The wisdom of the great unwashed?

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Raul V. Fabella


Francis Galton, the great Charles Darwin’s half cousin, first noticed a curious fact in 1907: the average of the guesses of members of the crowd on the weight of an ox in the Plymouth country fair proved more accurate than the opinions of each selected recognized expert among the crowd. There is wisdom in the crowd. “Consensus forecasts” is one modern reincarnation; but now it is the average of a “crowd of experts.” The “Delphi method” goes further by using a crowd of experts who, in later rounds, are allowed to modify original predictions based on knowledge of results in earlier rounds with the expectation that the opinions will converge to the true value. The collective intelligence revealed by “social swarms” of networked players mediated by a collective intelligence platform follows the same logic in the digital space, and with surprisingly accurate predictions. The failures of collective rationality are, however, no less spectacular — booms and busts in stock market, Tulipmania, Ponzi schemes, Benito Mussolini, Hugo Chavez.

Surowiecki (2004) set down the conditions that make for one and not the other — members of the crowd must have their own pertinent private information (diversity) and coldly decide based on this information, not on how others decide (independence). These conditions are hard to satisfy in real life but seemed so in the Galton meat market experiment. On the other hand, the wisdom of the crowd becomes spectacularly wrong when decisions are subject to emotion (mobocracy), imitation, herd behavior or information cascades — that is, when individual decisions are made based on how others decide.

In a democracy, majority voting and one-man-one-vote is the platform that mediates collective decision-making. Socrates (sic Plato’s Republic) attacked democracy as a prescription for chaos and advocated totalitarianism under an enlightened dictator as ideal, pointing to the Spartan monarchy as evidence. This was the dominant opinion until the French Enlightenment philosophers chafing under the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons dared to reflect on democracy as alternative to absolute monarchy. One result of enduring beauty is the Condorcet Jury Theorems due to French Academy member Marquis de Condorcet. He proved that with enlightened voters (competence of greater than even chance to be right), the decision of the crowd is likely to be more accurate than that of the monarch; more so with a larger polity; with unenlightened voters (mobs), the monarch beats the crowd and more so in larger polities. Condorcet paid the highest price for the truth of his own theorem — he was arrested and imprisoned by the rampaging Montagnards mob and died, some say poisoned, in his cell. The conditions for the validity of Condorcet are identical to those that validate Galton’s “wisdom of the crowd.” Galton, unbeknownst to himself, had stumbled on Condorcet a century later. It took another 50 years, around the 1950s, for the world, now beknownst to itself, to formally rediscover Condorcet.

Why are we in June 2019 harping over these rather abstruse if remarkable social science moments? In May 2019, the Philippine polity voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm its faith in President Rodrigo Duterte. The people dealt the opposition’s Ocho-Diretso slate a 0-8 thrashing. And few will say that it was a flawed election; the results hued closely to pre-election surveys. Prominent journalist and respected social critic, Vergel Santos’ op ed article entitled “The Philippines Just Became More Authoritarian, Thanks to the People,” in the New York Times suggests that vox populi has been heard. It was not a stolen election and, however distasteful the result to some people, it is the people’s decision.

One reading is that the people have reaffirmed its social contract with Dutertismo: less political space in return for more economic space. The people have voted to hand the last bastion of check and balance, the Philippine Senate, to Duterte. He now has a free hand. Did the Great Unwashed give the prim and proper of the Philippines a lesson in discernment? Only time will tell.

And what can this mean? For one, oppositionist obstructionism can no longer be blamed for meager progress in the economic space. Consequently, there is less call to extend a state of emergency in Mindanao to the whole country. Will this new boost of power be used to enable the market to expand economic space? Or will it be used rather to indulge in populist excess that stifles the market? This is the mother of all questions. Deng Xiaoping of China used his autocratic power to enable the market towards shared prosperity; Hugo Chavez of Venezuela used his electoral reaffirmation to pursue aggressive populism that killed the market and engendered shared poverty.

In its first three years, Dutertismo has hued gingerly to the shores of respect for the market; Duterte has largely, if with some slips, honored his promise to leave economic policy to his economic team. What will the next three years bring? Beware of populist excess either from Duterte or from his zealous appointees. It can empty the treasury and leave little for growing the economic pie; it can sap the energy of the market as will the proposed ENDO law. Populist excess was what first denied Metro-Manila water concessionaires the rightful reimbursement for contracted income tax privilege and then penalized them for the water crisis not their making. But it was not Duterte’s; it was the water regulator’s altogether, perhaps misreading the boss’ intentions á la Becket. When Duterte at first correctly concluded that the regulators should be fired for incompetence but then switched to threats to review and void the concession contracts, he was letting his populism trump the market. Unilateral dissolution of contracts without adequate compensation would stifle the market and usher in the twilight of the “rule of law.” That is the Rubicon that not even the reaffirmed Duterte can cross without self-damage.

The great Enlightenment theologian and philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, identified the Rubicons that not even the Almighty God can cross — HShe cannot sin; HShe cannot clone Himerself, and HShe cannot make a triangle with more than 180 degrees. Either action will destroy the very essence of Godhead. Likewise, trifling with the rule-of-law will destroy economic progress and turn the triumph of the May elections into the curse of the Great Unwashed.


Raul V. Fabella is a retired professor of the UP School of Economics, a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology and now an Honorary Professor at Asian Institute of Management. Weaving ideas in coffee shops is an integral part of his day. He gets his dopamine fix from hitting tennis balls with wife Teena and bicycling.