Loyalty in Government

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?

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5 Responses to “Loyalty in Government”

  1. Charley Says:

    I feel compelled to note that, though the Bay of Pigs may have represented a profound groupthink failure, the Kennedy administration apparently was willing to learn from that mistake. Its response to the Cuban missile crisis is often considered a case study on the avoidance of groupthink, considering and evaluating a diverse range of potential responses, and choosing a response that worked.

    Did you see the article in the Post this Saturday (I think) describing how the Ashcroft-dictated changes to the DOJ hiring process resulted in (and I’ll paraphrase here) a “Federalist Society mandatory” policy for honors program attorneys and laterals? Thanks to Ashcroft placing hiring decisions solely in the hands of political appointees, we’re left with a Justice Department filled with Goodlings, Sampsons, and other “loyal Bushies.”

    Isn’t Tony Soprano having the same problem with his crew? I mean, to put $25K on the horse race and $100K on, heaven forbid, Philly without anyone speaking up?

  2. jim walsh Says:

    Here I cannot refrain from bringing in my favorite all-purpose phrase “failure of imagination.” (I was pleased to note that the Baker-Hamilton Commission used the phrase in its report.)

    It is so often not just applicable but helpful in its application. Unfortunately, it takes an outsider or someone with an outside perspective to see such failures of imagination — which is another way of saying what Surowiecki says.

  3. Mark Esswein Says:

    But even worse, the Bush administration seems to be “guilty of groupthink” that is, that they have willingly engaged in groupthink (e.g. crowd screening at speeches, screening employees for adherence to groupthink, I could go on…)

    Sometimes groupthink just happens and the cycle is broken when the group hears someone (even randomly) thinking outside the box. Willfull groupthink is particularly disturbing because the voice of imagination is purposefully excluded.

    In Charley’s comment, he points out the Kennedy administration’s taking a failure, learning from it and succeeding in the face of the missile crisis. To learn from mistakes (which, of course, requires admitting them) is the true hallmark of leadership. The real leader is the one who says, “Man, that sure didn’t work. Let’s try something else… Whaddya got!” That’s where imagination comes in!

  4. Mark Patton Says:

    I don’t know that the Post story on the DOJ Honors Program proves that the current administration (or rather the leadership at DOJ) is exceptionally prone to groupthink. I liked Todd Zywicki’s comment over at the Volokh Conspiracy–that it is naive to think that the career lawyers in various divisions of DOJ (take Civil Rights as probably the most prominent example) didn’t themselves apply an ideological filter in their hiring choices for the Honors Program. The complaints about a new hire who started at Civil Rights after clerking for *gasp* Judge Pickering neatly proves Zywicki’s point, I think.

  5. David Fitzgerald Says:

    I guess I have two thoughts, if you could qualify them as such.

    1. Perhaps I am naive, I left Washington young, decided that the theology business was far too dirty and settled on the morally pristine world of securities law, but I was not aware that civil service appointments or even relatively high level political appointments in our government have traditionally been signed off on by political apparitchiks. It disturbs me that there are political commissars in the DOJ (maybe we should rename it the Ministry of Justice) and other cabinet departments who make decisions about who gets hired, fired and promoted. Perhaps one could show me (I honestly don’t know) that this was common practice in previous administrations as well. Or perhaps, as I think Patton’s (distinguish from Grannis, too many Mark’s) post is trying to convey, career civil servants in government departments themselves are overwhelmingly of a particular ideaological stripe and therefore it is incumbent upon Republican administrations to have these political moles throughout government in order to keep the “locals” in line. The second notion, that there is an inherently hostile relationship between the governing philosophy of one of the major political parties and the actual government that implements their policy, is, to my naive mind, revealing and a bit scary.

    2. Which brings me to my second thought. I suppose it is impossible to strip ideaology completely out of decision making. We all have certain “fundamental principles” or, to borrow from an earlier post, “ways of imagining” reality that get brough to bear on practical choices. I think two trends however, distinguish the current administration’s reliance on ideaology as a decision making tool from all others. This administration has singularly demonstrated an inability to adjust principle to actual facts on the ground and has not had its “philosophy of government” significantly “corrupted” by six years of actual government, i.e. it has shown itself particularly incapable of compromise. Examples of this are myriad, we can control Iraq with a small force, there are enough buses in New Orleans, we are firing the US attorneys for underperformance, the tax cuts, plus the prescription drug benefit won’t explode the budget deficit, etc… It is this singular inability to adjust “theory” to facts on the ground, as well as a maniacal desire to silence those who raise “uncomfortable” facts that has, in my view, marked this administration for failure from the beginning.


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