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This observation may be self-evident or even shallow, however, the Abilene Paradox is nothing more than the complete opposite of the Collective Action Problem. Both concepts demonstrate the pitfalls of the decision-making process but embody the extreme ends of the distribution. One demonstrates the follies of too much agreement in the decision-making process and the other details the difficulties of coordinating action when there are dissenting opinions and interests. These conceptions of the difficulties of managing agreement and disagreement provide us with the precepts to navigate the traps that impede effectual action.

In the Abilene Paradox, we drive towards disaster choices due to no one wanting to be the voice of dissent. The Collective Action Problem details how disagreement can paralyze us in the decision-making process which will immobilize the entire group from acting. Through understanding how to navigate these speedbumps in reaching unanimity will help us more efficiently coordinate various forms of group decision-making. Each of these concepts is applicable in a diverse number of settings ranging from the arenas of public policy, the boardroom, and even in the bedroom. I consent and or agreement is required it is imperative that everyone is on the same page. Not just merely trying to appease one another or being too bellicose and unwilling to compromise.

Why more theorists and management experts have not compared and contrasted these prevalent “agreement traps” is perplexing. However, from a superficial standpoint, one is nothing more than the inverted version of the other. The major difference between the two is most like the conditions under which both arise. These reciprocals may be linked a demonstrating the same problem, however, the defining variable that influences economic agents to either excessive amounts of agreement or following their divergent interests are likely context contingent. Contextual attributes such as incentives, personalities, external costs, penalties, cultural norms, societal affiliations, etc. can sway actors towards committing one of these fallacies over another. Neither of these challenges in the bargaining or agreement process yields optimal results, even us with either poor decision or incapacitated by inaction. Whether you are managing a nation, a company or a household all of these societal structures represent graduations in the scale of decision-making units. Making them susceptible to either over agreement or paucity of agreement, either is detrimental to all parties involved.

It is difficult to ascertain if a “golden-mean” can be found in striking the right degree of agreement. Again, what would strike the right ratio of consent-to-descent is highly contextually based. Choosing the wrong ice cream flavor does not carry the same magnitude of consequences as bombing the wrong country (hypothetically this is not an appeal for a hawkish foreign policy). The stakes are much higher in the latter example than in the first example of a decision gone wrong. A lot of this can be resolved through the constitutional basis for decision-making. In other words, what set of rules are established governing the initiation of choices. The seminal text of Public Choice Theory, The Calculus of Consent (1962) loosely defines constitutional decision-making as being any set of rules (two or more) governing the decision-making process. These rules do not need to be formally codified nor do they need to extend beyond a single person to be constitutional. Any means of quelling the concerns of group members of the fence can secure unanimity, whether it be through persuasion or compensation/ lessening of any external costs imposed on them can settle a disagreement. The role of the compensation would have to be implied in the rules guiding decision-making. Much how the articulation of opposition needs to be tolerated from group members to avoid an agreement for a course of action everyone knew would be calamitous. All because the group members want to conform to what they perceived was the desired action of the group. Anyone in leadership needs to have a tacit or formal understanding with their subordinates or constituents that constructive criticism is welcomed. If not you may be taking a long ride to Abilene!

6 thoughts on “The Abilene Paradox And The Collective Action Problem Are Both Cut From The Same Cloth

    1. Will do! From everything I have read Duncan Black was a prominent forerunner of Public Choice Theory. Being infatuated by this particular school of political economy I probably should learn more about the work of Black, Arrow, and Olson. Few people realize that Mises oddly enough was influential on Public Choice. Especially the emphasis on methodical individualism (which he beat to death in Human Action (1949) ). Also, Gordon Tullock was quite fascinated by Mises’s work.

      This post was influenced by my impulses to apply a peculiar blend of Public Choice,New Institutional Economics, and Game Theory to management theory. At work, all I see are group decision-making problems with little understanding of how to migate workers with different “utility functions”. A simpler way of putting workers with divergent interests. How do you balance these preferences and concerns into a manageable and quick solution?

      That’s the cardinal sin of assuming Public Choice only applies to political processes. I ( a layman) interpret it to be the branch of political economy that studies group-decision making. Which can be extrapolated to apolitical contexts. It’s been applied to biker gangs and HOAs, why not apply the theory to office management?

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Same here. I respect Buchanan and all, but I prefer Tullock’s writing style. After reading a few solo papers from both , I feel pretty confident in expressing this opinion. Also, one of the most readable chapters in Calculus was based off of a paper written by Tullock.

          Liked by 1 person

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