Wikipedia Is the Wonder of the World that Wasn’t Supposed to Work

In the 6th century, Saint Isidore of Seville set out to write a book containing all human knowledge. That’s quite an ambition! The result was astonishing: 20 volumes with 448 chapters with the title Etymologiae.

And talk about longevity. The book was a “bestseller” for 1,000 years. To put this in context, this would be like you turning to a book written in 1017 to find out what’s what. Let’s just say some information would be missing.

After the printing press, the task of writing encyclopedias became easy, but the method remained the same: a leading expert would dispense knowledge to everyone else.

Wikipedia was founded January 15, 2001, a beautifully symbolic date – a new millennium! – to signal the new way we discover, cumulate, and iterate information flows in the digital age.

The expertise of one person was fine, so long as this was all that our tools permitted. But now we can crowdsource and collaborate. This creates a new form of expertise, a new kind of global knowledge base, one that extracts diffuse information from manifold sources into a single shared portal that can be universally distributed. And more importantly: mistakes can be corrected. Forever. And ever. This is in essence of an adaptive complex system. There is no end state. There is endless progress.

As of this writing, Wikipedia has 27 billion words in 40 million articles in 293 languages. Did I mention that it is free? Yes, this does disemploy the once-famous door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen.

Proof of Concept

We love and adore Wikipedia, the world over. We also know that it is not the final source or authority. It is a starting place for our research. When known errors are discovered, they are fixed. You’ve got a problem with an entry? Take the initiative and fix it. It is not perfect, but every discovery of imperfection is an opportunity for change. This is the way, one day at a time, one edit at a time, that Wikipedia has become a wonder of the world.

It was not always so. For the first ten years, the platform was ridiculed, put down, denounced, sneered at, dismissed. Then one day we awoke and realized: wait, this thing has become amazing. (Wikipedia has a nice entry on the critics through the years.)

The founder of Wikipedia is Jimmy Wales. He is the featured speaker at FEEcon, June 15-17, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia. FEE is deeply honored to have him. His innovation has changed the world.

The insight that made Wikipedia possible is not an accident. Wales was a student of F.A. Hayek’s work, in particular, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Hayek explained the impossibility of centralizing reliable, true, operational knowledge. He explained that this is why markets work. They rely on the localized, specialized, and carefully calibrated knowledge – it’s the best we have – of the endpoints in the system. Acting and choosing, people draw on knowledge that is decentralized and diffuse. The knowledge that makes what we call society possible is not given unto a single mind, whether an intellectual or a planning agent. It is inarticulate and even inaccessible to everyone but the actor.

Wikipedia took this source of power within markets and built a platform that created a market for knowledge. As Wales explains it, the old way of gathering reliable information was to gather it from the outside in, and then the expert sorted through what is valuable and became the distribution source. The new way gives opportunities for anyone who knows anything to contribute to building.

Where Are the Rules?

The very first impulse for any critic was to say: this can never work because there are no rules. But remember the first rule of adaptive systems: problems elicit answers. The results has been an evolving set of norms. You might think of this as a market for law. Unlike state law, it is adaptive to change, rooted in humility, and elicits compliance through willing acquiescence. It is something we choose.

The contrast with old-world encyclopedias is striking. The editor would assign a leading expert to write an entry to reflect the consensus of the experts. The results were frozen until the next edition came out. There was vast slippage since nothing could be challenged or changed. The latest scholarship made no difference. They were wonderful for what they were but now we have something better.

FEE would love to invite St. Isidor as a speaker. Unfortunately, that is not really possible. But he is now the patron saint of the Internet.

Jimmy Wales is a great substitute.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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14 comments

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  • “When known errors are discovered, they are fixed. You’ve got a problem with an entry? Take the initiative and fix it.”

    Sounds good, but it doesn’t work that way. If the known error has a constituency dedicated to keeping the error in place, and if the constituency is comprised of experienced Wiki “editors,” they will be watching the pertinent page and will quickly rebuff any corrections that do not conform to their agenda. An good example would be any of the pages that deal with taxes in general or in particular, or taxation.

    There are essentially two diametrically opposed world views on the subject of taxation. Libertarians and many unhappy taxpayers believe taxation is legalized theft. Others, we’ll call them them tax consumers, believe in the words of Associate Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” His words are written over the entrance to the IRS headquarters in D.C.

    Tax consumers consist of politicians, bureaucrats, federal judges and justices, participants in what President Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), all beneficiaries of government spending who consume more in benefits than they pay in taxes, and all lawyers and accountants who make their living preparing and defending taxpayers’ filings with the IRS. The cost of compliance with the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) is estimated to be between $175 billion and $500 billion, with much of the money going into the pockets of tax professionals. It is this latter group of tax consumers who mainly comprise Wiki’s guardians of the obsequious views of everything involving taxes , assisted, of course, by agents of the IRS and federal officials utterly dependent on tax revenues for their munificent emoluments. (To see just how thoroughly dishonest are political tax consumers, see this video of Senator Harry Reid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7mRSI8yWwg

    As a prime example, look at Wiki’s page for Irwin Schiff. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irwin_Schiff This page is under the despotic rule of tax professionals. The picture it paints of Irwin is distorted beyond belief. For more honest views of Mr. Schiff, look at these websites: http://www.schiffradio.com/death-of-a-patriot/ http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21677186-irwin-schiff-americas-loudest-tax-protester-died-october-16th-aged-87-man-who-said-no

    I have tried on several occasions to correct some of the gross distortions of Wiki’s page on Irwin, which convey the impression that he was a dishonest fraud, only to be rebuffed by the Archangel of Wiki’s various tax pages The truth about Irwin is precisely opposite of the picture of a scoundrel portrayed on his Wiki page.. Irwin’s primary motivating concern throughout his life was the American taxpayer, and to stop the illegal collection of the federal income tax from Americans by the IRS, supported by the federal judiciary.

    To get an idea of who is behind the distortion of Wiki on Irwin Schiff as well as Wiki pages on taxes in general, take a minute to review the Wiki “user” page on the notorious champion of illegal taxes, Famstear: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Famspear

  • “When known errors are discovered, they are fixed. You’ve got a problem with an entry? Take the initiative and fix it.”

    Sounds good, but it doesn’t work that way. If the known error has a constituency dedicated to keeping the error in place, and if the constituency is comprised of experienced Wiki “editors,” they will be watching the pertinent page and will quickly rebuff any corrections that do not conform to their agenda. An good example would be any of the pages that deal with taxes in general or in particular, or taxation.

    There are essentially two diametrically opposed world views on the subject of taxation. Libertarians and many unhappy taxpayers believe taxation is legalized theft. Others, we’ll call them them tax consumers, believe in the words of Associate Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” His words are written over the entrance to the IRS headquarters in D.C.

    Tax consumers consist of politicians, bureaucrats, federal judges and justices, participants in what President Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), all beneficiaries of government spending who consume more in benefits than they pay in taxes, and all lawyers and accountants who make their living preparing and defending taxpayers’ filings with the IRS. The cost of compliance with the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) is estimated to be between $175 billion and $500 billion, with much of the money going into the pockets of tax professionals. It is this latter group of tax consumers who mainly comprise Wiki’s guardians of the obsequious views of everything involving taxes , assisted, of course, by agents of the IRS and federal officials utterly dependent on tax revenues for their munificent emoluments. (To see just how thoroughly dishonest are political tax consumers, see this video of Senator Harry Reid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7mRSI8yWwg

    As a prime example, look at Wiki’s page for Irwin Schiff. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irwin_Schiff This page is under the despotic rule of tax professionals. The picture it paints of Irwin is distorted beyond belief. For more honest views of Mr. Schiff, look at these websites: http://www.schiffradio.com/death-of-a-patriot/ http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21677186-irwin-schiff-americas-loudest-tax-protester-died-october-16th-aged-87-man-who-said-no

    I have tried on several occasions to correct some of the gross distortions of Wiki’s page on Irwin, which convey the impression that he was a dishonest fraud, only to be rebuffed by the Archangel of Wiki’s various tax pages The truth about Irwin is precisely opposite of the picture of a scoundrel portrayed on his Wiki page.. Irwin’s primary motivating concern throughout his life was the American taxpayer, and to stop the illegal collection of the federal income tax from Americans by the IRS, supported by the federal judiciary.

    To get an idea of who is behind the distortion of Wiki on Irwin Schiff as well as Wiki pages on taxes in general, take a minute to review the Wiki “user” page on the notorious champion of illegal taxes, Famstear: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Famspear

  • “When known errors are discovered, they are fixed. You’ve got a problem with an entry? Take the initiative and fix it.”

    Sounds good, but it doesn’t work that way. If the known error has a constituency dedicated to keeping the error in place, and if the constituency is comprised of experienced Wiki “editors,” they will be watching the pertinent page and will quickly rebuff any corrections that do not conform to their agenda. An good example would be any of the pages that deal with taxes in general or in particular, or taxation.

    There are essentially two diametrically opposed world views on the subject of taxation. Libertarians and many unhappy taxpayers believe taxation is legalized theft. Others, we’ll call them them tax consumers, believe in the words of Associate Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” His words are written over the entrance to the IRS headquarters in D.C.

    Tax consumers consist of politicians, bureaucrats, federal judges and justices, participants in what President Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), all beneficiaries of government spending who consume more in benefits than they pay in taxes, and all lawyers and accountants who make their living preparing and defending taxpayers’ filings with the IRS. The cost of compliance with the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) is estimated to be between $175 billion and $500 billion, with much of the money going into the pockets of tax professionals. It is this latter group of tax consumers who mainly comprise Wiki’s guardians of the obsequious views of everything involving taxes , assisted, of course, by agents of the IRS and federal officials utterly dependent on tax revenues for their munificent emoluments. (To see just how thoroughly dishonest are political tax consumers, see this video of Senator Harry Reid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7mRSI8yWwg

    As a prime example, look at Wiki’s page for Irwin Schiff. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irwin_Schiff This page is under the despotic rule of tax professionals. The picture it paints of Irwin is distorted beyond belief. For more honest views of Mr. Schiff, look at these websites: http://www.schiffradio.com/death-of-a-patriot/ http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21677186-irwin-schiff-americas-loudest-tax-protester-died-october-16th-aged-87-man-who-said-no

    I have tried on several occasions to correct some of the gross distortions of Wiki’s page on Irwin, which convey the impression that he was a dishonest fraud, only to be rebuffed by the Archangel of Wiki’s various tax pages The truth about Irwin is precisely opposite of the picture of a scoundrel portrayed on his Wiki page.. Irwin’s primary motivating concern throughout his life was the American taxpayer, and to stop the illegal collection of the federal income tax from Americans by the IRS, supported by the federal judiciary.

    To get an idea of who is behind the distortion of Wiki on Irwin Schiff as well as Wiki pages on taxes in general, take a minute to review the Wiki “user” page on the notorious champion of illegal taxes, Famstear: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Famspear

  • “When known errors are discovered, they are fixed. You’ve got a problem with an entry? Take the initiative and fix it.”

    Sounds good, but it doesn’t work that way. If the known error has a constituency dedicated to keeping the error in place, and if the constituency is comprised of experienced Wiki “editors,” they will be watching the pertinent page and will quickly rebuff any corrections that do not conform to their agenda. An good example would be any of the pages that deal with taxes in general or in particular, or taxation.

    There are essentially two diametrically opposed world views on the subject of taxation. Libertarians and many unhappy taxpayers believe taxation is legalized theft. Others, we’ll call them them tax consumers, believe in the words of Associate Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” His words are written over the entrance to the IRS headquarters in D.C.

    Tax consumers consist of politicians, bureaucrats, federal judges and justices, participants in what President Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), all beneficiaries of government spending who consume more in benefits than they pay in taxes, and all lawyers and accountants who make their living preparing and defending taxpayers’ filings with the IRS. The cost of compliance with the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) is estimated to be between $175 billion and $500 billion, with much of the money going into the pockets of tax professionals. It is this latter group of tax consumers who mainly comprise Wiki’s guardians of the obsequious views of everything involving taxes , assisted, of course, by agents of the IRS and federal officials utterly dependent on tax revenues for their munificent emoluments. (To see just how thoroughly dishonest are political tax consumers, see this video of Senator Harry Reid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7mRSI8yWwg

    As a prime example, look at Wiki’s page for Irwin Schiff. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irwin_Schiff This page is under the despotic rule of tax professionals. The picture it paints of Irwin is distorted beyond belief. For more honest views of Mr. Schiff, look at these websites: http://www.schiffradio.com/death-of-a-patriot/ http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21677186-irwin-schiff-americas-loudest-tax-protester-died-october-16th-aged-87-man-who-said-no

    I have tried on several occasions to correct some of the gross distortions of Wiki’s page on Irwin, which convey the impression that he was a dishonest fraud, only to be rebuffed by the Archangel of Wiki’s various tax pages The truth about Irwin is precisely opposite of the picture of a scoundrel portrayed on his Wiki page.. Irwin’s primary motivating concern throughout his life was the American taxpayer, and to stop the illegal collection of the federal income tax from Americans by the IRS, supported by the federal judiciary.

    To get an idea of who is behind the distortion of Wiki on Irwin Schiff as well as Wiki pages on taxes in general, take a minute to review the Wiki “user” page on the notorious champion of illegal taxes, Famstear: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Famspear

  • Wikipedia works because, on average, each anarchic edit is more likely to improve Wikipedia than to make it worse. Over time, millions of small edits add up to massive improvements.

    OpenStreetMap is a similar project. It’s like Wikipedia for maps. Anyone can change the map. For the first few years, the haters insisted that it would never come to anything, but for some purposes (such as hiking trails) OpenStreetMap is already much better than alternatives such as Google Maps.

    And the astonishing thing is that both of these projects are free to access. This is the “Free Rider Benefit” in action.

    http://openstreetmap.org/

  • Wikipedia works because, on average, each anarchic edit is more likely to improve Wikipedia than to make it worse. Over time, millions of small edits add up to massive improvements.

    OpenStreetMap is a similar project. It’s like Wikipedia for maps. Anyone can change the map. For the first few years, the haters insisted that it would never come to anything, but for some purposes (such as hiking trails) OpenStreetMap is already much better than alternatives such as Google Maps.

    And the astonishing thing is that both of these projects are free to access. This is the “Free Rider Benefit” in action.

    http://openstreetmap.org/

  • Wikipedia works because, on average, each anarchic edit is more likely to improve Wikipedia than to make it worse. Over time, millions of small edits add up to massive improvements.

    OpenStreetMap is a similar project. It’s like Wikipedia for maps. Anyone can change the map. For the first few years, the haters insisted that it would never come to anything, but for some purposes (such as hiking trails) OpenStreetMap is already much better than alternatives such as Google Maps.

    And the astonishing thing is that both of these projects are free to access. This is the “Free Rider Benefit” in action.

    http://openstreetmap.org/

  • Wikipedia works because, on average, each anarchic edit is more likely to improve Wikipedia than to make it worse. Over time, millions of small edits add up to massive improvements.

    OpenStreetMap is a similar project. It’s like Wikipedia for maps. Anyone can change the map. For the first few years, the haters insisted that it would never come to anything, but for some purposes (such as hiking trails) OpenStreetMap is already much better than alternatives such as Google Maps.

    And the astonishing thing is that both of these projects are free to access. This is the “Free Rider Benefit” in action.

    http://openstreetmap.org/

  • @nednetterville…A very good point. Wikipedia is a wonderful idea, but its reliability on many entries depends on a neutral gatekeeper.

    I have always loved that Harry Reid video. After that, I cannot imagine how he was not too embarrassed to leave the house, let alone, run for re-election.

    • On the Wiki page titled “Tax,” under the heading “Direct and Indirect,” is this gross distortion:

      “Taxes are sometimes referred to as “direct taxes” or “indirect taxes”. The meaning of these terms can vary in different contexts, which can sometimes lead to confusion. An economic definition, by Atkinson, states that “…direct taxes may be adjusted to the individual characteristics of the taxpayer, whereas indirect taxes are levied on transactions irrespective of the circumstances of buyer or seller.”[21] According to this definition, for example, income tax is “direct”, and sales tax is “indirect”. In law, the terms may have different meanings. In U.S. constitutional law, for instance, direct taxes refer to poll taxes and property taxes, which are based on simple existence or ownership. Indirect taxes are imposed on events, rights, privileges, and activities.[22] Thus, a tax on the sale of property would be considered an indirect tax, whereas the tax on simply owning the property itself would be a direct tax.”

      There isn’t a single word in that paragraph that is true. The words “direct taxes” and “direct tax” appear in the Constitution without being defined. In both instances the words are used in conjunction with a rather severe limitation on congress imposing direct taxes, to wit: that they be collected by the rule of “apportionment.” Suffice to say here that apportioning a tax makes is exponentially harder for congresspersons to impose such a tax without being booted from office by the taxpayers at the next election.

      The reason the Framers failed to define direct tax(es) was because it was assumed everyone knew its meaning, one so simple it could not be misconstrued. (Ha!) A direct tax is collected by the government directly from taxpayers. An indirect tax is collected from third parties who in turn collect the tax from taxpayers, usually by adding the tax to the cost of a good or service when purchased by taxpayers. The meaning is so simple and obvious no one thought it could or world be misconstrued. Direct is direct, indirect is indirect, and never the twain shall meet.

      Almost before the ink had dried on the Constitution, in 1794 congressional tax consumers led on by a taxaholic Secretary of the Treasury, A. Hamilton, managed to defeat the limitation of apportionment by calling a direct tax on people who owned carriages an excise tax, even though the tax was collected directly from the owner-taxpayers. Two years later in the notorious Hylton v. US Supreme Court Case, the court agreed with congress and its preposterous reasoning that the tax was not direct because it was levied on the *use* of the carriage rather than on its owner. Of course the owner still had to pay whether or not he USED his carriage. Such ludicrous nonsense in a ruling by SCOTUS has only been matched once in its history, in the 1857 case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which the court ruled that Mr. Scott was not a person but rather was property because he was a slave.

      The distortion of the simple, direct meaning of direct taxes allowed the intrusive income tax and other egregious taxes to be imposed by congress without regard to the damage such taxes inflict on the personal liberty and privacy of American taxpayers. To collect a direct tax, IRS agents are given virtually unlimited power to intrude in the lives, homes, books, papers, records and effects of all Americans without leave nor a warrant in order to determine how much tax their victims owe, other protective clauses in the Bill of Rights to the contrary notwithstanding. Americans who are dumb enough to believe they are free need to wake up and feel their chains.

  • @nednetterville…A very good point. Wikipedia is a wonderful idea, but its reliability on many entries depends on a neutral gatekeeper.

    I have always loved that Harry Reid video. After that, I cannot imagine how he was not too embarrassed to leave the house, let alone, run for re-election.

  • @nednetterville…A very good point. Wikipedia is a wonderful idea, but its reliability on many entries depends on a neutral gatekeeper.

    I have always loved that Harry Reid video. After that, I cannot imagine how he was not too embarrassed to leave the house, let alone, run for re-election.

  • @nednetterville…A very good point. Wikipedia is a wonderful idea, but its reliability on many entries depends on a neutral gatekeeper.

    I have always loved that Harry Reid video. After that, I cannot imagine how he was not too embarrassed to leave the house, let alone, run for re-election.

  • @nednetterville…A very good point. Wikipedia is a wonderful idea, but its reliability on many entries depends on a neutral gatekeeper.

    I have always loved that Harry Reid video. After that, I cannot imagine how he was not too embarrassed to leave the house, let alone, run for re-election.

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