The fallacy of decision makers

As far as policy, President Obama is a decision maker. So are some other heads of state. Otherwise, not even the Queen of England is one, much less the rest of us plebes. While we make real decisions in the tactical context of our jobs or personal lives, it’s a rare individual who actually gets to decide one way or the other about a policy without implicit and explicit influence from many others.

If we are to think about decision making from the standpoint of policies, it’s probably time to stop thinking about single human agency and shift the frame of reference to professional and social networks ( in the pre-Facebook sense of those words). In truth, most of us who fancy ourselves as decision-makers, are simply implementers, glorified functionaries. Our consequential policy decisions only emerge out of committees gradually, where degrees of freedom are systematically removed.

Why then, do most professionals, and especially academics value the thing they call “autonomy”? Is there a neural circuit in highly intelligent individuals that somehow links reward to a sense of controlling a decision? For that matter, is such a circuit ubiquitous in all humans? I’m not at all sure. Certainly in American culture, the thing we call autonomy is deeply connected up to the characteristic we call “individualism”.

And when we are truly autonomous, at least here in the United States, as its connected up to policy, about the only place I can really see it is in the privacy of the voting booth. But the problem of course is that the choices in the booth may not be very real, as far as policy is concerned. And even when we elect someone who has promised us a really concrete set of coherent policies, the reality of governing may dilute promised policy change to what is actually more of the same.