Most people think of wisdom as something provided by wise people or found in ancient religious and philosophical texts, or perhaps something you get as you get older. It is often esoteric and, when it isn’t, it tends to be earthy guidance about how to get along in life.
People working for wise democracy acknowledge all those sources but they also have a somewhat bigger challenge in mind: How do we help communities and societies thrive in the face of the mega-challenges we’re encountering in the 21st century, from climate change and peak resources to nuclear war and the risks of runaway developments in technologies like nanotech, biotech, robotics and computing power? These require a kind of collective wisdom that adequately considers many complex factors that need to be taken into account if we wish to generate long term broad benefits.
Few people associate wisdom with democracy. The usual test of good outcomes in a democracy is simply that the decision-making process was fair and adequate. “Democratic legitimacy” currently means that people are more or less satisfied with their government, if not always with specific decisions or public officials – and that they will go along with whatever the government does without undue protest – at least until the next election. (The more coercion a government requires to get compliance, the less legitimate it is considered to be.)
It is commonly understood that government decisions are based on compromise and deal-making, as well as public pressure and the influence of competing special interests. Beyond that, it is increasingly understood that the most potent special interests are large global corporations answerable only to shareholders seeking to maximize their financial returns and the relatively small number of extremely rich people who are usually associated with such corporations and/or with high-value speculative investments that have no direct connection to productive activities.
We don’t tend to associate “wisdom” with any of this.
Of course, we can’t continue to be satisfied running our societies using those kinds of dynamics. Humankind as a whole now has tremendous power — largely thanks to the considerable collective intelligence we have used to develop and apply our remarkable investigative and tool-making capacities. The majority of that collective intelligence is fostered and channeled to serve the accumulation of concentrated wealth and power, which feeds the dynamic that those with social power can (by definition) set things up to empower themselves further (such as establishing the “personhood” of corporations or the deregulation of investments to free their economic and political activities from civil constraints).
However, that’s not the only source of problems. Even well-intentioned grassroots and nonprofit activities and the collective impact of everyday actions by billions of people can profoundly shape the world around us, often in unforeseen and undesirable ways.
It is increasingly clear that we tragically lack the collective wisdom to use our massive collective power prudently to truly serve all people, nature, and the future. This failure activates counter-forces and side-effects from everything we ignore, neglect or abuse, resulting in the emergence of unprecedented mega-crises of increasing scope, complexity, and danger that currently threaten civilization.
The institutions that direct our society – especially governments and corporations – are sorely lacking in wisdom (to put it mildly). Their policies are often developed for – and even by – special interests (especially profit-seeking interests) rather than for the common good. Even when they are intended to serve the general welfare, they are often too narrowly conceived to succeed or truly serve, failing to take into account important people, deep needs, and powerful dynamics at work in the social and natural systems into which they intervene.
Truly, the institutional defaults that serve wealth and power are primary drivers of this dynamic of too much power and too little wisdom. But even if those were magically corrected, the limits of our natural human cognition – especially in the face of the complex societal and technological realities we have brought into being over the last several centuries and their reverberations in natural systems – are so great as to undermine even the most well-intentioned efforts, unless those cognitive limits are specifically and successfully addressed.