Against Deliberation

Why decisions made by the Bush White House are dumber than the people who work there.

In the Dec. 10 Washington Post, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen report that President Bush will craft domestic policy during his second term in much the same way that he crafted foreign policy during his first term: by creating “a small, loyal and trustworthy team to press for broad changes largely dictated by the White House.”

This approach proved disastrous in planning for the Iraq war. That’s widely understood. But there hasn’t been much discussion of why it proved disastrous. Instinctively, we all sense that it’s bad to allow an insular group of like-minded people to make important policy decisions. Those decisions, we assume, will end up reflecting shared preconceptions more than they reflect reality. What is not commonly understood is that such group decisions actually exaggerate and worsen those shared preconceptions. James Surowiecki discusses this phenomenon, called “group polarization,” in his delightful book, The Wisdom of Crowds.

The overarching theme of Surowiecki’s book is that people are much smarter collectively than they are individually. He makes an exception, though, for small groups of people who share the same opinions. These tend to be stupider than their constituent members, because when like-minded people get together they drive each other to embrace more mindlessly extremist views. Studies have shown, for instance, that if you put a bunch of pessimists together in a room they will become more pessimistic after talking to one another, and that juries whose members are inclined to give plaintiffs large awards usually give even larger awards after they’ve deliberated.

The cause of “group polarization,” according to Surowiecki, is that

People are constantly comparing themselves to everyone else with an eye toward maintaining their relative position within the group. In other words, if you start out in the middle of the group and you believe the group has moved, as it were, to the right, you’re inclined to shift your position to the right as well, so that relative to everyone else you’re standing still. Of course, by moving to the right you’re moving the group to the right, making social comparison something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s assumed to be real eventually becomes real.

I would suggest that if you toss into this mix a strong social imperative to demonstrate loyalty to the group, the polarization will likely be even worse. This is how we ended up with an Iraq policy that is much stupider than Paul Wolfowitz, or Don Rumsfeld, or Dick Cheney (none of whom is stupid at all). And it’s how we’re going to end up with domestic policies that are stupider than Karl Rove, Andy Card, and budget director Josh Bolton.