, and this helps the others. Each individual wins by being in a minority of its own.

Rob 禪狼 writes:

Libertarians and other 'conservatives'? Since when are libertarians conservative in any way? That some interests are parallel is more an indication that some conservatives are leaning more towards liberty and less towards the version of statism that they usually prefer. Libertarianism is far more liberal than whatever contradictory philosophies "progressive" ideologies comprise - Malignant compassion, forced subsidy, central planning, soft but pervasive authoritarianism, and the illusion of self-rule via the democratic process.

Chris Koresko writes:

Rob 禪狼 Since when are libertarians conservative in any way?

What American conservatives are trying to conserve is mostly the vision of limited government enshrined in the Constitution. That's not precisely toe-the-line Libertarianism, but it has a lot more in common with it than the Progressive alternative does.

From the perspective of a Progressive, a libertarian looks a lot like a conservative.

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