Why Consensus Decision Making is Delusional Claptrap
By CD Madson, B.A., A.A., Parliamentarian, Founder of The Solon Academy
“There will always be individuals eager and willing to engage in conflict to get their way, and this fact alone constitutes a fatal coup de grâce against the consensus model.”
Let’s be blunt. Consensus models of decision-making DO NOT WORK.
“But wait,” you say. “That can’t be true! I know of a group that uses Modified Consensus and they work just fine. And at any rate it works better than Robert’s Rules of Order.”
Wrong, and here’s why.
First, I admit that Consensus models do work sometimes. But only under extremely artificial, contrived, temporary and eminently fragile conditions. The Consensus model requires, as a necessary condition of success, that all members be willing to place the goal of group harmony above their own particular rights or interests. It does not take a Machiavellian super-genius to realize such conditions do not widely exist in the real world outside of ivory-tower anarcho-libertarian hippie ecovillages. All that it takes to break a pure consensus system is for a single member to reject the premise and assert their individual rights. In other words, a single free-thinker will break the Consensus model.
Democracy at the most fundamental level is the process of group decision-making. Democracy is a verb. In the absence of effective rules of order the group decision-making process will naturally devolve in one of two directions: mob gridlock, or the expediency of tyranny. Democracy seeks to provide an institutional framework that cuts a middle path, and rules of order provide the method by which the group strikes the balance between gridlock and dictatorship. Perhaps the most central principle of democracy is the principle of “majority rule.” By rejecting majority rule, Consensus is intrinsically anti-democratic, and inverts the power dynamic of groups from “majority rule” to a de facto “minority rule.”
There is a fatal irony intrinsic to the Consensus model of decision-making. While the surface ethic of the model is that all members should subjugate the rights and interests of the individual to the greater good of the whole, the practical effect of Consensus is to go precisely in the opposite direction, subjugating the interests of the majority to the will of one or more minority members willing to assert their rights as individuals and hold the entire group hostage to their threats to “block” consensus.
This can happen in many ways. Consensus apologists will tend to blame the individual for placing their selfish interests above the group, and various punitive pressures will be applied to reign-in such regressive deviants. Straight-up selfish individualism could indeed be the underlying motivation–many competing political ideologies (Ayn Rand’s Objectivism comes to mind) advocate just such a move–though a more charitable interpretation may be that the individual is simply not willing to surrender their rights in the service of achieving a watered-down and inferior conclusion. Thus taking a stand to “block” consensus can legitimately be viewed as an altruistic act to the benefit of the greater good. Either way, Consensus is dead.
The Consensus model fundamentally depends upon the subjugation of the individual into groupthink. It will collapse into paralysis and gridlock the moment an individual (under pure Consensus) or significant minority (as in modified super-majority Consensus) digs in their heels. It is difficult to imagine a real-world situation where this will not happen in fairly short order, and anyone who can’t see this fact simply hasn’t lived in the real world long enough. A sizable portion of any randomly selected human population will refuse to subjugate their individual interests (1-3% of the population are sociopaths, 13% are members of Helen Fisher’s “Director” personality type). Consensus models can only operate among populations that have a self-selecting membership that actively shuns those who reject the ideological premise, and where dissent is suppressed through self-censorship, groupthink, social shaming, peer-pressure, ostracism, or active expulsion of those who “block” consensus. Any group that admits members who fundamentally reject the ideological foundation of Consensus will immediately deadlock in paralysis.
However even among closed populations that only admit members who accept the ideological premise, the inescapable reality is that eventually some critical issue will produce a genuine difference of opinion among sizable factions. The standard response within Consensus is to circle the wagons and exert extraordinary pressure on the dissenters to achieve “conflict resolution.” Inevitably this entails some form of social coercion to force a square peg into a round hole. Doing so typically achieves just the sort of bad blood and disillusionment that Consensus advocates accuse the “adversarial” simple majority systems of producing. But even imposed conflict “resolution” cannot save the Consensus system from inevitable failure.
Sometimes there will be decisions for which there is no viable compromise or middle ground position: Do we fire the property management company or stay with them? Do the members really want to always produce sub-standard or watered-down compromise positions, or are those who have the skill and wisdom to foresee the consequences willing to dig in their heels for the greater good?
When controversial questions spawn factions the Consensus model will fail right at the moment when a robust rules of order system is most needed. Why? Consensus is not robust enough to withstand the trials and rigours of intense conflict because the whole premise of the system is built around denying or suppressing conflict. But the ultimate value of rules of order is determined precisely during these periods of extreme stress.
Simple majority systems such as Robert’s Rules are so successful precisely because they are robust enough to withstand heated conflict. They don’t stick their head in the sand and pretend conflict doesn’t exist, or pretend that it can be papered over. They accept and harness it to produce better results. The Consensus model, no matter which version you trot out, can never survive sustained open conflict, precisely because the whole ideological premise is to avoid and suppress open conflict. Conflict will always exist, and nowhere more evidently than in political discourse.
There will always be individuals eager and willing to engage in conflict to get their way, and this fact alone constitutes a fatal coup de grâce against the consensus model.
This is cold hard real-world fact. If you doubt this you should re-read your Machiavelli. Any system that is built around the hopelessly naive premise of suppressing the existence of conflict will necessarily fail, and will do so spectacularly.
The inescapable reality is that a Consensus model will collapse utterly in any real-world democratic situation that involves a mildly diverse population of voting members. If your organization has individuals that deviate at all from a very narrow ideological sliver of head-in-the-clouds dreamers you would be wise to avoid experimenting with utopian delusions and stick with the tried and true wisdom accumulated over 2500 years of painful democratic trial and error, best embodied by a simple majority system.