Decision Making

Any functional society must have some process for decision making.

That’s not to say it needs to be a hierarchical process – there’s some interesting work on self-organizing networks, for example – but at the end of the day, if something’s going to get done, someone (or someones) needs to decide to do it.

I mention this because it seems this tension is at the heart of democratic work. Creating spaces where all individuals can interact as equals does not easily translate into spaces where things can get done.

The United States, for example, is a representative democracy – average citizens have opportunities to elect their representative, but don’t get to weigh in on every single decision.

And that’s arguably for the best. Even if you assume the general populace is capable of making good governance decisions – a rather deputed claim – the time and effort that would go into reaching general consensus would likely not be worth the cost.

Given the current dysfunction of congress, one might even be inclined to shrink the number of people with decision making power. If 535 people can’t agree on anything, perhaps 5 could.

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein argues that more than three people can’t make a decision. With the support of a conscious super computer, the book’s three protagonists use that logic to (spoiler alert) covertly reshape the future of their moon, using deception, misdirection, and any other tactics they deem necessary.

It’s an intentionally ironic bent to this libertarian novel – that the heroes who will do anything to be free, who care for an individual’s autonomy above all else, actively replace one managed democracy with another of their own design.

A managed democracy is indeed, as┬áHeinlein says, a wonderful thing… for the managers.

But where does this leave us?

Nowhere good, I’m afraid.

Personally, I’m not prepared to cede my freedom to a group of three who’ve taken it upon themselves to envision the perfect world for me.

For practicality’s sake, I’d gladly cede decision making power on the day to day stuff – but perhaps that’s just what I’ve grown accustomed to.

Perhaps more generally, though, I’m not ready to cede the point that more than three people can’t agree on anything.

Dialogue is hard. Deliberation is hard. But I hardly think the result is unobtainable.

I guess the trick is to not only identify different types of decision making structures, but to determine which structures are appropriate for which situations.

I am comfortable in a hierarchical structure where some decisions out of my hands. Personally, I find such structures both useful and valuable.

But we can’t just cede all our power to such structures, comfortable that all will works itself out in the end. If we do, the agency of the individual would almost certainly degrade, and that would be a tragedy indeed.

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