It comes as no surprise to find that there has recently been much talk among Brexit supporters about ‘the wisdom of crowds’. The question fascinated Aristotle, who discussed it at some length in his Politics.
Aristotle (4th century BC) firmly believed that only the ‘best’ should rule. Nevertheless, he had lived in a direct people’s democracy in Athens, and agreed that ‘perhaps, for all its difficulties, it has something to be said for it’. He proceeded to make the case by a series of analogies. The many, he suggested, might be collectively better than the few ‘in the same way that a feast to which all contribute is better than one supplied at one man’s expense’. Collective judgment on music and poetry was clearly better than one man’s, too, because ‘some judge some parts, some others, but their collective judgment is a verdict on all the parts’. The people, being a mix of good and bad, could also be trusted to elect officials collectively because ‘refined foods are more nutritious for the body when mixed with coarse foods’.
Then take the example of house-building, he went on. The builder would obviously have an expert view of the matter, ‘but the user will be an even better judge. So too the helmsman, who actually uses the rudder, will be a better judge of it than the carpenters who made it; and the judge of the merits of a dinner is the diner, not the cook.’ So experts were not necessarily the answer.
Aristotle concluded by affirming that the principle of collective decision-making in choosing officials was just, but did not of itself guarantee that the laws those officials made would be just. That would largely depend, he said, on the constitution, whether good or bad. Since it is hard to believe that any proud Greek would have willingly agreed to any constitution which allowed foreign powers to impose laws on it, Aristotle would probably have regarded the Brexit vote as a triumph of sound collective decision-making.