On Livestock and Democracy: Comparing The Egyptian Presidential Elections 1906 cattle breeding show in rural England
In a few days, Egyptians are going to polling stations to choose their president for the first time ever in their long history. Previously, almost every ruler we ever had in 10,000 years was “chosen” on our behalf by some outside force or by an act of “fate” such as being appointed the Vice President for a life-long president who happened to be shot dead shortly after.
Naturally, everyone is both very excited and also very apprehensive. The previous regime, as we have discovered, is still firmly in place, and even bold enough to elect two of its members for candidacy. The revolutionary groups are busy competing with each other and vying for public support. The logical question is: are the Egyptians ready to practice democracy? Are they equipped to choose the “right” president, or will their over-excitement and inexperience work against them? I have had to answer this question repeatedly from high profile international politicians I met in my trips to talk about the Egyptian revolution, most recently at the Swedish Royal Palace.
I’m not a politician, I’m into human behavior, and so I looked for the answer in a fascinating experiment of Francis Galton, a 19th century British scientist who believed that only a few people had the required abilities to keep a society healthy. He had little faith in the intelligence of the average person, and his career was dedicated to proving that the vast majority of people were not equipped to lead or make educated choices. According to Galton, society could prosper only if power and control stayed in the hands of the very select few.
In 1906, he observed a competition at a livestock county fair in a small town in England. The onlookers were appraising a live ox, and trying to guess its expected weight after slaughter and dressing.
The crowd included a mixture of expert butchers, cattle traders, and average people.
Galton thought of an analogy to democracy, of when the votes of average people of very different abilities decided the fate of an issue or a candidate. He wrote: “The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits on most political issues on which he voted.”
Of course by that he meant to prove that the “average voter” was incapable of making a correct choice. So he logged the guesses of all the competitors to form a bell curve. Then he calculated the mean of the group’s guesses, so that, if the group were one person, that number would be his guess of the ox’s weight.