The Intelligence of Groups

I like to camp.  Getting out in the woods with a backpack for a few days has always been a source of pleasure and contentment for me.  When I was younger that usually meant me going alone.  However I’ve found myself being more social in recent years, and have done a number of group trips.  That has been an education.

When you camp alone you are responsible for everything.  You aren’t going to be too stupid, because there’s a self-selecting process working here.  Dumb people who camp alone see things go wrong, sometimes catastrophically.  They often don’t go more than once.  In a group, however, you don’t need to be too smart.  Other people will pick up your slack.  As long as those people know what they’re doing, you can just coast.  If you find yourself in a group with people less competent than you, however, then you might end up working a lot harder than you would if you were camping alone.  I witnessed this happen several times.  I’m not fond of leading a group.  However, if leadership is incompetent I will start telling people what to do.  I don’t like it, but I’ll do it.  There’s probably an evolutionary explanation for this.

As best I can tell, living things are pretty lazy.  They’ll do exactly as much as they need to survive, then no more.  If you work harder than your peers, it just means that you feel your survival requires more work.  Others are satisfied with less.  In the case of camping, it’s pretty clear exactly what has to happen in order to survive.  Food, shelter, knowing where you are and where you’re going, how to avoid injuries and deal with them when they occur, and being as comfortable as possible while you do it.  Those are the requirements for camping.  If they’re met then you can relax.  If not, then you need to work harder to make sure they are met.  So what’s my point?

Right now, we have a president promising impossible things.  He wants to pass tax cuts that will, in the most optimistic of circumstances, increase the debt by trillions of dollars over the next decade.  He wants to repeal Obamacare and give insurance to all, without paying anything extra.  He wants economic growth in the 3-4% range.  None of these things can happen.  So Congress is forced to be the adult in the room and try and pass things that still somewhat satisfy his requirements, but have some kind of grounding in reality.  Trumpcare is a great example of that.  It didn’t do any of the things Trump promised, but it did repeal Obamacare.  We are going to watch it play out with Trumpcare again, as well as tax and immigration reform.

This is in contrast to the last four years.  I lost count how many times Congress passed bills to repeal Obamacare.  They could do so knowing that it would be vetoed, and therefore wouldn’t make any practical difference.  They were free to behave incompetently, knowing that the president would be the adult and would do the right thing.

So now we have an inverted situation.  The president is behaving stupidly, forcing Congress to behave intelligently.  I have a theory that a group will always rise, or drop to whatever level of intelligence is required of them.  If that bar is fairly low, then only a few people in a group need to be smart enough to meet it.  Everyone else is free to be lazy and incompetent.  If those people can’t do it, either more people will join them in competence, or they will be replaced.  What we’ve seen from the US government throughout my lifetime is a reasonably low bar.  I can’t help but wonder what will happen if something raises the bar.  If we somehow need to be smarter than we have been behaving.  Will both Trump and Congress rise to the occasion, or will one or both be replaced by those who could be?  It’s tough to say.  But we do appear to be moving towards a world where Congress is forced to be competent.  This is an interesting world to be in.

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