In recent posts, I argued that governing a population requires accountability of immediate consequences of recent decisions. We maintain social cohesion by designating an authority empowered to make decisions in exchange for being held accountable for the consequences of those decisions. Accountability means that that person in authority will be able to explain the decision and persuade the population that the decision was appropriate despite unwelcome consequences. Alternatively, the authority will be able to makes changes in future decision making to better accommodate the concerns of the population.
Having such an accountability reassure the population to consent to being governed even if they are a political minority that opposes the majority that are making the rules. In earlier posts, I argued that super-majority consent of a coalition of the majority and the major minority views is essential for a robust government to meet challenges from a smaller minority that practices disobedience in protest of the government. The political majority needs the active support of most of the political minorities to stand up to organized disobedience.
I am motivated to explore both ideas by my concerns of two recent trends.
One trend is the increasing frequency of governments facing unruly protests that are destabilizing the government even though the population of the protesters are a relatively small minority of the total population. I argued that the protests succeed because of the lack of supporting consent from the non-participating minorities to present a strong super-majority response against the protests.
The other trend is toward increasing reliance on external decision making that erodes the accountability of the person placed in authority to make decisions. Increasingly, those in authorities respond to criticisms about decisions with explanations that they do not understand the rationale well enough to explain it and that the decision is outside of their control. These explanations are abdication of accountability. In particular, this trend is accelerating with the introduction of so-called big data solutions that analyze data to produce automated recommendations where the underlying data volume and variety are overwhelming for any human to understand.
With big data trends, we are at the start of a new experiment in government where government will be by data instead of by human deliberation. Data driven government will produce decisions with no accountability for consequences. As I mentioned in the last post, to live in this world, we need to immediately accept bad consequences of data-driven decision-making with the assurance that the present circumstances will become evidence to improve future decision making to result in more beneficial outcomes.
I believe it is a fantasy to assume people will readily accept bad consequences even of mathematically perfect recommendations based on perfectly complete and clean historical data. When we experience bad consequences we demand accountability no matter how impeccable the decision making. We need the designated authority to persuade us that the decision was justified in light of the bad consequences or we need that authority to make changes to prevent this from recurring. Lacking an accountable response, the most aggrieved will rebel and the less convinced will withhold their support for the government. This combination disintegrates super-majority consent that is essential for non-coercive governments.
In my last post, I noted that the recent events in Ferguson Missouri might be an illustration of the insufficiency of even diligent following of previously justified protocols for handling certain circumstance. While later investigations may expose some abuse, I assume that in each instance of the initial event and the subsequent responses by the county and state were in fact according to pre-approved plans for responding to similar incidents. Prior to the actual incident, a review of these plans may have gained widespread support as being appropriate and justified responses. This prior approval does not matter after the events transpire. We demand accountability for the uncomfortable results of these decisions.
This local incident has become a national debate with stark differences in opinions. On one side the aggrieved group is demanding justice. To that demand, the other side points out that the definition of justice is to follow the established and time-honored legal procedures. It is unfortunate that the aggrieved are demanding justice but I understand the rationale on the basis of racial arguments. It would be far more productive for them to instead demand accountability.
Accountability is distinct from justice in a very fundamental way. Justice presumes innocence until guilt is proven beyond doubt. Accountability presumes responsibility (a form of guilt) and demands an explanation or a reform. The accountable authority starts off with the burden of proving his innocence. This is burden is inherently part of the contract of granting that person the authority in the first place. He will enjoy the perks of authority in exchange for accepting responsibility to defend the decisions when people object to the consequences.
Accountability and justice are distinct. As long as a person is in a position of authority or public trust, that person should have the burden of being accountable for his decisions. He needs to explain why the decision was the best one possible for the circumstances in order to serve the larger public good. This may include some appeal to a claim that the risk of harmful consequences (such as current circumstances) is much smaller than the benefits in much more frequent circumstances. In any event, the burden is on the authority to persuade the population. The presumption from the start is that he has to defend himself. In essence, the grant of authority is a grant of presumption of guilt for any bad consequence. He has to prove his innocence, wisdom, or benevolence.
It would be far more productive to demand accountability than to demand justice. It seems to me that we are increasingly ignoring the demand for accountability. Although my initial motivation for discussing this topic addressed my concerns of automated decision making by big-data systems, this trend to dismiss accountability precedes big data systems. Accountability has been eroding for a long time. I think this erosion is for the same reason. Increasingly the decision makers are faced with decisions they can not understand and have no control over. The rationale and justification of the decision are too complex for an individual to understand well enough to present a persuasive defense of the appropriateness of the decision in a particular circumstance.
Over time we allowed authorities to have less accountability. We accepted the claims that the protocols for making the decisions were inherently good ones even though the authorities can’t explain why. We accept that we can not expect accountability from authorities. This leaves us with only the remedy of justice.
Accountability is what makes peaceful justice possible. The concept of a presumption of innocence until proven guilty applies to the non-authority citizen accused of some transgression. We defer to a person granted authority or public trust to make a decision about how to respond to that transgression. We balance the presumption of innocence of a defendant with the presumption of accountability for the person in public trust and authority.
For any complaints about a fellow citizen who is not in authority or acting in public trust, we can seek justice through a system of presumption of innocence. For complaints about actions or decisions of those acting in authority or public trust, we seek accountability through a system based on a presumption of burden of the official to justify his decision. We need both systems to have peaceful avenues to seek justice.
This repeats my assertion that accountability is essential for super-majority consent. Without accountability, peaceful avenues for justice may no longer be acceptable.
The events in Ferguson fit as part of a broader pattern of criminalizing acts of authority instead of demanding accountability. Instead of demanding the police to defend their polices and their decisions about appropriate application of policies, there is a demand for criminal charges against the officer (and probably also other officials).
This demand for justice instead of accountability destroys the opportunity for accountability because now the officer acting in public trust is now a defendant with a presumption of innocence. Accountability involves a presumption of guilt because we demand a persuasive justification for the action. Switching the topic from accountability to justice effectively voids the status of being in public trust and that eliminates the expectation for accountability.
As I mentioned, this is a broader pattern where officials in government are reverting to pleas of rights to not self-incriminate instead of being accountable. This pattern includes increasing use of criminal and civil complaints for the exercise of duties of the jobs of those in authority or public trust. It seems to be contradiction to grant a person in authority or public trust to have powers we allow regular citizens to have and then immediately engage in criminal proceedings when they in fact exercise these powers. We grant these unique powers in exchange for the demand for accountability instead of justice.
We can not expect from the same person both justice and accountability. We need accountability to reassure our trust in government in order to reaffirm our consent to be government. This accountability demands an honest and thorough explanation to justify the decision or to recommend changes to make better decisions in the future. This accountability information is vital. The increasing and rapid demand for justice immediately turns the person in authority or public trust to become a criminal defendant whose words could be used against him.
Seeking justice for officials necessarily silences them. This silence destroys the concept of accountability. Without accountability there is no justification for granting privileges of authority or public trust. The result is either a rule by anarchy or extreme libertarian governments, or rule be a coercive authoritarian government. We will cease to have the rule of elected or appointed authorities who have the burden of accountability.
In an earlier post, I suggested that big data analytic algorithms will present recommendations that authorities will have no choice but to accept. This makes the positions of authority unnecessary because we can simply automate decision making based on this unique recommendation from the big data analytic algorithm.
The trend toward automated decision making or the elimination of accountable positions may also be coming from a different direction through our preference for justice over accountability. Seeking justice necessarily silences the decision maker and that prevents the exercise of accountability. In that case, we might as well automate decision making. Luckily, a the technology of big data is emerging that can fulfill the automated decision making.
Big data will maximize justice without accountability. Justice without accountability will not bring peace.
22 thoughts on “Earning super majority consent through accountability”
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