Friday, December 15, 2006

The unwisdom of consensus 

Craig Westover argues about the lack of value in consensus.
A mandate to produce consensus for its own sake is also no way to solve problems, much less run a state.

Gov. Pawlenty has said that perhaps the reason Republicans took an election drubbing is they didn't get the job done. More than a little truth there, but Pawlenty, a disciple of Maharishi McCain (Sen. John) and a pilgrim on the path of transcending politics, seems to be seeking Nirvana in a mantra of consensus. What is consented seems to be of secondary importance.
I of course remind you of Lady Thatcher's view of consensus. But perhaps a few more words are in order.

James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds helps us understand why some types of consensus decisionmaking will work and others will not.
There are four key qualities that make a crowd smart. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd's answer. It needs a way of summarizing people's opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.

...Essentially, any time most of the people in a group are biased in the same direction, it's probably not going to make good decisions. So when diverse opinions are either frozen out or squelched when they're voiced, groups tend to be dumb. And when people start paying too much attention to what others in the group think, that usually spells disaster, too. For instance, that's how we get stock-market bubbles, which are a classic example of group stupidity: instead of worrying about how much a company is really worth, investors start worrying about how much other people will think the company is worth. The paradox of the wisdom of crowds is that the best group decisions come from lots of independent individual decisions.
I think Surowiecki's insight tells us exactly why this sudden love affair with consensus is doomed to failure. In the case of the Iraq Study Group, the critique most telling is the lack of diversity in the group that made the decision (Jed Babbin's referring to the committee as the "fabulous Baker boys" is trenchant.) It also suffers from the problem that there isn't an objectively determined 'right answer' to the situation in Iraq. In his book Surowiecki writes:

...the idea that the right answer to complex problems is simply "ask the experts" assumes that experts agree on the answers. But they don't, and if they did, it's hard to believe that the public would simply ignore their advice. Elites are just as partiasn and no more devoted to the public interest than the average voter. More important, as you shrink the size of a decision-making body, you also shrink the likelihood that the final answer is right. Finally, most political decisions are not simply decisions about how to do something. They are decisions about what to do, decisions that involve values, trade-offs, and choices about what kind of society people should live in. There is no reason to think that experts are better at making those decisions than the average voter. (269)
In the case of the Minnesota Legislature and its relation to the governor, it will be that too much attention will be paid by the DFL to what Pawlenty thinks and vice versa. It would be very nice if they could make policy without regard for 2008, but it's tremendously naive to think it can happen. Consensus does exactly what we don't want -- we want competition between politicians, because we want to be able to punish them when they make bad decisions. The problems the GOP faced in Minnesota stemmed from its representatives wanting to avoid competition from the DFL.

This is why, to return to Craig's point, we cannot focus on compromise -- and it is not consensus when one side compels the other to surrender its principles. Crowds work to solve problems of cognition, coordination and cooperation. They do not solve many of the big problems political institutions face. What we need are more Maggies who are conviction politicians, not consensus politicians.