“The genius of the many is a captive giant, whose freedom is the ends and the means of all other things.” This is a line from my novel (A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology), uttered by the wizard Evenstar to his disciple Algono, both expressing one of the underlying dynamics of nature about which the novel is ultimately about, and foreshadowing a metaphorical representation of it: A fiery giantess trapped in a mountain (a volcano myth; see The Hollow Mountain), representing the pent-up power of Mother Nature herself.
Nature (more specifically, the terrestrial biosphere) is a product of the genius of the many, of time and numbers, of a “selfish gene” (to use biologist Richard Dawkins’ term) replicating, mutating, and competing (or struggling) for reproductive success, in a process of non-linear diversification and proliferation (i.e., there are ebbs and flows to both). This diffusion of thriving, of experimentation, of massive quantities of failed variations interspersed with occasional successes, winnowing down the spectrum of forms to those which can articulate themselves into the transcient biological and geological landscape of their time and place, is the progenitor of human existence. And, as might be expected, the progeny (humanity and human history) resembles but is not identical to its parent (the biosphere and “natural history”).
I have already described this resemblance in a series of essays (Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). This is not another reiteration of that theme. Here, I am focusing on a single aspect, an underlying dynamic: The relationship between the Many and the One (see E Pluribus Unum and Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for related discussions). More specifically, this post is about the aggregation of the many into a more or less robust unity, focusing especially on the robustness of information processing.
Arguably, the robustness of information processing is precisely what defines the genius of the many, as exemplified in the progressions of biological evolution and human history (parallel phenomena on different time scales, with a different breadth and depth of forms). Genes are packets of information, and evolution is how they are naturally processed (accidental mutations fit themselves, successfully or unsuccessfully, into their environments, modifying the environment in which both previous and subsequent accidental mutations must fit themselves, in an evolving matrix of informationally defined forms). And the same is true for human technologies and social institutional forms, including the various ways in which organized divisions of specialized labor are accomplished: It is all information-based (see Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, for a discussion of these interrelated generators of human historical progress).
The informational foundation of our existence is not just what we normally identify, such as the product of universities and research institutions, or the communication of information through our various media, but also the full range of human activities: all of the norms, values, techniques, rituals, arts, recreations, jokes, gestures, expressions…, in short, all that constitutes human life.
In human affairs, there are two fundamental facets to the genius of the many: One that is the product of averaging, and one that is the product of aggregating. The first aspect is best illustrated by the fact that if you have a thousand people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the average of their guesses will be far closer than any individual guess, and, in fact, will be remarkably close to the actual number. The second aspect is best illustrated by the robustness of a division of labor in a market economy, in which the organic articulation of separate expertises and activities produces greater aggregate wealth. This essay is primarily about the second facet, but it is important to remain aware of the first as well, that the “averaging” of our diverse opinions and assessments also contributes to our collective genius, and that, in many circumstances, seeking more moderate positions is recommended by such awareness. But it is through the aggregation rather than the averaging of our individual consciousnesses in which the most robust expressions of the genius of the many can be found.
Embedded in our technologies and social institutions is something analogous to the human genome, but encoded in cognitions rather than in genes, and more fluid (or faster flowing, and acceleratingly so as a result of its own feedback loop) due to the speed and intentionality of cognitive communication, mutation, adaptation, and competition for (cognitive) reproductive success. Our intentionality is a part of this process: To the extent that we, individually and collectively, prefer some outcomes over others, our will, and how we exercise it, affects this evolutionary process for better or worse. The two predominant variables affecting the quality of the effect our will has on this process are the degrees of reason and goodwill employed in our efforts: A deficit in either leads to less desirable aggregate outcomes, while an abundance of both leads to more desirable aggregate outcomes, in proportion to the extent of the deficit or abundance (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, for a discussion of how we can and should organize in service to these two values).
In a sense, embedding reason and goodwill into our social institutional landscape, and cultivating them as the predominant (metaphorical) flora and fauna of that landscape, is the recursive function of the genius of the many in service to human welfare (by which I mean not just the relative absence of devastating hardships, but also the increasing presence of conditions which give full expression to the human spirit and the joyful celebration of life). As the quote from my novel says, freeing the genius of the many is both the means and the ends of this goal, because it both produces and defines human welfare. Thus, we value individual liberty both as an end in itself (enabling each of us to more fully pursue and celebrate our own lives), and as a means to the end of aggregating into a more creative and productive society.
A slight digression is required here, to distinguish liberating the genius of the many, on the one hand, from liberating individuals from oppression on the other. The two are related, but not identical. The former depends both on the liberation of individual creativity and initiative, and the aggregation of that individual creativity and initiative into a collectively productive force. The latter is a more unbalanced concept, focusing only on the individual and not on the articulation of individual efforts into a collective and mutually enriching enterprise. The latter is the blind ideological expression of a historical recalibration, in which the tendency of societies to be overcentralized and oppressive was confronted and eroded, and the ideology favoring individual liberty rose in prominence in those societies which most successfully confronted this previous historical imbalance.
Unfortunately, in contemporary America, the pendulum has swung too far, creating an ideological obliviousness to our interdependence and mutual responsibilities to one another. We need now a new conceptual framework, which recognizes both the value of individual liberty, and the value of organizing into a collective enterprise for mutual benefit and in service to humane values and ideals. The genius of the many is not liberated by disintegration into mutually indifferent individuals, but rather by recognizing the complex and subtle relationship between the individual and society (see, e.g., Liberty & Interdependence, Liberty & Society, Liberty Idolatry, and The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism). Indeed, true liberty is something subtler and richer than mere freedom from government; it is a function of our mutually liberating collective enterprise, which endows us with the conceptual and material means to live fuller, more expressive, and more gratifying lives, with a wider spectrum of possibilities available to us.
It is true that the genius of the many does not always serve this end, that its product can be temporarily diverted toward its own containment. It is sometimes tapped in service to goals that do not seem to serve human welfare at all, such as building great monuments to ancient rulers (e.g., the pyramids), or enriching the few on the backs of the many. In the former instance, such ostentatious displays are both the oppressive aggrandizement of the rulers who commission them, and are a symbolic consolidation of our collective genius, an expression of the degree to which a society has managed to organize itself sufficiently to mobilize enormous resources in service to the mere advertisement of that ability. It is analogous to the Irish Elk, which, according to a still debated theory, went extinct due to having evolved ostentatious antlers in males, as a way of advertising to females their ability to squander their surplus nutritional intake (and thus their prowess in being able to obtain and consume that surplus) on a mere symbol of such prowess (the antlers having reduced their competitiveness vis-a-vis other species, eventually leading to their extinction).
But this diversion of the product of the genius of the many, in human societies, is generally in service to the few, or in service to blind militancy. It gradually leads to the collapse of the society that indulges in it under its own weight (much as the Irish Elk did under the weight of their antlers), rather than the invigoration of that society by virtue of the continuing liberation and mobilization of the genius of the many. A good modern example is the Soviet Union, which mobilized enormous resources in service to a militant totalitarianism, but in an unsustainable way.
In other words, diverting the product of the genius of the many away from human welfare, and away from liberating individual initiative and creativity, expresses and consolidates a current degree of liberation of that genius, but often curtails further liberation of it, and even contracts the existing degree of liberation. One theory of the rise of modern democracy in England illustrates this most clearly: According to the theory, the constant internecine wars of Medieval Europe create a constant pressure on monarchs to mobilize sufficient resources to fund those wars. The pressure was greater than it was in other parts of the comparably developed world, because European states had resisted (since the fall of the Western Roman Empire) consolidation into a strongly centralized large empire, leaving kings to vie with other kings close enough to pose an immediate and constant threat to the throne itself. The English solution to this problem was the gradual granting of increasing rights, first to nobles, and then expanding outward, in order to liberate the individual initiative and effort sufficient to produce enough taxable resources to fund these wars. In other words, to compete through utilization of rather than display the genius of the many requires liberating more of it rather than merely channeling it into the production of monumental works.
While historically, (implicit and explicit) competition with other (internal and external) polities was the generating force of the progressive liberation of the genius of the many, we have within our power the ability to replace that motivating force with one more directly committed to the maximization of human welfare. We can compete, in other words, not against each other, but against suffering and in service to our collective well-being.
So the question is: How do we organize ourselves to best liberate and mobilize this genius of the many in service to human welfare, broadly understood? Again, the two essential ingredients to such organization are reason and goodwill. We must increasingly focus our efforts on serving humanity rather than merely serving either ourselves individually (or locally) or serving some blind ideology which evolved in haphazard response to the end goal we can now explicitly define and pursue. And we must do so by subjecting all policy choices to the crucible of systematic and procedurally disciplined “reason.”
Government is our agency for such collective decision-making. We have two basic challenges facing us vis-a-vis government: 1) Ensuring that it serves our collective welfare rather than the welfare of smaller, privileged sub-groups; and 2) ensuring that we enable it to do so most effectively. These are somewhat in tension with one another, because democracy, which evolved in service to the former demand, can limit or obstruct the mobilization of specialized knowledge and expertise through a division of labor that best serves the latter demand. The challenge for us, and the vehicle for most effectively liberating and channeling the genius of the many, is how to most efficiently and effectively articulate these two mechanisms into a single coherent system.
Our national ideology has enshrined both of these values (democracy and division of labor through a market economy), but has conceptually divorced them from one another, obstructing their articulation. In the popular American view, the economy may benefit from specialization and a division of labor, but government benefits from direct popular control of decision-making. We may want to hire our surgeons on the basis of their training and expertise, but we don’t want to entrust such responsibilities to our governmental representatives. The problem is that governance is, like surgery, an information-intensive task, requiring the mobilization of precise knowledge and analysis in service to well-designed public policies. And the challenge we face in governing ourselves accordingly is not dissimilar to the challenge face in other principal-agent relationships: We have an agent to whom we must delegate some specialized functions, but in such a way that we ensure that that agent is acting in our interests rather than its own (at our expense).
The most efficient way to accomplish this is to align the interests of the agent with those of the principal, so that when the agent pursues its own interests most robustly, it incidentally is also serving its principal’s interests most faithfully. This is what social institutions generally attempt to accomplish, through market mechanisms, hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments, diffuse social approval and disapproval, and internalized values invoking one’s own “conscience.”
On the other side of the relationship, the complacency or disengagement of the principal permits the agent to run amok. In order to improve our articulation of the interests of the principal with the expertise of the agent, we need a principal, a polity, that is as engaged as possible, actually tracking the outlines of the information that the agent will be mobilizing, just as the parent of a child about to undergo surgery might want to be as well informed and involved as possible, even while recognizing that they have to entrust their child’s life to the surgeon’s expertise.
In America today, we suffer the combination of a polity that blindly entrusts its own self-governance to a government it feels disassociated from, while simultaneously distrusting that same government and wanting to impose on it its own uninformed will. What we need instead is a polity that has access to and an interest in the details of what it means to govern ourselves intelligently, and works with our agents to utilize their expertise in service to our informed and engaged collective will.
To most effectively liberate the genius of the many, we need to organize ourselves from top to bottom, filling in the chasm between “people” and “government,” forming layers of engagement, and channels of information flows, so that our various potential contributions to intelligent self-governance flow “inward” to our agents, while the outlines of the relevant expertise to which we must frequently defer flow “outward” to the polity. (Again, my outline for how to go about doing that can be found at The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). By doing so, we can most effectively and organically institutionalize the incorporation of both reason and goodwill (or collective will) into our political decision-making processes, more fully liberating the genius of the many, and, by doing so, more fully liberating the human spirit.