Functional Limitations of Consensus

Imagine an organization that governs itself through a "consensus decision-making process."
The underlying goal of "consensus decision-making" is to arrive at decisions that everyone involved can "live with." In that way you empower minority opinions, encourage dissent to be shared, encourage creative resolution of problems, discourage the formation of cliques and voting blocks, and avoid hierarchical decision making.

In the early years of this organization "consensus" is an essential part of community-building. It is a way to get everyone to feel and be involved with the decisions of the group. It fostered understanding, critical thinking, creative problem solving, and friendship. Everyone knows everyone else and generally cares what the other people think and how they feel about decisions and issues.

At some point between a organizational population of 80 and 120 the process slowly stops working so well. Its hard to know everybody, some old members have moved on, and there are many new faces. But most old committees are still made up of the old members, meanwhile fewer and fewer people are attending the governing meetings in which major decisions are made. More people join the group who are only interested in the more peripheral activites of the organization and are not especially interested in spending time discussing procedural decisions.

The major decisions thus begin to fall more and more into the hands of a core group mostly made up of older members, with the occasional diligent newbie. Suddenly or rather gradually an inner clique is formed who spend many hours in monthly meetings, work hard through difficult decisions, and generally keep the organization afloat.

Somewhere along the way consensus evolves not into a means of empowering minority viewpoints, and encouraging dissent but an idea you abide by. Consensus comes to mean we all agree, a holy harmonious concept, not to be broken lightly. To disagree is to destroy the consensus, to tell others you disagree is to undermine the process, and a new terrible word emerges: "divisiveness."

Divisive individuals are a threat to the harmony and consensus of the group. Divisive individuals divide the group by telling individuals outside of the inner clique about decisions that have been made, thus exposing potential diagreement and thereby creating a "division" in the group. Thus in the event a member of the group disagrees with a decision made by those effectively running it they are left with two options become a divisive force by voicing dissent or be silent.

"Divisive" individuals are accused of creating an "us vs them" mentality and encouraged to leave. In truth the organization has already become divided, and the "consensus decision-making process" had actually fallen apart long ago. The group is now subject to all the major organizational failings you sought to avoid with the consensus process to begin with: Group Think, disempowered minorities, habitual and hierarchical decision making, minority/majority tyrannies, and the false consensus effect.

This is only one possible outcome of consensus governing over the long-term and with a steady population growth. There are other possible stumbling blocks (see criticisms of consensus decisiom-making at

Specifically this is the experience I've had with such a group, and while I'm certainly not willing to give up on the idea of "consensus" and the idea of "unanimous consent of the governed," it seems that it may turn out to be a little more complicated than the many grand speculations in libertarian fiction would have us believe. Ultimately I suspect any governing system/process will only be as good as the brains that participate in it.

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Is this breakdown possibly a

Is this breakdown possibly a sign that you're deliberating on topics that should be made by individuals rather than the group, or maybe that the group should be split into different voluntary subgroups for the purpose of this decision?

I was a member of an

I was a member of an organization constituted to require concensus on certain sorts of decisions, and indeed had to chair two "concensus meetings." I can say with absolute certainty that beyond about thirty people it would have become completely unworkable. I bet it would break down from the simple logistical nightmares of determining whether concensus existed (a bit of a fuzzy concept itself) and how to operate the debate of an issue to avoid holdouts, long before any of the really serious pathologies had a chance to rear their heads. In the absence of of the social incentives of a small group, concensus decisionmaking degenerates into unanimity decisionmaking, and unanimity simply does not scale.

This is not to say that concensus is a bad way to make decisions. Concensus, I firmly believe, is the right way to make decisions. Rather, it is an argument that the right size for the state is around thirty or at most forty.

One of the features of large

One of the features of large group decision-making has to do with the way things can be voted on.
If, when something comes to a vote, people are asked to specify their choices as a priority list, ie, their favorite choice is A, then B, then C, it turns out that when there is a lot of disparity in the group there is a much greater likelihood that that no one's favorite will win.
For example, if many people choose A, then B, then C, and another large group C, then B, then A, the choice B will win, even though it was no one's preferred choice. Thus, mediocrity becomes the norm, and everyone is unhappy with the group's choice.
Another way of looking at this is that the least objectionable choice always wins, which is something far different than trying to choose the best.

I wasn't trying to rule it

I wasn't trying to rule it out. I'm saying it can evolve the same flaws and potential tyranny that many other systems have. Systems that we generally deem oppressive and want to change.

I fail to see the problems

I fail to see the problems with what you're saying. Your problem is that you are evaluating consensus as a stand-alone. If you compare consensus and democracy, you would realize that consensus decision-making is AT WORSE as bad as democracy. Sure, it's not perfect, but people aren't.

It's also ironic that

It's also ironic that Wikipedia has an entry on the problems of consensus decision-making, since Wikipedia itself is a consensus system. And probably the biggest one in history.

Francois, You are really


You are really just repeating my last idea ("governing systems are only as good as the people involved") but not as well as it was originally written. I don't see the point of your comment.

I think the point is that

I think the point is that decisions end up getting made somehow. So one cannot rule out a decision-making system by criticism, only by comparison.

But I don't know that you were trying to rule out consensus.

Francois, Consensus also


Consensus also works better when there is less at stake (ie, less to gain by stonewalling) and the members don't know each other well (less personal animosities). Wikipedia - which isn't purely consensus, because if you keep changing stuff against everyone else's will people will often just change it back, also adding costs to stonewalling - fits both criteria. A consensus-based homeowners association on Wisteria Lane would work less well.

excellent last point! Why

excellent last point! Why involve concensus decision making in most matters in the first place. The more choice parcelled out to relevant individuals and specific groups the better. In many liberal democracies these days we get the idea instilled in our heads that its necessary for "everyone to have a say", Why? Why not just those directly affected, and not some sloppily defined "stakeholders". Organizational systems should be designed as much as possible to work on an individual basis in order to achieve maximum effectiveness, in my opinion.

The F/OSS community

The F/OSS community implements what I think may be the best solution to the problems of consensus: forking. The cost to fork an open source project is fairly low, with the major risk being that one of the organizations created by the split may not survive, or that both will lose vitality. In most cases of forks, however, the effect seems to have been beneficial to the community at large. I switched from Debian to Ubuntu, which is the closest thing to a serious fork Debian has seen (Debian encourages OSes based on its base, but Ubuntu has been sucking people away like no other Debian-based OS ever has). When the XFree86 people decided to adopt an extremely unpopular license change, the major distributions switched over to X.Org very quickly, with the eventual result that we have a new, more vital X server with the original license that everybody liked and XFree86 is now pretty much irrelevant.

Now if only we could fork states :)

I've done Consensus meetings

I've done Consensus meetings in large groups. Hell, I've facilitated them.

They aren't exactly fun meetings, but it certainly works, and is more satisfactory in the long run than any other system I've used. It takes practice, hard work, and dedication, and can often include interpersonal conflicts, but in truth, any divisions that come up in consensus-run organisations are likely lurking under the surface in others.

Consensus' biggest advantage is it encourages creative thinking. Instead of two positions with one eventually winning, you have people looking for different solutions which everyone can live with. This can happen in other systems, but often doesn't

The biggest disadvantage is it takes time and people tend to talk in circles, but this can be mitigated with some formalized systems to keep the meeting on track, and everyone needs to be familiar with the system.

In real life, the block is rarely invoked.

Actually I love the idea of

Actually I love the idea of consensus, especially when it comes to creating new solutions to problems. And the organization I am involved with that uses it does delegate smaller decisions to committees and in some cases individuals. The committees are actually part of the problem we are having. They've become a bit territorial, and since no one is paying that much attention to what they do as long as they are staying on their relative "turfs" they are able to make controversial decisions that many outside their working group disagree with. Thus "consensus" at this point in the organization seems to be more of a formality we have at the highest level of governance and not something we practice or use where it would be most beneficial (i.e. in the committees and subgroups that might put it into practical application in solving specific problems and issues).

I guess in a libertarian society you could opt out of your now cliquish heading for bureaucracy extraterrestrial-colonial government/society but once you had put all the work into building the colony why would you give it up so easily?

I don't think there is a fool-proof governing system for any organization, and consensus is a damn good idea. The question is how do you identify problems in advance, how do you work around them/fix them? When can you not fix them anymore? Maybe what went wrong in the scenario I described? How would you avoid that in a future organization/governing system? When should consensus not be used...etc.?

"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." (Thomas Jefferson) Maybe that statement is the most true in consensus governing.

Consensus is dogcrap. I

Consensus is dogcrap. I hate it. I loathe it with a passion I normally reserve for politicians and people who put flyers for hip-hop events on my car windshield while I'm parked outside restaurants.

I've been involved in my fair share of organizations, and my attitude towards consensus-based organizations has grown from my experiences therin. What it's left me with is the impression that attempts to operate via consensus reflect the idealistic wishes of the early organizers to be loved by everyone. "Let's make sure that whatever we do, everyone will like it! We're all in this together, after all, and everyone should count." You couldn't make a better recipe for disfunction and political infighting if you tried.

The best projects and organizations have a very small number of people with ownership and ultimate control - perhaps even a single person, but at most a very small group of people that can work well together and have visions for the organization that if not identical are at least compatible. More than five people and you're starting to push the limits.

The group of ultimate owners need lots and lots of people who share the vision well enough that they are willing to get involved, to take responsibility, to be given authority, to do good work and to be rewarded appropriately for it (financially, socially, personal satisfaction, whatever). Those people will end up doing all the work, and almost all of them will end up making important decisions - but their authority to do so should come from the owners and be given to them via delegation.

Consensus is still important - but it becomes a guideline rather than a requirement. The owners need to have consensus among themselves, which is easy if there's only one owner, and not so hard if there's only a few. The owners need to have consensus between themselves and the people they delegate authority to, but only on the matters within the scope of the delegated authority, and the consensus between owners X and delegate Y is independent of the consensus between X and delegate Z.

Ultimately, the organization will succeed or fail based on the soundness of the vision of the owners and the soundness of the decisions they make or allow their delegates to make on their behalf. Everyone else will join in with them if they like what the organization is doing and the decisions that the controllers are making. Poof, you now have the same effect as universal consensus - everyone who is on board agrees, because anyone who doesn't agree doesn't get on board (or jumps off at some point if things change). But in the meantime, decisions are actually getting made and things are actually getting done, and no time is being wasted trying to divine the one thing that everyone can agree to - if such a thing even exists.

Businesses work well this way. Militaries work well this way. Other organizations would work well this way too, and in fact the ones that work well do. But too many of them try to work using consensus and fail miserably.

If you want a simple but visceral demonstration of this, think about how long it takes for eight people to decide where to go to lunch.