Tuesday 26 November 2013

Governance and Groupthink

Ignorance undermines the efficacy of any government: ignorance of how best to determine an optimal policy and how best to implement it. The risk of poor decisions emanating from ignorance is greatly increased where issues of groupthink are not addressed.

Everybody in a democracy, oligarchy, monarchy or even a theocracy is vulnerable to groupthink. This includes the politically savvy and the religiously well-versed. To deny vulnerability is to demonstrate vulnerability. Indeed, to anyone claiming there was once a time of perfection – a golden age – to which we should aspire, then it may need pointing out that the mere fact that imperfections are present today would suggest vulnerabilities to groupthink in the past. To claim infallibility of a past or present system of government is demonstrably delusional or dishonest. To claim infallibility of a future system opens the way for groupthink dangers.

Groupthink symptoms include:

1.      The unquestioning belief in the morality of a cause leading to the disregard of the consequences of actions;

2.      The direct pressure of conformity where questioning is seen as disloyal or heretical to the group;

3.      Self-censorship which, if not discouraged, will suppress ideas that might be seen to deviate from a perceived group consensus;

4.      The illusion of unanimity where silence is interpreted as consent;

5.      The existence of mind guards who suppress dissenting and inconvenient information;

6.      The stereotyping of opponents as evil or stupid will misinform and misdirect decision-making;

7.      The illusion of invulnerability that fosters misplaced optimism and risk taking;

8.      The collective rationalisation in which group members ignore warnings of failure.

Imagine two populations with similar problems and opportunities. One population has a government that takes measures to avoid groupthink, the other does not. Which government would you expect to be best informed to make better judgments? Now consider any government, non-state actor or individual of your choice and consider how effective they are at avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink.

Those who claim to know the path to a better society, whilst stifling debate, rejecting re-evaluations, discouraging inquiry and obstructing learning, are deceiving themselves, and so too are those who only tolerate fashionable arguments.

Further reading: Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink, New York: Houghton Mifflin (1972); and Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, New York: Houghton Mifflin (1982).

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Democracy, Oligarchy or Monarchy?

They each have virtues and vices…

Herodotus outlines the fundamental arguments at the very core of governance in a discussion on the merits and shortcomings of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. In The Histories (3.80-83) the eternal debate is given voice from among the seven conspirators for the throne of the Persian Empire in 522BCE.
Otanes argued for popular government. He said that monarchy fosters the vices of envy and pride; it allows a ruler to do as he pleases with little responsibility. Even the best men would be corrupted by their own power, and would no longer perceive things as they used to. Worst of all a monarch may abuse his citizens and break up the structures of law. In contrast, the rule of the people avoids the problems of monarchs, it brings equality under the law and enables open debate.

Megabyzus agreed with Otanes’s arguments against monarchy, but warned that in transferring power to the people, that power would be in the hands of the fickle, the irresponsible and the ignorant. Instead, power should be given to the best men who would naturally produce the best policy.
Darius agreed with Megabyzus’s criticisms of democracy, but said that, in having a group of men competing for distinction from within an oligarchy, rivalries would develop that would lead to violence and civil war. Even in a democracy corrupt associations will develop. The cliques of power in an oligarchy or democracy would only be broken when a people’s champion comes forward and this person will be entrusted with absolute power. And so it is, argued Darius, that the people’s freedom and best form of government is ultimately derived from monarchy.

Darius won the debate, and it was agreed that the new king would be whoever’s horse among the conspirators neighed first at dawn. Otanes withdrew from the contest. Darius used the scent of a mare to encourage his stallion to neigh; and so it was that the use of guile won power for Darius. A reported flash of lighting from a clear sky was acknowledged as a divine sign of approval. Nevertheless, the issues of effective governance remain.