Walter Bagehot on (1) Fanaticism, (2) The Wisdom of Crowds

Why, oh why, did it take me so long to finally get to Walter Bagehot’s book The English Constitution? As of the halfway mark, every single page is good. The man is the very soul of common sense and cool, mature realism.

At one point he is discussing the fact that the English monarch retains, in theory, the capacity to order parliament dissolved. But, Bagehot notes, such a dire threat is never used any longer. Nor, he goes on, should any monarch ever believe that any idea of his is so important or valuable that he would even want to make, let alone, exercise such a threat:

To wish to be a despot, “to hunger after tyranny,” as the Greek phrase had it, marks in our day an uncultivated mind. A person who so wishes cannot have weighed what Butler calls the “doubtfulness things are involved in”. To be sure you are right to impose your will, or to wish to impose it, with violence upon others; to see your own ideas vividly and fixedly, and to be tormented till you can apply them in life and practice, not to like to hear the opinions of others, to be unable to sit down and weigh the truth they have, are but crude states of intellect in our present civilisation. We know, at least, that facts are many; that progress is complicated; that burning ideas (such as young men have) are mostly false and always incomplete. The notion of a far-seeing and despotic statesman, who can lay down plans for ages yet unborn, is a fancy generated by the pride of the human intellect to which facts give no support.

I will say in bristling partisan spirit that such “uncultivated minds” are growing rankly and thickly on the ground in the Left blogosphere nowadays. But in fairness I must with alacrity add, with some regret, that such uncivil over-assuredness also, from time to time, occurs even amongst those of us on the side of the angels, here in the conservative/libertarian provinces of the great kingdom of Blogistan.

Perhaps a more profound insight is this:

The House of Commons is a scene of life if ever there was a scene of life. Every member in. the throng, every atom in the medley, has his own. objects (good or bad), his own purposes (great or petty); his own notions, such as they are, of what is; his own notions, such as they are, of what ought to be. There is a motley confluence of vigorous elements, but the result is one and good. There is a “feeling the House,” a “sense” of the House, and no one who knows any thing of it can despise it. A very shrewd man of the world went so far as to say that
“the House of Commons has more sense than any one in it.”

Our learned colleague James McCormick has suggested that harnessing the “wisdom of crowds” has been the Anglosphere’s “secret weapon”. Bagehot’s description of the strength of the House of Commons is certainly consistent with that insight. (I do not have and have not read the Surowiecki book, and the index is not online at Amazon. Does anyone know if he cites this passage from Bagehot?)

Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings.

2 thoughts on “Walter Bagehot on (1) Fanaticism, (2) The Wisdom of Crowds”

  1. I like the wisdom of the crowds. But wait till they’re not angry.
    Oh, and this common sence reconstruction seems like good lefty anthropology.

  2. I need to read the book. But my understanding is the wisdom of crowds only works when there is an institutional framework for it work in — A jury, a market, an election, etc. So, an angry mob is not what we are talking about.

    I don’t track you on “good lefty anthropology”. Que?

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