Concerning organizational recklessness

Tom Schelling explains the Enron affair, the war in Iraq, and the Foley Follies: an organization may act recklessly not because it’s full of reckless people, but because it’s so full of cowards that no one dares say, “We can’t get away with this.”

Tom Schelling’s many friends are taking the occasion of his Nobel Prize to celebrate him in various ways. Last week was the Schelling Symposium organized by Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland, where I am spending the fall as the (ahem) first Thomas C. Schelling Visiting Professor of Public Policy. Tonight was a Forum event and dinner at the Kennedy School. Both were populated by star-studded groups of thinkers, and it’s been fascinating to hear about the many different lessons the speakers have taken away from talking to, and reading, Tom.

The central intellectual themes seemed to be:

* The common interest of adversaries in keeping conflict within limits;

* The problem of credible commitment and the advantage of closing off options;

* Tipping;

* Failures of cooperation in multi-player games;

* Focal points;

* The importance of small incentives;

* Mixing and sorting;

* The divided self and the strategic problem of self-command.

That’s an impressive roster of general ideas; personally, I’d sell my soul to Satan to have come up with even one idea that size. But equally impressive were the multiple flashes of illumination about wide ranges of behavior.

My own favorite Schelling insight is from an essay, which I read years and years ago and whose title I’ve forgotten, on the topic of organizational command and control. I can’t quote it precisely, but I find the thought coming up again and again: it applies, for example, to the invasion of Iraq, the collapse of Enron, and the failure of the House Republican leaders to get a handle on the Foley Follies before the situation blew up in their faces. I’m confident that what follows is a fairly close paraphrase:

When you see an organization acting recklessly, don’t leap to the conclusion that the people running the organization are themselves reckless. Perhaps they’re all such cowards that none of them dares to say to the others, “We can’t get away with this.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

3 thoughts on “Concerning organizational recklessness”

  1. I think Schelling got that one wrong, at least in the case of the Bush administration: these guys are all such cowards that none of them dares to say to *himself*, "We can't get away with this."

  2. I'd considered taking up your offer. I merely need to know if you are positive? One soul, one idea…

  3. Decisionmaking Models and the Control of Corporate Crime
    Yale Law Journal, Vol. 85, No. 8 (Jul., 1976), pp. 1091-1129
    is what google shows up for 'Schelling Organizational Recklessness'
    I don't have access to the full text, but I believe (from Google) that the full reference is in that article. Also you may have cited it in an article you wrote for Brookings on 'neopaternalism'.

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