"Liberal Democracy and the Wisdom of Crowds" is followed below by "What Democracy is Not"


SOME REMINDERS: Any form of democracy involves filtering, i.e. filtering well-informed opinions from poorly-informed ones, and those held strongly from those held lightly. How this might be achieved is a perennial bone of contention. I have argued further below that an essential component of democracy is the holding of votes cast in secret, and that these ballots must be precise and focussed enough to be meaningful; and that their outcome must be honoured.

There are a number of preconditions without which democracy, in this narrow sense, is barely conceivable. It is here that there is a crossover to liberalism. The preconditions include the rule of law, extensive property rights and freedom of expression. They also include, at a structural (constitutional) level, the existence of checks and balances; i.e. that for each locus of power there must be a countervailing force. Checks and balances are not symmetrical, and they work over slightly different timeframes. (Indeed, very little in life is symmetrical.) Taken together, this short set of conditions may be held to be constitutive of democracy in the wider sense, which is the prevalent one in common usage.

It is also a definition of a consensual society guided by the rule not of law alone, but of reason, reasonableness and occasional compromise. In this connection, an important qualification: When there is protracted and informed contention, it cannot be the case that one side wins the debate hands down, but the other imposes its will nonetheless. This makes a mockery of democracy in the wider sense as much as disregard for the results of ballots destroys democracy in the narrow sense.

Liberalism is harder to delineate, not only because of opposing understandings of the word on the two sides of the Atlantic. But its pole opposite, authoritarianism, may give a guide.

Historically, liberalism arose not in the European heartland, but in the Anglosphere thanks to the shape of religious contention there. It emerged where there was no single religious community powerful enough to dominate. Tolerance was born from the multitude of convictions, whereas for authoritarianism to thrive, there must be a dominant locus of power. Liberalism thrives where excessive concentrations of power are contained, countered and routinely fragmented; exactly as, in that other sphere of liberalism, the market economy, cartels must be identified and eliminated.

Whereas democracy, narrowly defined, involves formal processes, liberalism is built on informal consultation, which is what is needed to do the fine-tuning. Hence we might, here, too, see at work the principle of checks and balances. The liberal sphere is composed of many vested and emergent interests, none on its own powerful enough to be decisive. It is a sphere where decisions are devolved, the most extreme devolution being that seen in Hayek’s marketplace, where myriad purchases amount to a vote on which products should continue to be offered, and which discontinued. The liberal sphere is characterised by give-and-take, generosity of spirit and laissez-faire, but all within certain bounds. Also within certain (national) borders: the ideal of universal human rights (and therefore the right of anyone to settle where they wish) runs up against the facts of life. Liberalism is incompatible with universal and unrestricted reproductive rights. Those taking the Western package of low infant mortality, absence of massacres and plentiful nutrition must also “swallow the pill”.

For the wisdom of crowds to flourish, which might be considered a (narrow) democratic ideal, there must be awareness of how it can mutate into their folly. The wisdom of crowds only functions when each individual makes their assessment or decision independently, without knowledge of what the mass of others think. This cannot happen where there is second-guessing, which occurs when predictions or observations are published about how others think, thereby subverting the individual decision-making process. The wisdom of crowds (i.e. democracy) is, therefore, incompatible with (the temptation of) tactical voting. It is also incompatible with groupthink. For the wisdom of crowds to operate there needs, therefore, to be restrictions on opinion polls since these inevitably prevent people from forming their judgements independently.
©2020 Paul Charles Gregory paul@fuzzydemocracy.eu


It is NOT the same as liberalism, whether this is defined narrowly or more broadly. The rule of law, property rights, the recourse to markets, freedom of expression and a spirit of moderation may be the hallmarks of liberalism and necessary preconditions for democracy, but they are not sufficient. Importantly, democracy must mean more than a culture of discussion. Democracy is denied when a broad consensus emerges on what is reasonable yet decisions taken to the contrary.

Least of all is democracy about equality except in narrowly defined legal and constitutional areas. It may, however, result in broad limits being placed on inequality. Hence some property rights may be curtailed, for example by punitive taxation. The single-minded pursuit of equality, even just that of opportunity, entails the suppression of other values.


Voting. That is, formal votes must be held at various levels, normally through a secret ballot. Most importantly but not exclusively, with universal suffrage to elect representatives or governments. Where formal votes are denied or ignored there can be no talk of democracy. Suffrage cannot be replaced by opinion polls or focus groups. It cannot be replaced by consultation with experts, lawyers, professional associations, interested parties or pressure groups. It cannot be replaced by mass demonstrations or campaigns in social media. Exactly how votes are held and counted is another matter, more complex that meets the eye.


One universal societal phenomenon is the tendency for there to be a concentration of power (as well as, less importantly, its common corollary, wealth). Whereas some aggregation of power is certainly necessary, power easily becomes concentrated to become both excessive and abusive. As such, it needs a counterweight. There must, therefore, be forces and institutions in place to disperse power.

Among those institutions is universal suffrage, i.e. the principle that every citizen who wishes to may register periodically a voice on the way society is going. To repeat: This must be a formal voice, not an informal or statistical voice as occurs with opinion polls or focus groups.

By the nature of things, this voice cannot be very precise, but neither must be it so lacking in precision as to be meaningless.

The complexity of even a fairly simple society is such that governance inevitably rests in relatively few hands. To keep governance reasonably (not perfectly) good we have systems of checks and balances. Chief among those checks & balances is universal suffrage. One function is as a corrective and another to give pause for thought.


A common error is to conceive of democracy as the rule of the majority. There is seldom a majority, only provisional coalitions of minorities. Since any minority might find itself the target, or victim, of an unfavorable coalition, each minority has an incentive to protect other minorities. Hence democracy comes to be moderated by civic rights whose purpose is that they cannot be withdrawn except by cumbersome processes which themselves are not governed by the principle of one-man one-vote. (Civic rights are not the same as human rights, but that is a separate matter.)


More important than democracy is social cohesion. Whereas governance is complex and often contested, it must enjoy some semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of a broad majority. This legitimacy may be no more than acquiescence. Universal suffrage gives expression to such acquiescence. Otherwise people will feel justified, even duty-bound, to flout the law.


The common conflation of expressions such as “liberal” and “democratic” has done much damage to public debate, seen not least in the invective against something called populism. In particular, there is an argument to be made that none of the large advanced countries which are called democracies enjoy much democratic legitimacy. Meaningful votes are few and far between, with jerrymandering and other manipulation almost everywhere.

Universal suffrage has been advocated in these lines as a crucial and indispensable element in the systems of checks and balances which sustain our political and social order. It is not the only element. Even with the filtering remedies I have proposed elsewhere, universal suffrage can only decide a direction of travel, not the detail. But failure to heed that instruction, as has been occurring widely and persistently, puts at peril social cohesion and acquiescence. Democracy is more than debate.

The above reflections and reminders have not dealt with the new topics of what a “demos” is or the “deep state”, nor the use of referenda to override or advise representative assemblies. It has not dealt with the boundary dispute between democratic decision-making and economic imperatives, with the seemingly coercive pleading of business interests. It has not analysed populism. These topics are for another day.

©2020 Paul Charles Gregory paul@fuzzydemocracy.eu