Collective Competence: Some Initial Thoughts

This post expands on themes from a previous series of blog posts, “The Demands of Political Competence”.

No one person knows how to put someone on the moon, but the brilliant minds at NASA, as a collective, do. Similarly, one might suggest, while no one person is politically competent, the electorate as a whole possesses the necessary competence. If this can be established, one might argue, we should worry less, or not at all, about individuals not knowing much about politics, and not being individually competent to make political decisions. After all, we do not think it surprising or troubling that no individual NASA employee knows how to put someone on the moon; what matters is that NASA as a whole can. This analogy provides us with a comforting and appealing way to think about democracy. But is it true?

A Red Herring

A first worry is that the issue of collective competence is a red herring, insofar as we’re interested in the issue from the perspective of individuals. It might well be true that there is a group of people which is competent vis-à-vis some task. But that does not address the point that each individual is incompetent for solving that task: it simply changes the perspective from which we look at an issue. It can be gratifying to know that competence exists on some higher level, but that does not change that it does not exist on the level at hand.

Still, one might argue, the issue of collective competence changes how we should view the matter of individual competence. Amanda, the NASA engineer who spends hours designing the exhaust port of the rocket, can still insist that, even though she only contributed a small part to putting someone on the moon, she did contribute, and can see how she contributed. In that sense, she might say, she is relevantly competent, insofar as she plays a causally effective part in competently solving the larger problem.

I am happy to admit that in Amanda’s case, individual incompetence is less troubling, or perhaps not troubling at all. Indeed, there is something fascinating about many small efforts of thousands of people coming together to put someone on the moon. To insist in the face of this tremendous collective effort that Amanda does not know how to put someone on the moon—because she only understands a small part of the overall enterprise—seems strange and irrelevant, almost insulting to her. In much the same way, one might argue, should we see the case of individual lack of knowledge and democratic politics.

However, the democratic case is importantly different in several ways, each of which means that individual political incompetence cannot so easily be ignored. Five features set the NASA example apart, and make it a favourable one: (i) we are considering a structured institution with an agreed-upon task, (ii) which assigns to each individual within that institution a clearly defined sub-task, (iii) such that each individual can see, in principle, how their efforts in solving that sub-task contribute to achieving the overall task, (iv) where each individual’s contribution is causally effective and not obviously redundant, and (v) where each individual has a special competence regarding their sub-task, which sets them apart from other members who do not have that special competence.

There is one political organisation which might fulfil these features, and that is government. The executive—or perhaps, the overall apparatus of government, including the legislative and judicial branches—with its many departments, posts, offices, researchers, and employees can often be said to be collectively competent with respect to the issues it tackles (at least if you have a somewhat optimistic vision of actual governments), precisely because it is a highly structured institution with a sophisticated separation of internal labour. So individual government employees might take comfort in view of the fact that, while their individual contributions are miniscule, their expertise contributes to a larger entity which competently deals with these issues.

However, only a small part of the population is part of this collective effort to run the country: government employees in policy-making areas. (Even amongst government employees, this is only a small sliver. School teachers and policemen, for example, contribute to the collective exercise and implementation of government policy, but they are not directly contributing to designing and making policy—which is the question we’re interested in.) So even if this line of argument can be to work, it only applies to very few people.

What, then, about people who are not government employees, but who take part in democratic government through other means—in particular, by deliberating with others, political organizing and lobbying, and voting? For simplicity, call people who politically engage in these ways citizens, and the arena in which they so engage the civil sphere (ignoring other connotations those labels have). I will assume for argument’s sake that citizens, as a collective organising itself in the civil sphere, are collectively competent—like NASA, they manage to competently tackle the task at hand. The question, however, is whether that changes how we should think about the lack of political knowledge that each individual possesses.

Troubles for Collective Competence

The main problem is that the civil sphere is not relevantly structured in the right way—it does not fulfil conditions (i) to (v). So unlike Amanda, who can take comfort in being part of a collectively competent enterprise (NASA), there is nothing comforting about being part of a collectively competent civic sphere, because the way how individuals connect to the collective is importantly different between the two. (In addition, you might also simply think that the political collective is not competent. But that’s a different type of criticism.)

Let’s go through the five features to see these differences in detail. First, the civil sphere lacks a clearly described institutional structure, and an agreed-upon task. NASA employees work (we can assume for simplicity) for the same aim: putting someone on the moon. Everyone who works for, and enters into, NASA has this aim in view, and can assume that everyone else works for this aim.

Political deliberation in the civic sphere is nothing like that. People do not have generally agreed-upon aims, unless we describe those aims in uninformative vague terms, like “promoting the common good”. Socialists and libertarians want to exploit the state apparatus (or in the latter case, destroy it!) for radically different reasons. It’s like NASA, put some people take their aim to put someone on the moon, and others in the same organisation try to build a car, and still others want to breed golden retrievers.

Second, there is no clear separation of labour within the civic sphere. Amanda knows that, while she is designing the exhaust port, others are designing the rocket, others are computing the correct fuel ratios, still others are figuring out the rocket’s flight path, and still others will man it. So the overall task is separated into a set of interlocking but separate sub-tasks. On some level of generality, Amanda can understand how these tasks interlock, and what her role in the bigger team effort is.

Political opinion-building is not generally like that. While there are often specialist subfields, people contribute to most fields of political deliberation: we contribute to both discussion in economics and social values, immigration and foreign policy, federal and local politics. Sure, some people have expertise in particular fields of knowledge—e.g., in economics—and there are dedicated, specialist sub-arenas of the public sphere where such issues are discussed (i.e., professional economics).

But even where this is true, we tend to lack clearly defined mechanisms for how different areas of expertise interlock. Amanda knows that her design of the exhaust port will interlock in a clearly definde way with how other parts of the rocket are designed. However, the way how different specialist discourses in the civic sphere interlock is often haphazard to non-existent. Specialist economist knowledge, for example, normally fails to reach the wider civic sphere, or reaches it in severely distorted forms.

This leads us into the third point: even where you have some piece of privileged knowledge in democratic politics, the way how this contributes to the formation of the collective will is generally opaque to you. Imagine that Amanda, instead of directly being responsible for the design of the exhaust port, submits her suggested design to a large computer, together with millions of other proposals. Through an algorithm Amanda does not know, the computer puts out a final design for the exhaust port, on the basis of the proposals submitted. The final design bears some similarities to Amanda’s design, though it is also radically different in other ways.

It is hard for Amanda to know whether (i) she has contributed at all, and (ii) even if she knows that she has contributed, how she has contributed. The first point is a well-known quagmire in democratic theory—after all, it seems that your vote doesn’t make a difference, or its difference it miniscule. But we can accept, for argument’s sake, that you do make a difference, especially in non-voting political activities like deliberation. An often-ignored second point, however, is that even if this is the case, you will find it hard to track whatever impact you have on the collective will. You might contribute something to the giant machine which is the civic sphere, but it is almost impossible for you to say what and how.

Fourth, given the tremendous size of modern polities, you rarely if ever have something unique to contribute. Even in those areas where you consider yourself well-informed, or where you can be said to have a unique perspective, there will be many others who can (and do) make the same contribution. If the point of political deliberation, for example, is information-pooling and the inclusion of a variety of perspectives, then only a small subset of (representative) deliberators is needed to achieve this aim.

Imagine that there are other people aside from Amanda who are designing an exhaust port for the rocket. Indeed, there are thousands or millions, all somewhat competent, all of who submit design proposals to the opaque computer algorithm. Like a hundred people lifting a boat that can be lifted by only one, it is hard to see what you are contributing here. Your contribution is definitely not necessary. But even if we wish to say (with some theories of causal contribution) that you contribute something, your contribution starts to look marginal. This, again, should dampen your optimism about your contribution.

Fifth, it is not even clear whether you are particularly competent with regard to the small area where you take yourself to contribute. Amanda has one important thing going for her: she has a very rare, possibly unique, speciality: the design of rocket exhaust ports. She can reasonably think that few other people share her competence, or have given the issue as much thought as she has.

Unfortunately, we are often not even competent for the relatively local, narrow areas of policy-making that we take ourselves to contribute to the larger mechanism of government. I might suspect that some economic policy is bad for my local area, and I am likely to have superior knowledge in this respect to non-locals. As a second example, I might have read up on education policy and have some idea about what is wrong with the American education system.

But even if I know those things, that hardly makes me an expert for local economic policy-making, or for adjudicating between different types of educational systems. (To put the point bluntly, talking to the local people, or reading the New York Times, does not make you relevantly competent.) I have some type of scattered information, though not much more than that.

We are not generally like Amanda with her specialised but expert knowledge. We are, normally, like people who know a bit more about exhaust ports than others (where those others, on average, know nothing at all)—we are able to say when an exhaust port is badly malfunctioning, or we have some vague ideas about good ones. But (to stay in the metaphor) rarely are we competent in designing an exhaust port, or to do the complicated calculations which would be required for that. So unlike Amanda’s case, it’s not even that we contribute local competence to some global competence, however understood. Most of us are merely exhaust port amateur enthusiasts.

Cogs in the Machine

Let’s put these points together through yet another metaphor. Imagine that we are facing a giant machine. It has millions of levers and handles, which, through a tremendous and inscrutable mechanisms of gears, cogs, axles, pipes, conveyor belts (etc.), produces cars. By hypothesis, most of us indeed intend to produce cars, though some people really want the machine to put out a bike, and others think the machine is meant to breed golden retrievers. However, no one genuinely understands how the machine works. Sure, there are different parts of the machine, and some people have a rough idea how parts of the machine works. But in general, people walk freely around the machine and turn different handles as they see fit.

The machine is whirring and whizzing, and as if by magic, it produces the cars we wanted. But how each of our lever-turning contributes to the outcome is thoroughly unclear. You might become good at pushing the levers of a particular part of the machine. You might even start to understand some tiny part of the machine. But as you look around yourself, you see millions of others turning levers in much the same way—if you stood back, you think, good cars would still be produced—and you still have no idea how the overall machine works.

The aggregation of individual inputs to collective competence looks something like this machine. Even if we admit that the machine works, that is little comfort to each individual. We can take little comfort in the fact that, through some thoroughly opaque process, our uninformed individual inputs are turned into reliably good collective outcomes.


What I have offered is a pretty generic criticism of accounts of collective competence. Showing how this criticism can be defended in the face of particular accounts is a story for another day. I suspect, however, that something like the following will emerge as a pattern: (i) simplistic accounts of collective competence (e.g., Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, or “Diversity Trumps Ability” results) will turn out to be overly simplistic. That is, they rely on simplifying modelling assumptions which we have little reason to accept. So while these accounts offer transparent and simple explanations how aggregation works, they fail. (ii) So we have to move to more complex explanations, those that focus, for example, on the complex epistemic advantages that large-scale deliberative democracy brings. But simply in virtue of those explanations making appeal to a complex multitude of causal channels, the opaqueness critique I have offered will start to become more relevant. But admittedly, this is not more than a philosophical suspicion at this point.

Let’s assume, however, that the machine metaphor can be vindicated, and that it represents the realities of democratic politics in some way. What is the practical upshot of this? One might still insist that, insofar as we care about democracy as a larger system, it is the system’s reliability of producing good outcomes that we care about. So one might admit that individuals are just cogs in the wheels of an inscrutable machine; but it might be the cars the machine produces which is all that matters. (Looking around us, of course, we have strong reason to be rather dissatisfied with the quality of the cars put out.)

I have some sympathy for this response. Indeed, if democratic theory could show that the machine worked, then it would have achieved some tremendous success. Still, there are important conclusions that we should draw if the machine metaphor is right. Let me sketch two such ideas.

First, we should accept our own incompetence—we should accept that in face of the giant machine which is democratic politics, each of us is utterly epistemically humiliated. (To clarify, this is not an attitude which some people should accept. It is one that (almost?) everyone should accept.) Epistemic humility—which is the result of accepting one’s epistemic humiliation—is of course a standard philosophical attitude, the discipline which has long stressed that we know much less than we thought. But this attitude is still rarely accepted as a necessary starting point for thinking about democratic politics.

Second, and more controversially, we should start to structure and organise our collective dealings with the machine. We should aim to transform our efforts into a structured institutional enterprise with a clear separation of labour. Instead of trying to understand the whole machine, we should start organising into groups that analyse particular parts of the machine in specialised ways. Different groups dealing with different parts of the machine should interlock their expertise in systematic ways—and so on. We should, in short, introduce more structure in our collective opinion-building.

In one way, of course, this is simply an argument that we ought to form a government—that we should delegate the task of handling the machine to some chosen group of people who tackle it in a structured way. But if you want to hold on to the idea that everyone should have a part in the collective machine, then you will need to think about ways in which the civic sphere itself can be structured (or perhaps already is structured!) in ways that diminish the disorienting effects I have described.

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