The following is the third installment of Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politicsavailable from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. You can visit the Empowering Public Wisdom homepage here

CHAPTER 3: Why We Need Public Wisdom

Public wisdom.

Is it asking too much to ask for wisdom—especially from the public?

No, it isn’t.

Isn’t wisdom a quality that we find in ancient traditions and in certain old people with much experience?

Yes, we often find wisdom in these places. But they are not the only places we find wisdom.

When I speak of public wisdom—the people’s wisdom—

I define wisdom as “the capacity to take into account what needs to be taken into account in order to produce long-term, inclusive benefits.”

This is a very practical definition. When our public decisions take into account the full complexity of an issue, we can justifiably call them wise. When the public—as a whole or in the form of randomly selected “mini-publics” —engage in learning, reflecting, and talking amongst themselves in ways that consider all the factors and viewpoints related to an issue in order to make decisions that produce long-term, inclusive benefits, then we can fairly say we are generating public wisdom.

Today most decisions about public issues are made in ways that serve short-term and/or exclusive interests more than “the general welfare” (the U.S. Constitution’s phrase for the common good). We’ve watched the rich getting richer with bail-outs, subsidies, low taxes, and financial deregulation. We’ve watched powerful teachers’ unions impeding important reforms in education. We’ve seen lobbyists for insurance and pharmaceutical industries blocking national health care policies that the vast majority of Americans want. We’ve watched oil companies block climate change legislation and escape taxes and liability for oil spills. We’ve seen marijuana legalization blocked by corporations that run private prisons and value the “market” in nonviolent offenders. Lobbying by powerful special-interest groups seems to run the country and many states and communities. Clearly wisdom is not what we get from politics as usual.

Even when a policy is well intentioned and aimed at broad benefit, it all too often fails to take into account important factors, and those omissions then generate problematic side effects. For example, it is good to save lives by feeding the hungry and healing the sick, but we also need to keep population and consumption in check or we end up generating more hunger, disease, and environmental degradation through overpopulation. It is good to end a war, but we also need to fix some of the messes we’ve made in the process and to provide jobs and trauma care for returning soldiers. It is good to provide funds for rebuilding war-torn nations or aiding developing countries, but what if the money ends up in the hands of corrupt officials and sleazy businesses?

So wisdom demands both: a strong motivation to serve the general welfare over the long haul and a firm grounding in reality, taking account of all aspects of an issue without being blinded or biased by ideology, ignorance, laziness, or manipulation. It would be nice if we could depend on wise philosopher kings to do all this for us. Unfortunately, such people (like all people) have a habit of being negatively affected by the attentions and privileges of power—or else dying from causes that may or may not be natural.

We’ve seen that the governmental structures our Founders left us—for all their brilliantly designed checks and balances—have become inadequate to restrain the abuses of power that are rampant in our current democratic constitutional republic.

We are in a time of mounting and increasingly interrelated crises—economic, political, social, and ecological. These problems will not resolve easily. The longer we go without wisely addressing them, the more complex, resistant, entangled, and dangerous they become. Their persistence and messiness have earned them the name wicked problems from social scientists. Many social scientists also see their development in even more dire terms: systemic collapse.

I join with others who see these emerging crises as signs of an impending transformation. The old systems are no longer working the ways they did. Increasingly they are creating problems and dangers rather than good lives and a better world. One way or another, something is going to shift. It is hard to imagine how that shift will be positive unless we can muster the collective wisdom to guide it in life-serving directions.

We can only do that if we make a real effort—as a society— to take into account everything that needs to be taken into account to generate long-term inclusive benefits.

We need to awaken our public wisdom. We need to engage additional sources of wisdom to enhance it. We need public power to get our public wisdom applied to public policies, programs, and budgets. And we need our public wisdom to come alive in the awareness and activities of millions of people in our communities, in our country, and in our world.

Where can we get these things?


From Empowering Public Wisdom by Tom Atlee, published by Evolver Editions, an imprint of North Atlantic Books in collaboration with Evolver LLC, copyright © 2012 by Tom Atlee. Reprinted by permission of publisher.