Many readers of a certain age know and are fond of the movie Office Space, with its many quotable lines and memorable moments, but I have a greater nostalgia for a similarly named but somewhat older movie, called Head Office. In the latter, a young Judge Reinhold is being tutored in the ways of a big corporation, and learns some vital survival skills along the way.

Among them is Lesson Number Four:

The secret to survival is ‘never make a decision.’

The movie pithily observes that “the minute you do, you get screwed,” and cuts to a frantic Rick Moranis screaming into his telephone “I didn’t make that decision! I approved somebody else’s decision! I don’t make decisions like that!”

Comedy aside, there in a nutshell lies the reality of the world.

With decisions comes responsibility. The bigger the decision, the greater the burden of responsibility, and the greater risk of being held accountable. People love to complain about CEO compensation, but those guys are getting paid to make big decisions, and their ability to make “good” decisions is what separates them from the many who believe that they could do that job just as well but in truth have little clue.

Another brilliant movie snippet comes from the superb, star-laden 2011 film Margin Call, wherein the big boss of a financial firm (played by Jeremy Irons), facing an existential crisis, states:

I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more.

The “music” in this case was a reference to the behavior of the financial markets, but the statement applies everywhere, high and low, in business and in personal life. And, germanely to today’s point, in both the private and public sectors.

Decisions lead to actions, and actions lead to consequences. It is these consequences, positive and negative, that, in a free and competitive environment, regulate behavior. Rewards motivate, punishments discipline or dissuade. Some rise to the challenge of decision making, but many (perhaps even most) others opt for the Rick Moranis route, and dodge the responsibility of decision making.

That’s why we end up with so many committees, and that’s why it’s often so hard to get anything done via committee. Committees may be a great way to get multiple perspectives, greater breadth of information and analysis, and collectivized wisdom, but they also serve as a fantastic way to dodge responsibility. Since I’m quoting movies today, here’s another great bit from the 1999 Mel Gibson movie Payback. Gibson’s character was seeking restitution for money wrongly taken from him, and in this scene, demanded it from Carter, a middle-management type. Carter stated he didn’t have the authority to accede to Porter’s demand, and that “a committee would make a decision in this case.” Porter replied:

One man. You go high enough, you always come to one man.

Porter’s instincts were correct, and he got to speak with Bronson, the decision maker. Bronson denied Porter’s demand, and Porter responded by shooting Carter. Bronson was both surprised and off-put by Porter’s response, and much further mayhem ensued. None of which mattered to Carter, because Carter was dead. Bronson made a bad decision, and there were consequences.

I was reminded of all this just recently, when I read a news bit about NY’s Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, dismissing a legislative solution to the immigrant child separation matter that has captured today’s headlines. Schumer is quoted as saying “Legislation is not the way to go here when it’s so easy for the president to sign it.”

Let me translate that for you, noting the tactic associated with critical theory and the Frankfurt School. This tactic boils down to “criticize everything, but offer no solution, and let the reader fill in the blanks with utopia.” This is what Schumer did. This is what politicians love to do. This is why politicians, pundits, activists, add the like spend more time and effort pointing out problems than actually fixing them. And, this is why Congress has such atrocious approval ratings.

Before I continue, lets take a step back and consider the nature of government decision-making.

There is a stark difference between the public and private sectors when it comes to decision making. As I noted earlier, market forces are the final (and eternal and relentless) arbiter of decisions in a free and competitive environment. Government, on the other hand, is monopolistic and coercive, and the market forces that provide rapid feedback on decisions are extremely muted by those traits, with competitive pressures diluted down to infrequent elections (that are themselves even more muted by the countless benefits that incumbents have over challengers). The people who designed our government recognized this, and build a system of checks and balances to counter the resistances and immunities that that the public sector naturally has to market forces. Thus, we have a tricameral government, a bicameral Congress, an Electoral College, and a federal system with power stratified at national, state, county, and local levels. All this is meant to counterweigh potential recklessness, foolishness, megalomania, nefariousness, corruption, etc, in the representatives to whom we grant power over our lives. That doesn’t mean that those representatives are absolved from having to make decisions, but rather that they can’t make free-rein decisions, with no one to check bad ones.

Still, it remains that decisions, even in the public sector, come with accountability. Since a politician’s first job is to get re-elected, anything that might get in the way is a negative, and to be avoided. We see this all the time, with Congressional leaders routinely using maneuvers to ensure their rank-and-file aren’t forced to cast votes that might be used against them in a future election. And, we see this in the plethora of committees, that seem to meet a lot but that don’t actually do a lot.

We also see this, more and more, at lower levels of government. Ever ponder the nature of “zero tolerance” policies, that take decision power and the ability to account for the nuances of individual situations out of the hands of decision makers? Many of those decision makers love such policies, because they absolve them of accountability. And, since those who write the policies do so based on generalities rather than any particular instance, they dodge accountability when an unjust action is taken. If the decision is taken out of the hands of the responsible person, he can deflect accountability with a “my hands are tied, these are the rules” dodge.

Thus, responsibility is shifted in to some gray limbo. When a decision maker has his hands tied by a higher-up who’s sufficiently removed from the situation (and/or has moved on or retired), there’s no one that we can hold accountable for bad decisions. If a kid eats a Pop Tart the wrong way, and some paranoid cover-my-ass type thinks it looks like a gun, and a zero-tolerance policy is on the books, then a decision maker gets to say “sorry, but I can’t inject my common sense here even if I wanted to” and accountability fizzles into the ether.

This is by design, and it’s a contagion that’s spreading throughout government, high and low. It’s a hidden reason that three strikes laws remain on the books, despite their resulting in many unfair sentences and miscarriages of justice.

Many people love zero-tolerance, three-strikes, and similar rigid policies, because such give them the power of decision making without consequence. By saying “if X happens, Y must happen,” people feel like they’re doing something good, but remove themselves from a situation where circumstances might dictate otherwise. They take decision making power out of the hands of those who are in the best position to make wise ones, take credit for decisions, and shift blame into never-neverland. Ditto for the all-too-frequent “punting” that Congress does on any topic that’s remotely controversial, as most recently exemplified by Schumer’s expectation that Trump take steps to address the illegal-immigrant-child problem to Schumer’s satisfaction. Yes, Chuck, you are perfectly rational in saying “I don’t want to do the work of fixing this, but I want it fixed in a way that pleases me.” #sarcasm.

On the macro scale, it’s why Congress hasn’t passed a budget in a decade, and instead has funded the government with giant omnibus spending bills and continuing resolutions. Heaven forbid our elected leaders make some tough but responsible decisions, not when they can “pass the buck,” figuratively and literally, and avoid being held accountable for votes that didn’t work out or that irked some subset of their constituency.

On the smaller scale, it creates real dysfunction in the public sector, and that dysfunction isn’t merely a matter of efficiency. Lives are damaged and destroyed by the shirking of responsibility in the manner I describe. Government agencies, granted power that’s often monopolistic and exclusionary (in that they crowd out private sector efforts), fail in their assignments to help people, and often do harm instead.

And, yet, people continue to insist on giving power to government, despite the obvious and continued fecklessness and decision dysfunction that permeates government.

Why?

Many people are as reluctant to make decisions as those they criticize for not making decisions. They want someone else to make decisions and therefore bear the weight of those that go poorly. Who better to hand this decision-making power off to than a government greedily eager for power and control?

With liberty comes responsibility. Some choose to embrace that responsibility, and manage their lives themselves. Others seek to hand it off (I quote playwright and “reborn” conservative David Mamet: “socialism is the abdication of responsibility”). But, to whom are they handing it off, when they give it to government? To people as eager to shirk responsibility as they are. That is the road to doom.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

1+

Like this post?