« Irrational voters | Main | The (non) politics of stagnation »

November 20, 2013


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Luis Enrique

Is some component of managerial wages compensation for shouldering responsibility?

only anecdotal, but many of those of my peers who have climbed the greasy pole report that the sensation of responsibility weights heavily upon them.


"I'm looking for the least possible amount of responsibility." (Kevin Spacey in American Beauty)
I'm not sure that aversion to responsibility is irrational, nor that there's little demand for direct democracy (try to take it back where it exists, like in Switzerland...).
But the conclusion, the urge for someone to take responsibility as a general force driving society is convincing enough, and calls for further thoughts on the subject.


Luis, you would think that managerial posts have greater weight of responsability, but my (cynical) observation is that often those who are good at moving up organizational hierarchies are those who are good at being seen as originating change while not being directly responsible for it being followed through. Being responsible (in the sense of being organizationally accountable or in the sense of holding yourself accountable) anchors you in place while others make the plans around you.


Its not accidental but a created condition. One reason for the greater support for individualist ideas in the US is because of the greater persistence of an essentially peasant economy, i.e. not only still lots of small farmers, but of mom and pop businesses. As Rousseau essentially describes in "The Social Contract", it is that material basis of peasant having to make choices and decisions that affect their daily lives that leads in the Swiss village commune to Libertarian ideas, and a desire for the State to basically leave them alone to get on with doing that.

In the 19th century, workers carried that forward, but in a suitably modified form. Individualism was no longer suitable for their needs in a situation where individually owned means of production were no longer viable. But, workers continued to take responsibility for their own lives, but now via their own collective organisations - Trades Unions, Co-operatives, Friendly Societies and ultimately political parties.

But, the capitalist state recognised the danger of that of what Marx called workers "self government". So, the capitalist state swallowed up the money from the Friendly Societies under workers control, and called it National Insurance, thereby concentrating control in the hands of Capital, via the Welfare State.

The basic message of the Welfare State that workers do not have to take responsibility for their lives - either individually or collectively - is a deliberate and conscious element of why Capital established such welfarism in all developed economies. It is a central aspect even of George Osbourne's "Help To Buy" scam - can't be arsed to save money, or wait a few years to buy an over inflated house, don't worry the state will underwrite your deposit. The same thing applies to people buying houses in flood plains and then being surprised when their house gets flooded, or in Australia, buy a wooden house in the middle of a forest, and wonder why it gets burned down.

But, this welfarism serves another purpose too. In these latter cases it bails out builders and insurance companies, but welfarism in general covers corporate welfarism such as the bail out of the banks.

Its why Marx favoured Income tax, so that workers could see how much the state was ripping them off, and act to restrain its activities. Unfortunately, today even supposed Marxists adopt the opposite stance, having little faith in workers ability to exercise "self-government", and instead encouraging them to believe in the power of the state to resolve every problem, even those that are not resolvable.

Luis Enrique

DBonar well maybe in some cases but I certainly know of people who reported a step change in their stress levels upon promotion to management.


"there is no demand for the explicit introduction of deliberate randomness into public affairs"

On randomness in politics. The Venetian method of selecting a Doge (= President) always impressed me. To overcome the violent partisan politics of early modern Italy, a eight-step method of forming a selection committee was put in place. As I remember three of the steps reduce large groups of say 30 to a smaller one of about 8 via random selection (which would then nominate the next group).

Randomization was effectively used to put an end to partisan politics. See Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic for details.

Deviation From the Mean

"It could be that our desire for bosses - in politics and at work - arises from the same motive as the desire for a planned economy rather than the chaos of the market, or the belief in God."

Ahistorical claptrap, as Boffy suggests in his post.

Deviation From the Mean

Boffy said,

"The basic message of the Welfare State that workers do not have to take responsibility for their lives - either individually or collectively"

It is also the basic message of parliamentary democracy.

"Unfortunately, today even supposed Marxists adopt the opposite stance, having little faith in workers ability to exercise "self-government", and instead encouraging them to believe in the power of the state"

No, Marxists advise workers to take control of the state in order to undermine the power of the bourgeois. A very definite bit of taking responsibility.

Churm Rincewind

For an elegant exegesis of sortition, I strongly recommend Borges' story "The Babylonian Lottery" which postulates a society in which all decisions are random, with its famous opening lines: "Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment", and Barbara Goodwin's subsequent and provocative "Justice and the Lottery".


re Luis. Certainly there can be more stress from a promotion to management. For lots of different reasons. Speaking purely for myself, one source of such stress is a desire to act responsibly in tension with a realization that what I would get praised, paid, and promoted for was blaming others (though more usually framed as 'making' others act responsibly. That step into management means being "in charge" of projects larger than you can personally make happen. Either you stress over things you can't control or you learn to make sure you are clearly seen as the originator of ideas but just as clearly not accountable for their delivery.


Well, if you don't know and can't find out then flipping a coin is as good as any. Useful in some admin roles but not helpful to an oilrig designer.

Perhaps those filling in the German uni form felt that after filling in what they wanted for the first two or three choices they might as well scramble the remainder. The reason, by that stage they were not getting what they wanted and a random choice would be as good as any and might even be interesting. Another possibility is that simply reordering the list just 'looks stupid'.

Perhaps those who tend to take responsibility have (or think they have) a better idea of what to do than those with no clue. Perhaps they have been in the Scouts or had some responsibility at home or at a Saturday Job.

Surely direct democracy or worker participation is a tiresome burden most folk don't want. Who wants to attend a boring meeting on a wet night after work. One feels the noisy and bossy will end up dominating anyway so let them do it from the boardroom.

Frances Woolley

Interesting. I think it's important to distinguish between responsibility and control. The reason that management can be stressful is that there's too much of the former and not enough of the later. E.g. an dean or department chair might be responsible for ensuring that student enrolment targets are met, but have little control over anything that actually influences enrolment numbers (the number of people of university age, the university's reputation, tuition fees, teaching methods, etc etc).

I don't see any shortage of people looking for control over their lives (or the lives of other people, for that matter). But to the extent that responsibility means bad things happen to you when things go wrong and good things happen when things go right - people are risk averse. We knew that.

The last line is beautiful - "Humankind cannot bear very much randomness" - but wrong. Humankind bears a lot of randomness, because we have to. Doesn't mean we have to like it.


Frances points to the key issue here: it's largely meaningless to talk about responsibility in this way without talking about control. I'd also add (since it's often overlooked even though it is part of control) information.

Anyone who has thought through the uni process should be aware that beyond some large grained reputation effects, there is actually very little information to base a uni decision on.

To take a UK analogy of my own uni choice. I knew I wanted to be in engineering, so the top choices in the UK were Cambridge and Imperial.

After that in my sub-field of interest you could look at Bristol, Edinburgh, Aston and a few others. But there was (and is) very little in the way of meaningful information with which to separate them. They were on a par academically, offered similar courses, and similar brochures about their teaching style, quality etc. Same for living conditions. (Of course one can refine the choice by your image of the wider city involved, but you get my point.)

So taking responsibility for the choice between those second-tier choices was largely meaningless. And if you weren't in the running for Cambridge or Imperial to begin with then fundamentally the whole set of your choices could be an amorphous mass.


Thank you Frances. What I am trying to point out is that it seems that many people who are 'good' managers -- in the sense of being comfortable in the role -- are often people who can shift the responsability. Conciously or unconciously they have recognized that they don't have control and they make sure that their peers and (especially) their superiors see that they don't have control and that other people let them down.

Basically, if you personally feel the weight of responsability while realizing you don't have control, you are become a nervous wreak. If for one reason or another, you can _avoid_ that feeling of responsability, you may be able to manage. There are both positive and negative mental habits that can lead to that lack of a feeling of overwhelming responsability.


Because it is easy to read what I've been saying as purely cynical -- that managers are just about shifting the blame, abusing their subordinates, grabbing the glory and heading off to expense account dinners while others work -- I want to put out a positive version as well.

If your own sense of responsability means you feel compelled to know and understand all details of any project you manage, you probably won't be able to manage projects much larger than you could do personally. You also probably won't be able to manage anyone who is as good as or better than you at the tasks required. You canot have total control and if you can't let go of a feeling of total personal responsability, you will (likely) breakdown.

That said, I do think that the negative side of the same thing is that for some people it is actually an advantage that they lack a strong sense of personal responsability because it helps them move up the hierarchy more easily.



"Surely direct democracy or worker participation is a tiresome burden most folk don't want. Who wants to attend a boring meeting on a wet night after work. One feels the noisy and bossy will end up dominating anyway so let them do it from the boardroom."

Workers already have to participate in both as part of the work process. Capitalist production is based on c-operative labour via the division of labour. That co-operation already requires that workers as part of the work process communicate with each other, and make decisions. They do not do it at outside meetings, but as an integral aspect of doing their job.

Extending that to making wider decisions within the factory does not have to be something you do separately either, especially if you feel that you do really own the factory especially, and the decisions you make about its functioning immediately and materially affect you.

Deviation From The Mean

"Surely direct democracy or worker participation is a tiresome burden most folk don't want."

I guess rogerh would also have to say this about work itself. Would he then propose that people don't have to work? The answer is no because he has an agenda.

In my experience people want to work and want a say in how their organisation is run. If workers were running organisations I suspect the downside of attending meetings would be more than made up for by other improvements.

Incidentally, one distinction that I think you could make between big firms and small ones is in how employees get involved in meetings. In large organisations many many employees attend boring meetings (trust me I know). The biggest development in management in recent times has been a shift to a 'democratic' management style, which in effect is using the employees greater knowledge of the organisation and customers to inform the plans and objectives of the organisation, without paying them a management fee. A con basically. But even capitalism recognises that the workers are an essential part of managing a successful business. What the workers need to understand is that managers and owners aren't!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Why S&M?

Blog powered by Typepad