Australia’s choice: Britannica or Wikipedia

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

from The Australian, September 3, 2013

VOTERS stopped listening to Labor some time ago, but with Kevin Rudd as the party’s salesman they’re not even bothering to answer the door.

He blunders up the garden path with the mechanical gait of an encyclopedia salesman who has been woken from cryogenic storage. Dad’s voice rises from the pool room: “Tell ‘im he’s dreamin’.”

Dreamy Kevin; visionary Kevin; Kevin who according to his sister Loree preferred to build castles in the feed bin while his siblings attended to the cows. On Sunday, his wife Therese offered another anecdote to enlarge our understanding of this most unusual Prime Minister: Kevin the husband she sent to Bunnings for a mozzie candle. Kevin who returns with Blu-Tack, an extension cord, potting mix and a stepladder.

So it is slightly unnerving when Rudd says, as he did at the Rooty Hill RSL six days ago, “I don’t apologise for being in the vision business.”

And when he appeared on Linda Mottram’s program, Rudd pushed more votes the Coalition’s way than he might have intended when he criticised Tony Abbott’s speech: “I heard lots of bits and pieces but no vision for where he wants the country to land in five or 10 years’ time.”

2013-09-03 06.18.49 amThe demand for visionary leadership has slumped dramatically under Labor, as it is inclined to do. Rudd, like the bloke in the Kingswood with boxed sets of Britannicas in the boot, appears blissfully unaware that the customers have moved on.

Wikipedia, by contrast, operates on a different assumption: that knowledge is dispersed among the community. Wikipedia relies on the wisdom of crowds, and the crowd is often wiser than we imagine, particularly if the crowd is considerate enough to leave a scattering of footnotes along the way.

Wikipedia can draw upon the sum total of human knowledge; Britannica’s authors, like technocrats, are called upon to make a supreme judgment based on incomplete information.

The expert may be the smartest person in the room, or even the smartest person on the planet, but they do not know everything.

Friedrich Hayek pondered this paradox in his essay The Use of Knowledge in Society. It was written in 1945 when the technocratic style of government we now consider normal was taking hold, on the mistaken assumption that a nation could be run in peacetime in much the same manner as it was run in wartime, by substituting generals for public service mandarins.

Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales read Hayek’s essay at university and was intrigued by its central question: are decisions best left to the experts in a central planning authority, in the manner of a modern technocratic government?

Or should we give some credit to the “man on the spot”, and recognise that he may have some unique knowledge about local circumstances that should be taken into account in any policy decision?

Hayek notes that it had become fashionable to downplay the wisdom of the streets and assume that the experts, armed with lumps of aggregated information, knew best.

And indeed they would, says Hayek, “if detailed economic plans could be laid down for fairly long periods in advance, and then closely adhered to”.

Under those happy circumstances, “the task of drawing up a comprehensive plan would appear much less formidable”.

Yet, as Hayek points out, “These facts are never so given to a single mind”, which is why central planners, like Rudd, so often get it wrong. “In consequence, it is necessary that in the solution of the problem knowledge should be used that is dispersed among many people.”

Rudd, as we know, does not have a reputation for consulting widely. On the contrary; he appears to deliberately restrict his circle of advisers, freezing out those who might offer a piece of information that does not conform to his neatly structured view of the world.

Neither is Rudd a fan of Hayek. At the Centre for Independent Studies, a bastion of classical liberal thought where Hayek’s philosophy is respected, they are still smarting from Rudd’s keynote speech at the Consilium conference of 2008, in which he presumed to tell a gathering of distinguished diners where the Austrian philosopher stuffed up.

Rudd, possessed of the kind of intelligence that likes to put things neatly into compartments, sees Hayek purely as an economist who was arguing, in effect, to let the market rip. Hayek, of course, says no such thing. Sadly he is no longer alive to gatecrash a Rudd press conference, though I suspect he would have approved of Barry O’Farrell’s interjection last week: “Kevin, you’ve got to learn to share.”

It would be foolhardy to predict that this will be an epoch-turning election, since bad ideas have a tendency to sit in the back of the cupboard long after their use-by date.

If history has any logic, however, a victory for Tony Abbott on Saturday would mark the end of Labor’s brave experiments in central planning, and a return to a less hubristic, consultative form of government in which it is recognised that not all relevant knowledge is contained within the boundaries of the Australian Capital Territory.

That is why, in this gloriously flat democracy, Tony Abbott has every chance of being elected as prime minister this Saturday.

Does Abbott have a vision? Of course. But it is not a vision that the central planners, and indeed the expert commentators, really want to hear.

Abbott, an intellectual who understands the Australian way is to keep one’s intellectual thoughts to oneself, told his party’s launch nine days ago: “My vision for Australia is not that Big Brother government knows best; it’s that our country will best flourish when all of our citizens, individually and collectively, have the best chance to be their best selves.

“Government’s job is rarely to tell people what to do; mostly, it’s to make it easier for people to make their own choices.”