Wisdom is Trouble for Democracy

As a pastor, I often find myself working on projects outside of my expertise. Several years ago the task of erecting a temporary sign in front of the church property fell to me. So I grabbed some lumber, nails, and a hammer, and I went to work. I should never try things like this. At the time, I could have told you why modalism is heretical; I could have explained the biblical role of music in a corporate worship service; I could have told you why expository preaching is not at odds with topical preaching; but with all my head-knowledge, I didn’t have enough wisdom to delegate construction tasks. Before the project was finished, I had been injured by a 2×4.

Wisdom includes the ability to make good decisions. It provides an accurate understanding of the reality in which we find ourselves, and allows us to live in concert with that reality. This is a very good thing, because reality is dangerous, and it is indifferent to how we come to our conclusions. The only thing reality cares about is what we chose. When gravity hurls a 2×4 toward your face, it doesn’t care about how you feel or what you believe. Mere decisions are easy, but good decisions require wisdom.

Now I want to make distinction between wisdom and experience. Had I been wiser, I would have contacted one of three contractors in my church and asked them to build the sign, or at least asked for their advice on how to build it. They could have told me everything I needed to know about 2x4s and gravity. Their experience in the field of construction allows them to avoid embarrassing themselves with lumber. But whereas experience is limited to a certain body of knowledge, wisdom facilitates good decision-making in any body of knowledge. The experienced construction worker may be a very poor soccer coach because he is outside his expertise, but a wise person has a moral and intellectual core that they carry with them that allows them to make good decisions in any new environment. This is why an exceptionally wise person is often recognized as a “renaissance man” because he tends to be very good at anything he tries. Now, experience may lead to wisdom, but they are not the same. Wisdom is a capacity for great decision-making, wholly apart from experience in a field.

In any group of people there are degrees of wisdom. Some people are wise; some are fools; others are somewhere in the middle. I doubt there will be many who disagree with that point. When everyone in the room is wiser than you, it’s easy to claim we’re all essentially equals in wisdom. But when there’s some fool who’s spent his entire life making bad decisions sitting in front of you giving you what you know to be lousy advice, it’s easy to see that wisdom is subject to gradation. Only the least wise claim that wisdom has no gradable substance.

But if this notion of wisdom is true then democracy is in trouble. Democracy entails an equal division of power among the people. Five people means five votes and every decision is ruled by simple majority. That includes decisions about decisions. For example, if the majority decides that a particular decision should require more or less than a majority, say 4/5 votes, or 1/5 votes, the decision itself is delegated by the authority of the majority, but the simple majority is still ultimately in power. In a democracy of five people, the authority is always derived from the autonomy of three or more people. But if three out of five people are total fools, then the democracy is doomed to make foolish decisions.

Now let’s say that those three people acknowledge their own foolishness and decide to delegate all authority indefinitely to the other two (if only it were that simple). But, are the three fools wise enough to recognize wisdom in the other two? Perhaps the other two aren’t all that wise, but only appear wise to the fools who would put them in power. Or perhaps only one of them is wise, and the other is a fool who thinks he is wise and is fairly good at pretending. Perhaps the only truly wise one in the group thinks himself a fool, so chooses to be one of the three who vote themselves out of the decisions. Where wisdom is subject to gradation, democracy is nearly always fatally flawed.

The only way to say that the democracy has still given us a better outcome is if democracy has intrinsic value greater than that of a good decision being made. Is it fundamentally better for the democracy to make decisions, even at the expense of the quality of those decisions? Is democracy itself that valuable? If so, by what authority could we possible know that?

Who gets to decide the intrinsic value of democracy? I can tell you that the democracy has already decided on it’s own value. Not only that, they have decided with such piss and vinegar that the minority dare not disagree unless they are carrying a fairly big stick. So the wise minority generally keeps their minds open and their mouths shut. But might does not make right.

The only way for authority to be derived objectively is an outside source. The majority (or, for that matter, the minority with the big stick) needs to be confronted with an omniscient God. When any democracy or any aristocracy comes to realize that God’s wisdom is infinitely greater than theirs could ever be, then no one would dare to disagree with Him. God comes to us and tells us that we are all fools with delusions of autonomy and that we desperately need his loving and gentle authority. God gives hope to everyone: the wise who think they are wise, the fools who think they are fools, the fools who think they are wise, and the wise who think they are fools.

2 thoughts on “Wisdom is Trouble for Democracy

  1. Hi Eric! It’s been a long time! The point about crowd-sourced wisdom is well-taken. Given the four requirements listed: diversity, independence, decentralization, and aggregation, it is possible that the crowd wisdom exceeds that of an individual. However, having all those elements in play simultaneously does seem to be a rare exception. I certainly don’t want to ignore something like the Columbia shuttle disaster as an example, but nor would I advocate for a hierarchical management bureaucracy as an alternative to a democracy.

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