I wrote a while back that for Shimen Judaism is defined by tradition, so the very idea of “fixing” it is inherently incoherent to him. That glib formulation might suggest to some readers that halacha is mere convention and therefore collective mistakes are impossible by definition. That is not quite right. If Shimen were to wake up in a hundred years to discover that human sacrifice had become a venerable tradition in certain circles that claimed to be practicing halacha, he assuredly wouldn’t respond with a resigned shrug of his shoulders. Shimen acknowledges that tradition is not only convention, but also has underlying principles and a characteristic moral intuition. He doesn’t believe that there is a unique right path for tradition to take, but he acknowledges that there are wrong paths – that is, paths that deviate from these principles and intuitions.
Jewish tradition itself includes a mechanism for making such deviant paths unlikely: it mandates respect for, and hence emulation of, those with deep knowledge of and commitment to the principles and intuition embodied in tradition. The way this works in practice is that each one of us looks to our right and to our left and pays most attention to the practices of those who, as best as we can tell, have the best chance of getting it right. Of course, some people must be starting this cascade of emulation by acting independently and among these there are some, typically prominent rabbis, who are frequently emulated, either directly or indirectly.
The upshot of all this is that the consensus that emerges gives weight to the practices of all those committed to tradition, but gives more weight to those who are recognized as authorities. It is crucial to note that the influence of these authorities is not a function of their position, but rather their position is a function of their influence.
In this post, I’ll explain why this strategy makes sense—and, in particular, why it makes more sense than two alternative strategies: pure egalitarianism (in which everybody gets equal weight) and pure elitism (in which only experts get any weight at all).
Let’s begin with a very crude version of the formal argument for egalitarianism. Suppose that – even after taking into account ignorance, stupidity and self-serving bias – the average Joe has healthy enough instincts that he has a very slightly better than even chance of doing the right thing in some given situation. Now, suppose that many average Joes, acting independently of each other, “vote” through their actions in that situation. Given these assumptions, it can be proved that whatever the majority does is almost certainly right.
The argument is crude – not necessarily wrong, but still crude – because the underlying assumptions generally don’t hold: in real life, people don’t act independently of each other and, moreover, there are whole strata of people who are plainly as likely to get it wrong as to get it right. In real life, mobs sometimes do really bad things.
So, let’s make the more modest assumption that even those who are not bright lights when it comes to figuring out the right thing to do are fairly decent judges of character, so they have a fair chance of emulating the people with the best chance of getting things right. Then, in some complicated way, those who ultimately get the most weight will be those with the best chance of getting it right, while those unlikely to get it right will get no weight. This sort of strategy that distributes weight broadly but not equally is better than egalitarianism and can be optimal under certain conditions. (Note for purists, everybody else please ignore: for binary choice, the optimal method is one in which an independent voter with probability p of getting the right answer is given weight log(p/1-p).) Note that, in particular, the inclusion of many votes even slightly more likely than chance to be right is better than an elitist strategy of reliance solely on a small number of experts.
That’s the simple argument for balancing egalitarianism with elitism. Here’s a more sophisticated argument. If you’re in England, you drive on the left side of the road; in most other places, you drive on the right. Either one of these options is fine, so long as everybody in any given place does the same thing. “Take your pick” is not a good option. We call this kind of thing a “coordination problem”.
There are many examples of coordination problems. There is no shortage of reasonable platforms for online social networks and most of us don’t really care which one we use as long as our friends use the same one. Similarly, there’s really no particular reason for a chassid to prefer a high shtreimel to a low shtreimel; all that matters is that he wear the same one as the chassidim he eats kugel with. These things generally work themselves out. MySpace is history; Gerrers wear high shtreimlech. As soon as a coordination problem is resolved so that everybody is doing the same thing, it will not pay for any individual to buck the trend; in this sense, the process is said to have reached an equilibrium. Obviously, some salient opinion leaders, whether they be rabbanim and chassidishe rebbes or, lehavdil, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, can speed up the process in the direction of one equilibrium or another.
That’s nice, but it’s not the key point. Coordination problems often have multiple possible equilibria, some better than others. But once we are settled in one, it’s hard to escape it, even if it eventually proves to be bad for everybody. Imagine that some savvy startup offers a new social network platform that is more transparent and less invasive than the current leading brand. Since nobody wants to be among the first million people to switch over, we are all trapped in a sub-optimal equilibrium. Not to compare, but clapping for Stalin was another coordination trap; you really didn’t want to be the first to stop.
Social norms, especially those tied up with signaling, are rife with sub-optimal equilibria. We have already seen why signals are necessary for facilitating cooperation, but there are many possible signals that could do the trick and we can get stuck with ones we’re not crazy about. Shtreimlech can get bigger, hotter and more expensive to the point where everybody feels a bit put upon. Bridge-burning signals, like not getting an education or a job, can also prove somewhat onerous. In all these cases, even if everyone would prefer a cheaper signal that would be good enough, who can afford to be the first to stop? In such cases, a rabbi with influence can potentially catalyze an escape from a bad equilibrium. For example, the Gerrer rebbe can instruct his followers to only buy shtreimlech made of artificial fur – or he can simply set an example himself.
Let’s sum up. In the past three posts, we have seen how it is advantageous for halacha to lie on a continuum between law and language: it preserves tradition, leverages both intuition and reason, and balances popular practice and rabbinic leadership. But this subtle balance between egalitarianism and elitism can only be achieved in the absence of a legislative body with power of enforcement. In the next post, we’ll see why this point is crucial. In particular, we’ll see that halacha is viable precisely because its organizing unit is Shimen’s community and not Heidi’s state.