Consensus

So, as much as I am supportive of all the effort from my colleagues on the upcoming referendum, how about we break for one of my old standbys- decision-making systems! 😉

In a democratic society like New Zealand, we’re so used to voting with the aim of our lot achieving at least 50+% that we often forget that this isn’t the only way to make decisions along democratic lines- it’s only one criteria for making democratic decisions, and is actually known as majoritarian decision-making. Sometimes criticised as “mob rule”, it is good that majoritarianism isn’t our only democratic option, as it tends to give the majority who don’t really have the same vested interest in certain topics (like say, minority rights) the power to override the minorities that do. The Green Party champions a lot of causes that suffer from majoritarian decision-making, so it’s not surprising that we have a lot in common with some other approaches.

Another great way to make decisions in a democratic by consensus, the process of seeking agreement rather than trying to ram through a pre-selected decision- that is, you propose a policy, and change it until you get to the point where it can no longer be improved for one person without sacrificing its quality in the eyes of somebody else. You could say that in a majoritarian system everyone has one vote, while in a consensus system, everyone has a veto, but is expected to try to avoid using it. Consensus based decision-making is excellent for bodies with a large amount of commonality, such as issues campaigns, human rights groups, scientific institutions, or sometimes even broad democratic institutions with very monotonous demographics. There’s great precedent for consensus models, ranging from the scientific community in general to open-source freethinkers like Wikipedia to free-trade advocates like the World Trade Organization. It can also be useful to paint the broad strokes of a policy while commonality still remains, and then a more majoritarian system1 can be resorted to for more contentious details if necessary. The great power of consensus is that it tends to force people who normally aren’t interested in each others’ viewpoints into trying to come to a decision that pleases as many people as possible, raising awareness of everyone’s issues, rather than the issues that are most likely to matter to a “swing” group that could push different factions beyond the majority. Decisions made by consensus tend to avoid missing opportunities to improve upon decisions for minority groups in inexpensive ways that just aren’t interesting enough to be a big issue under majoritarian systems, and can be an excellent way of dealing with diverse groups, so long as there is enough agreement on general principles.

While bodies like parliament will probably never manage to operate on a purely consensus basis because there are too many fundamental disagreements between parties, acting to gain a consensus until you reach a fundamental agreement tends to be a productive and enlightening attitude. My fundamental belief in this principle was one of my attractions to the “style” of politics I saw from Green MPs: working with anyone who you can reach an agreement on the issues with is just a somewhat weaker version of “always seek consensus before disagreeing”.

1Such as a super-majoritarian system where 90% or 75% must agree to make a decision.

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One thought on “Consensus

  1. Hmm, missed this while I was poorly last week
    – a good summary of how consensus works, Ari; much better than the ‘short-for-morons’ version I posted on a comment at Frogblog a while back, which got wildly misinterpreted.. so much for informing anyone!

    It’s going to take a long time for ‘mainstream’ to pick up on consensus.
    After all, this concept was taken up by social action groups in the 70’s in the USA, after observing native american tribal council consensus proceedings … it’s never caught on outside political activist circles, despite ongoing use.
    California is the state most likely to take it up for municipal use, but even there the status quo is still popular.

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