The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox

There are two reasons to be Libertarian. Reason 1 – You instinctively trust the majority of citizens and have a respect for their understanding and logic – strict governing isn’t necessary. Reason 2 – You instinctively distrust all majorities and simply want to prevent people from having any influence over you whenever possible.


I’ll take option 2 please.


Now, I don’t think humanity is a wasteland of dysfunction without the ability to even manage itself (well…). However, there are some instinctive flaws in the way people work, and these are unfortunately magnified in democracy.

1 – Jason and I fundamentally disagree about the reelection of politicians. His premise is that people like their own representatives, but dislike the body of representation as a whole. Let’s look at the Oakland Raiders on a quick tangent. Oakland has a strong fanbase (Passionate enough to throw eggs at the opposing teams’ buses). However, the Raiders are winless, now almost halfway into the season. Those fans don’t enjoy losing, and they don’t like the team more because it’s the worst team in the NFL. They like the Raiders because they have no other options, because the Raiders are their team, because the Raiders represent them. To dislike the Raiders would be to dislike themselves.

One more quick trip down to Arizona, where I was an unfortunate resident for far too many summers. Arizona’s senior senator (in more ways than one) is John McCain – failed presidential candidate and “maverick” (yes the quotes are to highlight the sarcasm). I was present for two of John McCain’s reelection campaigns. Here’s the typical breakdown of a John McCain win (just FYI – it’s easier to be a Raiders fan than a truly passionate McCain supporter).


Round 1 – The Primary – A few notable challengers stand up at each contest. Immigration is usually the hot button issue (Arizona wants stricter immigration laws, for the most part, while John McCain favors a far more relaxed policy) that gets people excited. The arguments are laid out, debates are held, the constituency (if it was watching) can see that the challengers are much more closely aligned with their beliefs. And then after all of the dog and pony show is over – ‘well yeah but you have to vote John McCain, he’s the only one that can win in the general election. We can’t risk losing to a democrat and letting them get a super majority’.


Round 2 – John McCain wins primary


Round 3 – The majority party, in arizona’s case – republicans, openly discusses their dislike of McCain but ultimately “He’s better than a democrat”


Round 4 – John McCain wins general Election


If you travel around America, you will find a similar story repeated over and over. This is where my belief comes from that America doesn’t vote FOR anything, but rather AGAINST ideas, people, and parties. A majority of Arizona does not like John McCain. They don’t support his policies, they don’t approve of almost anything he does. What they approve of is the big R next to his name.


Then there’s the Abilene paradox. The story goes that a family is sitting around on a hot morning in Texas. The father-in-law suggests they take a drive to Abilene. He doesn’t actually want to go to Abilene, but suggests it thinking someone else might want to. Each person in the family doesn’t want to go for various reasons, but none raises concerns as they think everyone else wants to go. It’s a long, dusty ride to Abilene, and everyone has a miserable time. Each person feels that they are suffering to allow others to have a good time, when in reality everyone’s suffering is equal and there is no positive outcome from their willingness to compromise.


Typically the paradox is applicable to group thinking in regards to projects and management, though I think a case can be made for voting as well. People far too often vote for what they think is best for others (a noble albeit doomed motivation). Voters would be expert at choosing what is best for them, but they don’t do it nearly often enough.

For instance – the big battle for my senator this year is women’s birth control issues. Now I’m not a woman, I’m not married, and as an engineer – I talk to a woman once every few months. This issue could not be farther from something that actually affects me directly. Of course, just stating that will rile some feathers, as it’s not correct to say an issue of equality doesn’t affect you. But that’s exactly my point. It doesn’t affect me. I, personally, should not be voting for what I THINK a woman would want or SHOULD want. Women should vote for what affects them, absolutely, but I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t because I don’t know, can’t know. And as soon as I start voting based on my best guesses for what people want…well then we all end up on a dusty drive to Abilene.


Here are just two brief glimpses of the reality gaps that cause voters to create a government that doesn’t actually represent their true desires or best interests. There are many more. It is how people operate – if they were different maybe my political philosophies would be different. I’ll leave that discussion to our topic on parallel universes. As reality is, I’m libertarian because I don’t think people have demonstrated an adequate ability to create a government that is accurately representative.

So let’s just keep the unrepresentative government to a minimum and go enjoy the Raiders’ winless season in freedom.

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Jacob Morgan

Free until proven governed

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One Response to The Abilene Paradox

  1. I think you’re opening paragraph gets to the heart of our disagreement. While I would favor smaller government in many instances (and simply less interference by government in many more), I am generally more concerned about the influence of powerful individuals or non-majority groups than I am about the tyranny of the majority.

    You are (mostly) right about McCain. There’s certainly no love lost between him and Republican activists. Many of them would prefer another candidate. But not enough of them to overcome the large majority of Republican primary election voters who prefer him to any of the actual challengers he has faced. Nor are their enough that are thoroughly dissafected to risk his defeat in the general election. You suggest that all some of these voters like is the R by his name. But that’s a significant element of who he is. Yes, his “maverick” moves get more attention, but almost all of what he actually does (in terms of votes, campaigning, and congressional work) is solidly in the mainstream of Republican Party priorities. Elections aren’t about perfect candidates but about choosing the best of a serious of imperfect candidates.

    I wasn’t sure what this had to do with anything until I re-read your closing statement. I hadn’t given much thought to this – a distrust of our representation system – as a reason for libertarianism. That seems to me to overlap (or possibly overlay) your choices described at the opening. It doesn’t really matter much whether you understand voters in positive or negative terms if you believe that the representative system is fatally flawed. A government that can’t represent it’s citizens loses its democratic legitimacy. In that case, restrain makes immanent sense, since the government is basically a foreign entity. Which is an attitude I’ve always struggled to understand, so that’s another thing you’ve taught me about libertarianism (and much conservatism).

    (I’m thrown by your Abilene Paradox example. Do you really think that’s the problem with our political system – too much misplaced empathy? I generally assume that people do their best to vote their personal interests.)

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