Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
In my recent essay You need leaders, not managers I quoted Peter Drucker sharing Alfred Sloan’s thought on Authority and Responsibility in Adventures of a Bystander:
“Authority without responsibility is illegitimate; but so is responsibility without authority. Both lead to tyranny.”
The concept is pretty self-explanatory: it would be unfair to consider someone accountable for actions they have no control over. Likewise, it would seem foolish to allow someone else to control actions for which they are not liable.
It would be naive, though, to consider that the above condition, to have authority and accountability stick together, would be enough to avoid tyranny. It is undoubtedly necessary but not sufficient.
What is intriguing and concerning is that we have been seeing a dilution of responsibilities across our western societies for years.
In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz mentions how historically, doctors used to be fully in charge of their patients’ treatments, barely explaining their pathologies or how they were treating them. Then, starting in the ‘80s, acknowledging that all patients are not identical, doctors started providing more explanation, and even choices, to their patients about how to proceed.
Unfortunately, we went too far, and to quote Schwartz:
“The combination of decision autonomy and a proliferation of treatment possibilities places an incredible burden on every person in a high-stakes area of decision making that did not exist twenty years ago. The latest indication of the shift in responsibility for medical decisions from doctor to patient is the widespread advertising of prescription drugs that exploded onto the scene after various federal restrictions on such ads were lifted in 1997. Ask yourself what is the point of advertising prescription drugs (antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, antiallergy, diet, ulcer—you name it) on prime-time television. We can’t just go to the drugstore and buy them. The doctor must prescribe them. So why are drug companies investing big money to reach us, the consumers, directly? Clearly they hope and expect we will notice their products and demand that our doctors write the prescriptions. The doctors are now merely instruments for the execution of our decisions.”
Patients gain control over their treatments, and along the way, become responsible for the outcomes. As a result, they become easy prey to pharmaceutical companies, as they have no qualifications to make informed decisions.
For another example, let’s jump forward a few years, from healthcare to education and the USA to France. In the French education system, there is a critical moment at the end of the second year of middle school that the French call “cinquième”. It means “fifth” and is the seventh year of mandatory school, but a conversation about French grade names would require a whole separate essay…
Historically, it was possible for a pupil not meeting the average grades to repeat a year. That was a decision made by the teachers. At the end of that year of “cinquième”, when a kid failed again after repeating, alternative options were considered, like an apprenticeship, or professional schools, that were more practical.
My daughters went through that step a few years ago, and I was pretty surprised to learn how the system works now. First, the teachers would express their recommendations and communicate them to the parents. Then, the parents would add their advice regarding their kids. Finally, in case of agreement between teachers and parents, the school applied the joint decision, but the parents would have the final word in case of disagreement.
Parents, who are biased about their progeniture, and lack perspective as they generally have no idea of how their kids compare to the rest of their class or school, are probably the least qualified people in the world to make that decision. Still, they now control it and, therefore, will be accountable for it.
I am moving forward to present times, politics, and Austria, where I live today.
There is a pandemic, vaccines readily available, and rules about what one can and cannot do, evolving as the epidemiological situation.
For the past few months, the “3G” system was in place, stipulating that access to many indoor venues with higher transmission potential would be limited to people who are vaccinated, had recovered from Covid, or had a recent negative test.
Since yesterday, November 8th, 2021, we have shifted to the “2G” system that stipulates that only vaccinated or recovered people can access the same venues. The list includes restaurants; hence the rush to get the first shot of the Covid vaccine over the weekend has been dubbed “Schnitzelpanik”.
I had decided to get the vaccine as soon as it was available last spring, and so have the people who live with me, so no Schnitzelpanik for us. I used to be mad at people I didn’t even know just because they decided they didn’t want to be vaccinated, but I am not anymore.
I realise now that we are fundamentally very similar people, in very similar situations.
We face a big decision over which we have authority and will be accountable for, and we have nowhere near the information or expertise to make a decision we trust to be good.
So we make choices based on who we trust. Some of us get the shot, and others don’t, weighing risks we barely understand. Unless there’s a Schnitzel at odds, that’s a risk we all understand well. In the end, though, whatever happens to us, we will have only ourselves to blame, or hopefully, congratulate.
I realise it is a strong word, and I mainly chose it to respond to the initial quote, but I believe it is always a danger, as we can see in some countries today and so many in our past.
Tyranny used to be the most common way of ruling for the longest time. Then we invented revolutions and for a while, being a tyrant wasn’t the best strategy to keep one’s head attached to the rest of the body. Then, finally, democracy took over and seemed to become the way of the future.
Democracy might not be perfect, but it presents a relatively balanced distribution of accountability and control, as we use our votes to concentrate those on a rather limited number of representatives.
I am worried that diluting responsibility across the entire population will lead to untenable situations, as the Covid pandemic highlighted recently, which we could see as the failure of democracy. What would replace it then?