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The Tyranny of Consensus


One chapter of my book is on Oregon reforestation cooperatives from the 1970s who found their countercultural work ideal disrupted when the Forest Service sprayed them with pesticides. One of the key members of the main cooperative, known as the Hoedads, was Gerry Mackie. After fifteen years working in the forest, Mackie went into academia, eventually ending up as a political theorist at the University of California-San Diego. I was reading his M.A. thesis the other day, which deals with the rise and fall of the cooperatives. This is what Mackie had to say about consensus decision-making, something I oppose with every fiber of my bones:

“In the late 1970s, some new members imported a belief popular on the liberal-left, that democracy requires consensus. Consensus groups could function, but were unstable and usually the first to fall. There are several problems. Those with the least to do elsewhere in life have the greatest power in the interminable consensus process. Trust, ironically, is absent, in that no delegation of decision is permitted. The thought of a meeting then becomes so horrifying that a larger and larger scope of decisions is left to informal leadership and clandestine process, an undemocratic outcome. Consensus is always biased to the status quo, but problems usually originate in the status quo; rapid external change worsens the conservative bias. Further, consensus invades the individual personality and demands conformity; dissenters may acquiesce but in doing so are implicitly judged to have compromised the moral ideal. The healthy legitimacy of openly holding different views becomes suspect. Finally, rational unanimity is impossible for a larger class of goals. Just to illustrate with a trivial example, suppose it is time to decide where the crew works in the Spring. Six people want to work in Montana because they have friends there. Two people want to work in California because they have friends there. Three people don’t care. Under majority rule, the crew goes to Montana, and those in the minority might feel they are owed a little deference in some future decision (know to political science as “logrolling”). Under consensus, the different sides are denied the legitimacy of their individual interests, because there is only one rational goal for the group, which one side or another must adopt, or the group disband. Under majority rule one is subordinate to shifting impersonal majorities, but under consensus one is permanently subordinated to every other member in the group.”

Right–consensus decision making is the opposite of democracy. Not only does it empower the person with nothing else going on in their life, but it places everyone under the tyranny of everyone else. Meetings are impossible and effectively, consensus decision-making is a sure fire way to destroy your movement. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement and being outvoted. Unfortunately, too many of today’s social activists believe that such a thing as a consensus is possible, when in fact a consensus is the worst possible outcome.

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