MPs face public fury: The morality of crowds?

June 9, 2009

Sharon Bedford

Sharon Bedford

The unfolding drama at Westminster sees British MPs forced to resign after public meetings which have demonstrated the anger of the public against their elected representatives. Are we seeing another facet of group behaviour which could be termed the morality of crowds?

The wisdom of crowds

There is understandable approval for the ideas that crowds exercise ‘group smarts’ that go beyond the judgement of an elite few. This concept was popularised and the opposing view rejected by James Surowiecki who noted

“No one in this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
-H. L. Mencken

H. L. Mencken was wrong.

In [his] endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

The fury of crowds

The appeal of Surowiecki’s idea should not blind us to the evidence of the fury of crowds, and the potential for this fury to be exploited by popularist leaders. One of the criticisms of the power of charismatic leaders, is the apparent impact of a powerful well-delivered speeches.

The morality of crowds

Crowd behaviour exhibits other tendencies. I have recently been struck by the manifestation of righteous indignation in the public mood against their elected representatives.

Public outrage in the UK, a month ago directed at anyone implicated in the credit crunch, has been partially redirected toward the new villains, our own appointed parliamentary representatives

Perhaps righteous indignation contributes to public displays of anger against the immorality of others and the justification of direct action against the targeted individuals.

The case for tax avoidance

Western society has developed (evolved if you like) mechanisms through which individuals seek to contribute as little as they are obliged to, towards the State. A complex set of scrutinizers are engaged by the State on one hand to oversee the individual payments, and individuals hire another complex set of advisors to help them avoid paying more than they have to. Financial advisors are taught the principles and practice of tax avoidance, as one of their professional skills.

Sharon Bedford, an accountant, outlines the subtleties of tax avoidance in an interesting article on the BBC website.

While MPs have now been forbidden to [claim tax allowances on second homes through their Parliamentary allowances] this tax break is still available to anyone who has a second home, and who has the means to fund relatively short- term property gains … However, the ability to sell a second home, avoiding tax on all the recent capital gains, relies on a new bit of the tax law which was extended during the last recession to help individuals forced to move home to find work.

Bedford demonstrates the way in which the system permitted claims which have been revealed as far too advantageous to those MPs willing to make them. Bedford also shows a rationale behind ‘second home’ allowances, and warns against hasty and ill thought-out new legislation

An ancient morality tale

Once upon a time there was leader who led a revolution against injustice. He was able to channel the anger of his people so successfully that an oppressive regime was brought down. The people called for justice against those who had wronged them. The leader worked diligently to convince the people that there was a path forward which addressed both needs for justice over past wrongs and commitment to shared goals in the future.

But that was just a dream wasn’t it? It couldn’t work today.

…Or could it?