In Washington, there are weeks when everyone seems to know someone, who knows someone else, whose sister went to school with a close friend of Smith, the unfortunate person who is at that moment caught up in a political firestorm of some sort. Smith, it turns out, is pronounced by the grapevine to be a really good guy, a person of keen intellect and sound judgment, and those who know him personally are baffled at how a guy like Smith could do something so boneheaded. GeorgeTenet, Donald Rumsfeld, D. Kyle Sampson — the characters change but the plot is largely the same.
But another important piece of grapevine information available in Washington for the last six years has been the extraordinary degree to which political loyalty has been made the basis for hiring decisions. Dahlia Lithwick recently wrote about Monica Goodling’s hiring predilections, which had a specifically religious component, but the same basic story has been playing out again and again since 2001, at least with lawyers. In the most extreme case I know about, a very fine lawyer was repeatedly passed over for government work because, when he was an associate at a private law firm, he had been assigned to work on a case for a very prominent Democrat. Believe it or not, there is a very talented lawyer who reads this blog but is reluctant to write anything here because he believes any honest commentary about this administration would doom his chances of serving in any future Republican administration.
As James Surowiecki explained in The Wisdom of Crowds, this sort of hiring systematically makes government dumber. For those who haven’t read the book, the thesis is that groups of people consistently outperform putative experts, not just with simple quantitative problems (e.g., how many jelly beans are in the jar?), but with more complicated questions (e.g., which of the four major defense contractors who worked on the space shuttle was most likely to be responsible for the Challenger explosion?). But in order for group decisionmaking to be this good, the group has to be sufficiently diverse — cognitively diverse, regardless of demography — and the people in the group have to reason independently of each other. Otherwise, “groupthink” is likely to set in.
Surowiecki discusses “a detailed study of American foreign-policy fiascoes, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor,” in which psychologist Irving Janis explored how homogeneous groups become unduly insulated from outside opinions. “These kinds of groups, Janis suggested, share an illusion of invulnerability, a willingness to rationalize away possible counterarguments to the group’s position, and a conviction that dissent is not useful.” Sound familiar? Surowiecki continues:
In the case of the Bay of Pigs invasion, for instance, the Kennedy administration planned and carried out its strategy without ever really talking to anyone who was skeptical of the prospects of success. The people who planned the operation were the same ones who were asked to judge whether it would be successful or not. The few people who voiced caution were quickly silenced. And, most remarkably, neither the intelligence branch of the CIA nor the Cuban desk of the State Department was consulted about the plan. The result was a bizarre neglect of some of the most elemental facts about Cuba in 1961, including the popularity of Fidel Castro, the strength of the Cuban army, and even the size of the island itself. (The invasion was predicated on the idea that 1,200 men could take over all of Cuba.) The administration even convinced itself that the world would believe the United States had nothing to do with the invasion, though American involvement was an open secret in Guatemala (where the Cuban exiles were being trained).
The important thing about groupthink is that it works not so much by censoring dissent as by making dissent seem somehow improbable. . . . Because information that might represent a challenge to the conventional wisdom is either excluded or rationalized as obviously mistaken, people come away from discussions with their beliefs reinforced, convinced more than ever that they’re right. Deliberation in a groupthink setting has the disturbing effect not of opening people’s minds but of closing them.
In other words, Heaven save us from “team players.” Sometimes, the most loyal thing you can do is tell your own closest friends and colleagues that they couldn’t be more wrong.
There is, by the way, a lot more to take away from The Wisdom of Crowds, and I heartily recommend it. In particular, it occurs to me that we might be able to improve Congress’s performance substantially by selecting senators and representatives at random. Less radically, could the need for greater cognitive diversity be a new argument for term limits?