The wisdom of crowds: Why ordinary people
are not “wrong about everything”


We live in a society ruled by “expert” opinion. Politicians pay lip service to the people they represent, then turn around and tell them what is good for them based on the opinion of their “expert” advisers. There’s an assumption that ordinary common folk are stupid, ill-informed and bigoted.

Such views used to be common among Tory paternalists. They still are. But the overwhelming majority of anti-working class prejudice now comes from the left. Outraged that the masses have repeatedly rejected socialism, the new left have eagerly seized on Chomsky’s notion of ‘manufacturing consent’ – the idea that the media is a tool of the establishment used to indoctrinate the people.

This is just the latest version of the ‘false consciousness’ argument that gets trotted out every time the revolution fails to appear. The people, so the story goes, have been brainwashed by the ruling classes and the ‘right wing media‘. They do not know what their ‘real interests’ are. The people are not really against welfarism or mass immigration, they just think they are because they don’t know any better. The Tories didn’t really win the election, Rupert Murdoch did. We’ve all heard the excuses.

Instead of listening to the people in whose name it pretends to act, the modern left sets out to ‘educate’ them. Such thinking is glib, patronising, ‘we know best’ rubbish.

A commonly trotted out argument is that ordinary people are wrong about everything because they have a tendency to overstate levels of crime, immigration and benefit fraud. This was the conclusion of an Ipsos Mori poll a couple of years ago and it has been the rallying cry of anti-democrats ever since.

The people, this line of thinking asserts, are too dumb to be trusted. The much-lauded ‘wisdom of crowds’ is in their eyes nothing but a myth. There are unpleasant echoes here of the old arguments against giving working men and women the vote – because they were not ‘mentally capable’ of exercising it responsibly.

People respond to what they see going on around them, or to things they feel particularly strongly about. If they see their neighbour enjoying a better life than they have whilst living on benefits, they are likely to estimate the level of benefits spending or fraud accordingly. If they have been driven out of their neighbourhood or their job by migrants, they will think the same of immigration.

Empathy plays a role as well. If it can happen to ‘someone like me’, then it can happen to me. It is no accident that those on low incomes – who are most likely to have seen the devastating effect of welfare dependency first hand – are the most sceptical about the benefits of the welfare state. Nor is it coincidence that unskilled and manual workers are among the groups who feel most threatened by mass immigration.

The fact that someone doesn’t have a perfect command of the relevant statistics does not mean their views should be dismissed. Nor does the prevalence of so-called mass media ‘hysteria’ over welfare and immigration prove that ordinary people are mindless Murdoch drones. In the age of personalised Twitter feeds, YouTube and citizen journalism, the old monopolies have lost much of their former power.

Nor is expert opinion – frequently fetishised by politicians – infallible. Up to 90 percent of accumulated medical knowledge has been found to be wrong. In economics this approaches 100 percent – unsurprising given how many economists failed to predict the financial crisis, and how often economists like Thomas Piketty get their sums wrong.

Experts have been constantly wrong about the total population the Earth can sustain, and have repeatedly (and wrongly) predicted that humanity would soon run out of natural resources. From nuclear bombs to telephones, aeroplanes to supercomputers, history is littered with highly-respected experts who were wrong about everything.

Yet politicians love using ill-defined ‘experts’ as a justification for bad policy. Why? Because they can pick out selective opinions and statistics that suit their biases, whilst conveniently ignoring the little people.

I’m not claiming that statistics are useless. Far from it. They are an incredibly useful indicator of social and economic trends. But we must not elevate them to godhood. Different numbers can be used to draw contradictory conclusions about the same subjects. Experts will inevitably draw different conclusions about the same things. To which expert will the politicians – always seeking new methods of control – listen next?

The truth is that middle class intellectuals have their own biases and prejudices. The first thing students are taught on any decent statistics course is that statistics can be manipulated. On any given subject there are a bewildering variety of different figures. Take immigration. Do you look at net migration or total inward migration? The total number of incomers or their birth rates?

‘Expert opinion’ has been used to justify a systematic assault on out liberties in the name of our needs. The smoking ban. Sin taxes on petrol, alcohol and plastic bags. The war on ‘carbon’. The drive for expensive ‘green’ energy. The obsession with ‘public health’. Need I go on?

Give me the wisdom of ‘biased’, ‘racist’, ‘bigoted’, ‘brainwashed’ crowds over the sermonising of so-called ‘experts’ any day. The only difference between the prejudices of pseudo intellectuals and ordinary people is that the former are better at disguising theirs as objective fact.

Chris has been a member of the Conservative Party since 2010. He believes strongly in individual freedom, personal responsibility, and the power of free markets to eliminate poverty by encouraging wealth creation. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmanby1989

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