Accountability is a word that gets abused a lot in day to day life. Just in the news last week was the firing – sorry, resignation under pressure – of Secretary Eric Shinseki, just now formerly head of the Veteran’s Administration and before that, a little backwater post as the Army Chief of Staff. Now, I don’t know anything bout Shinseki except what I read, and what I’ve read suggest that most people think he was an honorable and impressive man trying to head a massive bureaucracy with systemic failures accumulating over the decades. Except in the most formal of senses, Shinseki was not at fault for what happened at the V.A., (or even there for the origin of these problems) it just happened to blow up on his watch. This happens a lot, and maybe it’s a good thing. But whether we are normal, everyday people or professional reporters, we have got to stop calling it accountability when the head of an organization is fired, – sorry, pressured to resign – without regard to their actual connection to the events at hand. That’s not accountability, just an illusion.
The illusion of accountability makes us a feel a lot better about the world, and any substantive benefit is merely a happy accident. Actual substantive accountability sucks. Substantive accountability requires not only figuring not only who did what, but who could have done what, who knew and could have known, and what oughts flow from the cans and can’ts, and what is reasonable to expect from all of the actors. To hold someone accountable requires an accounting – for us to grasp the full weight and measure.
Worse than requiring an accounting, substantive accountability requires risk. It makes no sense to hold someone accountable for something they cannot have done better, and to give someone the control, that is, the power to avoid doing wrong means giving them the power to do wrong as well. A well designed system can adjust odds, fail elegantly, and create incentives, but it cannot eliminate the power of a person to do wrong if you want them to do right.
Illusory accountability doesn’t require any of that. It just requires a sort of consequentialism: something bad happens, the top of the totem pole gets axed. That may be an effective incentive structure, but let’s not confuse it with anything resembling a just outcome.
Yet confuse it we do. There are a lot of cognitive biases that drive otherwise good men and women to think remarkably bad things, but one of the worst is the phenomena known as the Just World Hypothesis. In brief, when learning that something terrible has happened to someone else, humans have a strong urge to believe (and vocalize that belief) that they brought it upon themselves. In other words, they blame the victim.1 You see somewhat different, but no less simplistically foolish cognitive biases mucking up the world. Take the Moral Clarity Hypothesis, where any evil result must be the result of an eminently culpable evil act.2 There are many more ways your brain lies to you but it is the ones that make you feel better that worry the most.
On some level, cognitive biases are inevitable, even useful. Too much focus on nuance can paralyze, and some sort of cognitive binning is the only way anything can get done. But it seems pretty evident to me that when it comes to “accountability” it’s really a toxic mix of protecting ourselves from hard questions and bloodlust. And maybe that’s supposed to be ok for the man-in-the-street to feel, but it’s coming from our political leaders, media figures, religious wisemen and learned academicians – the very people we rely on to stay smart and noble when the instinct is to be dumb and savage.
Illusory accountability is the tribute that virtue pays to vice.