Thursday, August 12, 2004


I have been reading Machiavelli (The Prince and The Discourses), the former being the Strunk and White of power politics. Nevada County politics could be worse, at present it is still not common practice to "extinguish" (Machiavelli's euphemism, or his translator's) deposed rulers and their entire families.

Many passages jumped out, landing here:

...a general rule that never fails: a prince who is not wise himself cannot be wisely counseled, unless by chance he should have a sole counselor by whom he is ruled in all matters. There could be such a situation, but it would not last long, for the counselor would soon deprive the prince of his state. An unwise prince, having to consider the advice of several counselors, would never receive concordant opinions, and he would not be able to reconcile them on his own. His counselors would pursue their own interests and he would know neither how to rule them nor how to understand them... all history proves by a multitude of examples, whoever organizes a state and establishes its laws must assume that all men are wicked and will act wickedly whenever they have the chance to do so....

there was never anyone who ordained new and unusual laws among a people without having recourse to God, for they would not otherwise have been accepted. This is so because prudent men know of many beneficial things which, having no persuasive evidence for them, they cannot get others to accept. Consequently, wise men who wish to avoid this difficulty resort to divine authority.
For example, the advent of general anaesthesia -
Religious traditionalists held that mothers ought to fulfil the "edict of bringing forth children in sorrow" as laid down in the Holy Bible.... One clergyman saw the new chloroform anaesthesia as "a decoy from Satan, apparently offering to bless woman; but, in the end, it will harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries, which arise in time of trouble for help."... mutterings that infants delivered painlessly should be denied the sacrament...
[But then an anaesthesia advocate] cited Genesis 2:21: "And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof". Casting God in the role of The Great Anaesthetist ... the suggestion that God Himself employed anaesthesia helped carry the day...

Differences between the conduct of the multitude and the conduct of princes do not derive from differences in their nature, that being the same in both (though if there be some superiority either way, it will be found on the side of the people)...

it is not without reason that the voice of the people has been likened to the voice of God, for popular opinion is amazingly reliable in its prognostications, so much so that the people would seem to have hidden powers by which to foresee their future ills and triumphs...*
Steve Kurson, somewhere in Brad DeLong's comments -
  • When are [crowds of people thinking independently] wise?
    When the crowd is diverse, and when members are making their decisions relatively independently of each other. Again, book is full of work demonstrating the value of diversity and the perils of what Surowiecki [author of The Wisdom of Crowds] calls dependent decision-making.
  • Why are they wise?
    In part, it's because a larger group of people can simply draw on more information, is more likely to have diverse perspectives. But as Surowiecki explains early on, the core of the idea is actually a simple mathematical truism: if the group of problem-solvers is diverse, the errors they make in solving a problem will not be correlated. Therefore, those errors will cancel themselves out, allowing the information that's in the group to surface. This is a simple answer, but it is the answer.

A rather different perspective on the amazing reliability of popular opinion, from Bill Bonner of the Daily Reckoning:
A man on his own, driving down the road, will usually make the right decisions and more often than not end up where he intends to go. But put him in the great mass of voters or investors, and all his good sense seems to disappear out the window like a cigarette butt. All of a sudden he presses down the accelerator and heads for the nearest brick wall.
(in which case, he'll want to be driving the Mini Cooper)

Although given Mr. Bonner's credibility of late - pretending to believe that GWBush is pretending to be stupid, scoffing at global warming ("Global warming is just a hypothesis. Yet it is taught in school as though it were fact.") ...somebody's mouth might be bigger than his brain. [Note: Mr. B. did subsequently print in full(?) an expert's aghast response to his offhand dismissal of global warming - so I retract the anatomical comparison.]

* Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds had not yet been published

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