Power without Responsibility

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

While discussing the cancer of bureaucracy — in a piece I’ve already recommended — Bruce Charlton addresses the odd rise of the committee:

Committees now dominate almost all the major decision-making in modernizing societies — whether in the mass committee of eligible voters in elections, or such smaller committees as exist in corporations, government or in the US Supreme Court: it seems that modern societies always deploy a majority vote to decide or ratify all questions of importance. Indeed, it is all-but-inconceivable that any important decision be made by an individual person — it seems both natural and inevitable that such judgments be made by group vote.

Yet although nearly universal among Western ruling elites, this fetishizing of committees is a truly bizarre attitude; since there is essentially zero evidence that group voting leads to good, or even adequate, decisions — and much evidence that group voting leads to unpredictable, irrational and bad decisions.

The nonsense of majority voting was formally described by Nobel economics laureate Kenneth Arrow (1921-) in the 1960s, but it is surely obvious to anyone who has had dealings with committees and maintains independent judgement. It can be demonstrated using simple mathematical formulations that a majority vote may lead to unstable cycles of decisions, or a decision which not one single member of the committee would regard as optimal. For example, in a job appointments panel, it sometimes happens that there are two strong candidates who split the panel, so the winner is a third choice candidate whom no panel member would regard as the best candidate. In other words any individual panel member would make a better choice than derives from majority voting.

Furthermore, because of this type of phenomenon, and the way that majority decisions do not necessarily reflect any individual’s opinion, committee decisions carry no responsibility. After all, how could anyone be held responsible for outcomes which nobody intended and to which nobody agrees? So that committees exert de facto power without responsibility. Indeed most modern committees are typically composed of a variable selection from a number of eligible personnel, so that it is possible that the same committee may never contain the same personnel twice. The charade is kept going by the necessary but meaningless fiction of ‘committee responsibility’, maintained by the enforcement of a weird rule that committee members must undertake, in advance of decisions, to abide by whatever outcome (however irrational, unpredictable, unjustified and indefensible) the actual contingent committee deliberations happen to lead to. This near-universal rule and practice simply takes ‘irresponsibility’ and re-names it ‘responsibility’…

If that sounds like anyone, Charlton’s postscript confirms it:

Although I do not mention it specifically above, the stimulus to writing this essay came from Mark A Notturno’s Science and the open society: the future of Karl Popper’s philosophy (Central European University Press: Budapest, 2000) — in particular the account of Popper’s views on induction. It struck me that committee decision-making by majority vote is a form of inductive reasoning, hence non-valid; and that inductive reasoning is in practice no more than a form of ‘authoritarianism’ (as Notturno terms it). In the event, I decided to exclude this line of argument from the essay because I found it too hard to make the point interesting and accessible. Nonetheless, I am very grateful to have had it explained to me.

I should also mention that various analyses of the pseudonymous blogger Mencius Moldbug, who writes at Unqualified Reservations, likely had a significant role in developing the above ideas.

Again, I recommend the whole thing.

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