How Authority Avoids Accountability

And how to recover agency

In a previous post, I discussed how people tend to avoid responsibility:

No one likes being responsible for something going wrong. It feels bad when people get upset at you, whether or not there was anything you could've done to prevent the negative outcome. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that individuals look to offload their responsibility onto other things. "It wasn't me, X made me do it!" "Don't blame the player, blame the game." These sentiments are common throughout society.

In particular, Power tends to obfuscate itself via bureaucracy in order to avoid accountability:

Bureaucracy transforms Power from being the clear imposition of a rule by a single Ruler and instead turns it into this amorphous blob, too complicated and treacherous to even properly investigate, that releases the decrees. Of course, someone is making the decisions, but we don't ever engage with them...Somewhere in these systems there are individuals making intentional decisions.


when it isn't clear where sovereignty lines, you can't be sure who is making decisions nor why they are making those decisions. You don't know how to effectively respond. In fact, your response may end up strengthening the very system you are trying to oppose. Any effective rebellion against such an obfuscated system can only be successful by accident.

Bureaucracy allows individual actors to avoid accountability by providing them a "place" to point when asked "who is responsible for this." Of course, this finger-pointing goes on forever, until observers can only be angry at "the system" since no individual part of the system seems to have any agency - somehow the system has acquired its own intentionality.

This is, of course, ludicrous. These actions are being taken by individuals, either of their own accord or via the direction of others. Ultimately, someone is responsible for these decisions.

But what happens if I do know who is responsible for making the decisions? What if I know you made the decision, can you still avoid accountability? Yes, quite easily in fact. Bureaucracy is not the only way accountability for decisions is hidden.


In the same way one can hide within "the System", one can also hide within a crowd. Herding, the process by which we make decisions to conform with others, allows people to avoid responsibility since they were just "going with the crowd." When confronted with scenarios where our choices may put our job at risk, for instance, we are more likely to act as other people act. Having recourse to consensus allows us to more easily defend our actions. And consensus is not a person. I cannot point to consensus the same way I can point to you.

Instruments: Models, Theories, and the Like

Especially as our computers become more powerful and our theories become (allegedly) more sophisticated, decision-making appears driven more and more by extra-human entities. Instruments do not have intentionality. An econometric model cannot, itself, make a decision. An individual must make the decision, informed by the instruments. The issue of course is that individuals offload their responsibility onto the instruments. A computer is never making any kind of decision. But a computer must never "make" a management decision in that the individual using it to make the decision can never put the responsibility onto the computer for the decision they made.

Recovering Agency

It should come as no shock that as decision-making has become more abstract and obscured, our theories reflect this. Some of the most prominent theorists in economics and sociology have a tendency to see the role of agency as insignificant compared to these supposedly extra-human forces. Capital or Sovereignty or various other forces that somehow define us from the outside. Weber, Marx, Schumpeter, Bourdieu, and many others are guilty of this. We begin to see Systems instead of Men. Of course, these Systems are incomprehensible, fully impossible, absent the actions of Men. Man is not wholly determined by the Systems he is born into. We are shaped by our context but then our own creative agency allows us to reshape that context. The structures we inhabit are reshaped each moment by our decisions. Our behaviors cannot be reduced to structural forces, cognitive wiring, or rational calculation. A recognition of the importance of agency as building, maintaining, and transforming the structures we live in is crucial. This leaves us with two conclusions:

1. Formalism

Holding those with power accountable is critical to a pro-social society:

hiding responsibility allows elites to engage in greater anti-social behavior without receiving the proportionate blame. If a King stole $1 trillion over the course of a decade, there would be a revolution. But if the Pentagon does it? Nothing. No response whatsoever, beyond some angry news articles. So not only does bureaucracy make rebellion impossible, it tends to incentivize the very actions that lead to the people desiring to rebel!

An anti-bureaucratic politics, one which formalizes decision making such that it is always clear who is responsible for each decision, must de-obfuscate Power. Such a process can be democratic, monarchical, republican, etc. But it must clearly delineate where Power lies.

2. Emancipation...or not?

Our ideas truly do shape reality. Our actions are determined by our ideas, and reshape the structures we live in. Nor are out ideas wholly determined by said structures or broader context. Considering this, it is easy to jump to the prospect of emancipatory politics via agency.

Understand: agency matters, but the importance of any particular person's agency scales with the amount of power they have. The whims of a king have vastly more impact than the eccentricities of your working class neighbor. Furthermore, emancipation can only occur if the ideas being presented are genuinely emancipatory. Various anti-capitalist politics, for instance, are incapable of providing any substantive moral grounding beyond Autonomy-worship, which inevitably leads back into commodification and through to capitalism once again. Crypto-capitalists abound on the Left. Most of our "rebellious" ideas are actually wholly aligned with the system, just slapping a new aesthetic onto the same form. Without actually escaping the foundations of a system, an idea can never truly have any emancipatory potential.

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