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Freeman Essay #73: “Sound Bites and Unsound Decisions”

In the February 2002 Freeman I imagined what the business world would be like if decision-makers there made decisions in the same way that decisions are typically made in the political world.  My imagining is beneath the fold.

Place: an executive meeting room at Boeing’s headquarters. Background: a meeting is about to commence between Boeing’s chairman and CEO, Phil Condit, and a team of Boeing engineers. The engineers asked for the meeting to explain to Mr. Condit a new method they’ve devised for manufacturing aircraft. By increasing the efficiency of the assembly process, these engineers are certain that they have found a way to save Boeing millions of dollars annually.

Event: Mr. Condit enters the room, quickly shakes hands, and announces, “Gentleman, my attention span is very short–30 seconds, max–so you’d better tell me whatever you have to say in just a few short sound bites. And if I tune out before your 30 seconds are up, well, too bad for you.”

The engineers flash horrified looks at each other. “Sound bites!” their leader exclaims. “Mr. Condit, we’ve struggled for months to develop this new production process. We can’t possibly explain it to you in 30 seconds. Although we worked hard to make our presentation crisp and to the point, and although you’re an unusually intelligent man, you can’t possibly grasp our idea by giving only 30 seconds of your time to it.”

“Time’s up, gentleman.” Condit says. “Good day.” He walks briskly out of the room. The engineers stare at each other, dumfounded.

A realistic scenario?

Hardly. A skilled comedy writer might be able to build the above little piece of fiction into a skit for Saturday Night Live, but it’s going nowhere as an account of how business people actually make decisions. No business person needing information to keep his firm operating smoothly and competitively would demand that such information be presented to him only in sound bites.

And it’s not only business people who demand all the information and understanding necessary to make decisions sensibly. Each of us generally spends considerable energies acquiring information, insight, and understanding about a wide range of things that matter to us. These efforts range from the mundane to the grand. We scour newspapers and Web sites to find bargain prices; we grill friends about their experiences with cars and school systems; we take classes at Home Depot on how to install tile flooring and how to fix faucets; we read dozens of self-help books, as well as books on how to improve our skills at management, gardening, cooking, and raising children.

We also invest huge sums of money and time–years–acquiring formal education.

Although some of us have less self-discipline than others, we all understand that our lives will be more satisfying–in material and nonmaterial ways–if we make sound decisions. And we understand also that we can make sound decisions only if our information and understanding are up to the task. Just as each CEO devotes considerable time and effort to learning the necessary details of his firm’s operations and his industry’s situation, so too does each of us devote considerable time and effort to acquiring the information and understanding we need to make sound decisions about how we live our private lives.

We don’t conduct our private lives by sound bites.

Collective Choice by Sound Bite

But as citizens making collective choices we are sound-bite fanatics, seldom devoting any real time or effort to gaining a genuine understanding of public-policy issues. It’s sad but true that the same person willing to spend hours learning how to make a perfect cheese soufflé is unwilling to pursue a genuine understanding of the nature of the market economy and of government. Never mind that unsound government policies are far more costly and more difficult to remedy than sunken soufflés. The fact is, the same person who spends hours learning new cooking skills is typically unwilling to learn more than the barest and most frivolous details about public-policy issues.

It’s futile to lament people’s unwillingness to devote serious attention to public policy. This unwillingness is inevitable, given that no voter has an individual say over policy issues. Pleading for someone to spend more time thinking long and hard about policy issues is to plead for him to devote less time thinking about matters on which he has a direct and personal impact (for example, getting that soufflé just right) and more time thinking about matters on which he has practically zero impact (for example, the details of Social Security reform). Such pleas will almost all be for naught.

The only hope for even the slightest improvement in the public’s understanding of the market order and the nature of government is to have more Milton Friedmans, Walter Williamses, John Stossels, and Larry Elders, who are masters at communicating impressive amounts of understanding in short, accessible, and arresting ways.

Such talent, however, is rare. While it can and should be increased, the deeper lesson to draw from these reflections is that unlimited majority rule is an ill-advised means of governing society. With government now free of most constitutional fetters–with majoritarian outcomes treated as sacrosanct–the ultimate decision-makers in society are big blobs of voters, with no individual voter exercising real influence and responsibility. Influence and responsibility are so widely dispersed as to evaporate. With everyone having a say in a decision, no one has a say. With no one responsible, everyone is irresponsible.

This consequence of modern government is a real tragedy. When left in private hands, decisions are decentralized and made by people on the spot-by those possessing strong motives, and promising prospects, to gain knowledge and understanding. But such motives (and prospects) disappear when decision-making responsibility is removed to the state. Ultimate decision-makers in modern democratic countries–voters–have no motivation to learn what must be learned to decide wisely. Discussions of important policy matters become soups of sound bites and superficiality. The resulting decisions are unsound, often foolish, and in too many cases ethically offensive.

Almost everyone would be aghast if Phil Condit and other corporate executives rendered decisions based only on what they learn from sound bites. Why, then, are so few people aghast that the ultimate decision-makers for the vast array of policies undertaken by government render their decisions based only on what they learn from sound bites?