James Surowiecki wrote the book on large group decision-making.
In The Wisdom of Crowds, named “Best Business Book of 2004” by both Forbes and BusinessWeek, he argues that large groups of ordinary people—given the right conditions—make better decisions than experts.
He describes the surprising wisdom of large groups, starting with the famous story of a 1906 English county fair ox weight-guessing contest, in which the average of the 787 individual guesses was exactly right…more accurate than any expert guess.
It is as if, when we collate all the individual decisions of a great many human beings, we integrate their strengths, weaknesses and diverse opinions to achieve a more accurate composite perspective.
Then why don’t our legislatures work like that?
Why do they suck?
Because they cannot satisfy Surowiecki’s five conditions for good group decision-making. Let’s go down the checklist:
There are two pre-conditions.
- First precondition: The group must have an agreed-upon mechanism for turning their private judgments into a collective decision of the group. Yes, our legislatures have those voting mechanisms in place—but political parties often squabble about procedure and change or bend the rules for strategic advantage.
- Second precondition: The group must have timely access to good information. Yes, legislatures can call upon official agencies to provide information—but in the current divisive U.S. political climate, that has become more complicated. In the era of “fake news,” some legislators not only doubt reputable mainstream media, but have cast doubt on non-partisan information, such as financial projections from our own Government Accountability Office.
Most importantly, Surowiecki defines the three critical conditions for intelligent large group decision-making.
The group must have:
- Diversity of opinion
- Independence of judgement
- Decentralized decision-making
Let’s see if our U.S. Congress or state legislatures can meet those three critical conditions:
Diversity of Opinion
The average state legislator in the United States is a white male Protestant in his sixties, with a graduate degree and a business background. In the current U.S. Congress, more than half of all Senators and more than a third of all Representatives are lawyers.
Independence of Judgment and Decentralized Decision-Making
In every legislative body in America, there is a specialized party official called “the whip,” whose job is to keep individual legislators from exercising their own judgment and straying from their political party’s position on any issue. They are even authorized to threaten lawmakers with the loss of campaign funding in the next election.
Political parties—and those who fund them—will not allow diversity, independence or decentralization to jeopardize their control of the legislative machinery and the financial rewards that it brings them.
In truth, because of the costly and corrupt elections we use to select our decision-makers, the legislative process is no longer a deliberation. It has become an auction, selling decisions to the highest bidder.
And it sucks.