Trust vs. Outsourcing Judgment

Modern life requires us to put a high degree of trust in those to whom we delegate responsibility

Kevin Drum has gotten some flak, including from this blog, for this passage:

If it had been my call, I wouldn’t have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I’d literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he’s smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.

Frankly, I didn’t think much of it at the time. Indeed, I used an earlier passage from the post — adding, “I agree, down to the comma, with every bit of that” — as a jumping off point for a discussion about the intervener’s dilemma. But, I must confess, Glenn Greenwald‘s juxtaposition of it with a similar quote from Britney Spears made me chuckle.

Still, I’ve read pretty much everything Kevin has written over the last eight years and had a pretty good idea what he meant. For those who didn’t, he elaborates in a follow-up:

I think pretty highly of Barack Obama’s judgment. But what does it mean to say that? Just this: that I think highly of his judgment even when I disagree with him. How could it be otherwise, after all? If, when you say that you trust somebody’s judgment, what you really mean is that you trust their judgment only to the extent that they agree with you, that’s hardly any trust at all. Just the opposite, in fact.

To make this more concrete, I also think highly of Glenn Greenwald’s judgment on issues of civil liberties and the national security state. This means that when he takes a different position than mine, it makes me stop and think. After all, we’re on roughly the same wavelength on these subjects, and they’re subjects that he’s often thought about longer and more deeply than me. This doesn’t mean that I’ve outsourced my brain to Glenn, but it does mean that he influences my judgment, and that’s especially true on issues that I’m unsure of.

Ditto for Obama. Unlike Glenn, perhaps, I’m unsure about the wisdom of our Libya intervention, and the fact that I’m unsure makes me more open to giving Obama’s judgment a fair amount of weight in this matter. That’s what it means to respect another person’s judgment. On the other hand, as my post made clear, it doesn’t mean that he’s persuaded me. As I said twice, I think the Libya intervention was mistake. I wouldn’t have done it. But partly because a president I respect disagrees, I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong. His position has made me stop and think. [emphases mine – jhj]

Because thinking about foreign policy–and specifically, the nature of intervention–is what I do for a living, I tend not to be very deferential on the subject. My opinions are pretty firm. Even so, there are a handful of people who, if their positions differ from mine, cause me to at least confront their arguments internally.

And, while I’m obviously not an Obama supporter, I completely understand why Kevin would strongly value his judgment on matters of national security policy. Aside from trusting his intellect and character, the fact of the matter is that the president–any president–has a team of extraordinarily smart people around him who are constantly being fed information from a network of thousands of smart people who do this for a living. That doesn’t mean they’re going to make the right decision–there’s a whole school of thought saying they’re prone not to–but they’ve got a better basis for decision-making that the average smart newspaper reader.

Hell, I do this for a living and am fully aware that I have only a cursory knowledge of Libya’s internal politics and the various factors in play in predicting the consequences of various actions and non-actions  on the part of the United States, our NATO and coalition allies, and the various anti-Gaddafi forces. My strong sense that neither do the people in charge of our policy-making happens to feed into my default position of Stay The Hell Out Of  Other People’s Civil Wars (pronounced StuhHoopChuhWaah.) And that’s reinforced by the fact that Robert Gates and the leadership of our intelligence community seems to share my trepidation.

On the other hand, guys like Steven Metz and Marc Lynch, who are not only far more expert in matters of insurgency and Middle East politics but have a better track record of prediction than I, make some pretty compelling arguments the other way. Like Kevin, not enough to change my mind. But enough to give me pause.

The nature of both representative democracy and complex modern societies requires us to put a high degree of trust in those to whom we delegate responsibility. We know that they’re generally smarter about their subject matters than we are, simply because that’s what they do.  By no means does that mean we should suspend skepticism or meekly accept judgments that strike us as wrong.  We should ask questions and diversify the range of expert opinions we consult. The greater the risk, the more skepticism and less deference is due. But starting with the proposition that those whom we reason reason to trust are probably doing the right thing is reasonable enough.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay Tea says:

    When I was in college, I met a gentleman (the campus minister) whose wisdom and judgment I respected tremendously (despite him being a very, very, very liberal politically). On several occasions, just hearing that he disagreed with my opinion forced me to not just question, but re-examine my own beliefs.

    But I still found I disagreed with him sometimes, and did so — vocally and publicly, but respectfully.

    Perhaps I should offer these gentlemen some advice on how to do so?

    J.

  2. Chad S says:

    I trusted Dubya re: Iraq at the time, but everyone connected to it can’t be trusted now since it was clear that even the higher ups(and Dubya) didn’t believe their own rhetoric about how much of a threat Iraq was, and then after the re-election it became clear that they didn’t care about actually fixing the nation-state they effectively broke(people forget that Bush resisted the surge as much as possible). Will Libya turn out to be a quagmire? Maybe. But I’ll give Obama the same benefit of the doubt until it looks like that they’re as full of shit at the W white house re: Iraq.

    Also working in Obama’s favor with this is that we don’t have nearly as much skin in the game here. No ground troops. Limited air strikes and it looks like we’re even less involved than that now.

  3. JKB says:

    But that trust is bounded by past experience with the individual to be trusted, not so good with Obama and his administration, and the explanation, by the individual to be trusted, Obama has offered little to reassure people he knows what he’s doing in Libya.

    Experience since Obama taking office has not given people the warm and fuzzy feeling that he or those closest to him are competent in foreign affairs. This may be due to their desire to deviate from the past approaches but changing course requires a lot of explanation to bring people along with the change. It doesn’t help that the action is in direct conflict with all that Obama has espoused in the past. Change of convictions requires a lot of explanation to mute skepticism. Nor does it help that the sense is that individuals in positions to have the same information the president has, seem to be less certain of the incursion and the expansion of the mission. And lastly, Obama has been unable to articulate a reasoned, thoughtful explanation of why Libya, why now, why not here, here or there.

    So yes, we must trust individuals with more information but the flip side is that they are given the benefit of a doubt but everyday they build or degrade that trust by their actions across the board and by their explanation of their actions. In time, an individual who has built trust through a long history of actions can act with minimal explanation, at least initially, because of that trust but Obama isn’t that individual.

  4. john personna says:

    Also remember the Bush administration’s “we have to wiretap illegally for reasons we can’t tell you.”

    Many here bought that line and defended it vigorously.

  5. Rock says:

    Modern life requires us to put a high degree of trust in those to whom we delegate responsibility.

    One of the first things a young military officer learns is that you can delegate authority … but you can never successfully delegate responsibility. That’s what every leader must learn. Ultimately, success or failure is your responsibility. Credit success to those to whom you delegated responsibility and take the blame if the endeavor was a failure.

    Leadership 101

  6. Rock says:

    Correction!

    Credit success to those to whom you delegated responsibility authority and take the blame if the endeavor was a failure.

  7. george says:

    Also remember the Bush administration’s “we have to wiretap illegally for reasons we can’t tell you.”

    Many here bought that line and defended it vigorously.

    Yup. In politics, trust is mainly about team sports.

    For small issues the most useful default position is trust. If you tell me there’s a traffic jam ahead I’m probably best off trusting you and taking an alternative route.

    For large issues (gov’t bending laws without going through Congress, going to war – Iraq, Libya, Grenada, Vietnam) the best default position is distrust. The gov’t has to make the case.

  8. steve says:

    ” And lastly, Obama has been unable to articulate a reasoned, thoughtful explanation of why Libya, why now, why not here, here or there.”

    Actually, he did. We had international support. Other countries that were willing to bear much of the load. Arab support. It was geographically in a favorable place. It was in between two countries having their own troubles that we were concerned about, especially Egypt. Those may not be strong enough reasons for you, but they were stated.

    Steve

  9. Tano says:

    I agree Steve. Obama made what I thought was a very good case for Libya. Not only on the specifics of the case but as part of a larger new approach – I’ll not call it a doctrine – in which the US uses its global leadership position to help organize coalitions that can assume primary responsibility for dealing with situations, like Libya, that are important, yet not vital to us.

    This directly and effectively address what all of us, on the left and the right, have been whining about for years – how the established international community that acknowledges us as the leader-nation, tends to rely on us exclusively to do all heavy lifting in international security issues. Europe and Japan, both places being roughly equally prosperous as us, contribute next to nothing to global security.

    Many American administrations have complained about that, but also were not willing to do much about it, because I suspect they kinda got off on being the one undisputed super-power, plus there is a lot of money to be made in defense industries.

    Obama has finally begun the work of building a more integrated international security regime, where eventually all countries will be expected to participate in line with their abilities and wealth. America will still play its own crucial role doing the things that no one else can do, but others will do what they can.

    It seems hard for many, especially the neocons, to wrap their heads around the notion that just because we are engaged in Libya, we do not need to be preeminently engaged, nor do we need to be the decisive force. Obama is doing this very much on purpose and it serves a very welcome goal.

  10. jwest says:

    (reposted from an earlier thread)

    Even though Drum is now trying to walk back his earlier admission to submission, he fails to explain where the original premise of Obama’s superiority came from.

    He believes Obama is smarter, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions and more farsighted than just about anyone. Where did this impression come from? What accomplishments did Obama have that led someone like Drum (and droves of liberals) to think that he possessed such wisdom that uncritically following this person was a good idea.

    Was the appearance of a clean, articulate black person such a revelation that they ignored that he hadn’t actually done anything in his life that could be classified as exceptional? Where did this adoration come from?

  11. Speaking of outsourcing judgment, Mr. Drum seems to have merely internalized his own progressive variant of a zero tolerance policy regarding questioning of Obama. Like others, I still wonder what the basis of all this abnegation of a superior intellect is.

  12. steve says:

    To your larger point James, I was in the same place with the Afghan surge. My gut feeling is that we had worn out our welcome. That the Afghan people would no longer be a part of any plan. However, the sources I read and respect who actually spend time in Afghanistan convinced me it was worth a trial. I think it is failing and we should be looking to end our COIN efforts.

    Steve

  13. JKB says:

    steve and Tano, you proved my point. Obama spoke but he did not explain. At least, not in a manner to instill confidence and trust. If he is making this change, then he really needs to sell it. Yet, outside the speech he was forced to give on Libya, we’ve seen nothing in his administration promoting this view in any concerted fashion.

    Trust is built/maintained by the little things. It can be lost by the smallest of things. And while deference and wait-and-see should be given to a new leader, that quickly evaporates as experience with the individual is gained. I see no reason to trust Obama’s judgement on Libya as he has offered nothing to support that trust other than his office.

    I suppose those eager to follow Obama are hoping this change is part of his master plan and they want to trust he has a plan.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    jwest:

    Intelligence in others is clearly visible to those who have it themselves. Think of it as gaydar, but with IQ. Smartdar.

    If you rounded up 100 people with superior intelligence (and honesty) and asked them whether Obama is intelligent, 95% would say he is.

    People who are not particularly intelligent have a hard time accurately perceiving that faculty in others.

  15. Tano says:

    Obama spoke but he did not explain. At least, not in a manner to instill confidence and trust.

    That is, of course, your own subjective assessment. I found his speaking to be sufficiently explanatory and it did inspire confidence that he is pursuing an objective (the one I outlined above) that I think good and wise.

    , outside the speech he was forced to give on Libya, we’ve seen nothing in his administration promoting this view in any concerted fashion.

    I think this approach is entirely consistent with his overall approach to foreign policy, which he has pursued all along. He believes that the Us, while remaining the most powerful and important country in the world, should lead not only with our dominant military force, but should use the full portfolio of “soft power” as well as hard – that means diplomatic, economic and political power exercised in the international arena with other countries playing far more active and involved roles. This is exactly what he has been talking about for years.

    Trust is built/maintained by the little things. It can be lost by the smallest of things.

    You must admit though, that in the modern political context, the existence of a blue and a red team, and the enormous daily barrage of propaganda out there meant to reinforce team loyalties, means that half the country is simply not willing to engage in this trust calculation in a rational manner. There are artificial barriers for people like you from assessing the reality of the situation in front of you, because of prejudices inherent to your political identity.

    And while deference and wait-and-see should be given to a new leader, that quickly evaporates as experience with the individual is gained. I see no reason to trust Obama’s judgement on Libya as he has offered nothing to support that trust other than his office.

    For example – your inability to see anything in his performance that warrants trust is just absurd. He has essentially left Iraq to play out according to the timetables and mechanisms that Bush set up, and in Afghanistan he has pursued far more of a serious effort to achieve success than anything Bush did since Dec. 2001, – including sending a surge of troops, highly unpopular with his base, in order to give a full chance to the strategy formulated by the best minds in out military. You may find fault with some aspects of the p0olicy, as with any, but you cannot deny that he has dealt with the issue in a serious and sober manner, deserving of trust.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    Continuing that thought, this is the problem with the more small ‘d’ democratic approach that George advocates so well in another thread. People who are not bright are more likely to fail to recognize the ability in others. I think this is partly because they exaggerate their own abilities. But mostly just that you cannot expect the average guy to be able to watch grandmaster level chess and really understand what he’s seeing.

    Failing to recognize ability leads to suspicion, and of course to a falling back on what seems to the not-bright to be tried-and-true beliefs. Failing to understand what’s going on around them they seize on what understanding they can find — usually supplied by some fraud, or by a religion or ideology.

    George and others make the argument that a leader’s job is to make things sufficiently clear that people of low or average intelligence can also grasp the basics. I don’t think that’s always possible.

    As to George’s question in the other thread whether or not, looking at history, I find that there’s a justification for a position of deference to authority, I’d say yes and no. Would I say that French peasants should trust Louis XIV? No. Would France have done better run by the peasants? No. Trust the Czar? No. Trust Lenin? Also no. But, did it turn out to be the case that FDR and Churchill could be trusted? Yes.

    But we don’t have czars or kings, we have presidents and we have enduring institutions. Because presidents can be removed after 4 years that buys them a degree of trust I wouldn’t extend to a hereditary monarch. It’s trust in 4 year increments.

    In the specific case of Libya, I don’t want Mr. Obama to tell me everything. If he tells me everything, he tells everyone everything. This is at its core a diplomatic matter, and diplomacy requires secrecy and a degree of deceit. So the choice to trust is the rational choice. Trust for now, watch the outcome, and judge on the basis of that outcome.

  17. reid says:

    Great post, Tano. Do the rightwing folks who post here really think that anyone believes they could trust Obama on anything? Of course they never will. Wrong team and all.

    Michael, I agree with your points, I’m just waiting for the screams of “elitist”….

  18. jwest says:

    Michael,

    “If you rounded up 100 people with superior intelligence (and honesty) and asked them whether Obama is intelligent, 95% would say he is.”

    I would agree with your statement.

    I would also agree that Barack Obama is an intelligent person, as is George Bush and Sarah Palin.

    Now that we have that out of the way, let’s return to discussion of Kevin Drum’s (and other liberals) submission to the greater wisdom of Obama. As I’m sure you’ll agree, intelligence is simply the capacity to exercise the higher level functions, not evidence of competence to do so. One can accumulate information, but lack the ability to apply reason and logic to discern facts from that information. One can memorize facts, but not have the ability to organize and correlate the facts into knowledge. One can gain knowledge, but not possess the courage or character to use that knowledge in a beneficial way.

    My question to Mr. Drum and like minded liberals was what is it in Barack Obama’s history that formed the perception that he had the intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, courage and character to make decisions better than what they could themselves?

  19. michael reynolds says:

    My question to Mr. Drum and like minded liberals was what is it in Barack Obama’s history that formed the perception that he had the intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, courage and character to make decisions better than what they could themselves?

    You’re re-asking the intelligence question you agree has been settled. Drum (and me as well) recognize that Obama is probably smarter and certainly better-informed than we are. (Sarah Palin is both dumber and significantly less well-informed than Drum or me.)

    History is not the only guide, and history is not always available to act as a guide. In some cases history deceives. If you looked honestly at Churchill’s pre WW2 history you’d see a guy with a hell of a lot of very major misjudgments. (Does the word “Gallipoli” ring a bell?) But he did well during the war.

    On the other hand, if you looked at Jimmy Carter’s history you’d see obvious intelligence and a background in an elite (submarine) service and demonstrated competence in governing. And of course if you looked at Palin’s history you’d see a beauty queen who ran a dinky little town, and then ran a state but couldn’t stick with it through a single term of office.

    But setting aside the absurd attempt to equate Palin and Obama, it’s true that intelligence is only one factor, and there are other considerations. And we’ll see how all that plays out when we get to the results.

    So far Mr. Obama appears to have guided this country away from a financial meltdown, through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, has kept to the prudent path in Iraq, has perhaps doubled down wrongly on Afghanistan, has opened the military to gays, very moderately reformed the financial industry, and moderately improved the health care system.

    I don’t see any reason yet to think he’s a towering figure in US history, but he has clearly demonstrated competence, thoughtfulness, sang froid, understanding and moderation. So I trust him. And we’ll see how the game plays out.

  20. jwest says:

    What must be acknowledged as a key moment in Barack Obama’s life and one of the most important factors in some people’s perception of Obama as a superior thinker was his ascension to editor of Harvard Law Review after his first year and the presidency of that prestigious organization a year later. These appointments thrust Obama into national prominence and placed him on track for public office.

    Previously, the Law Review positions were awarded based on the academic achievement of the student, but by the time Obama had entered Harvard, the standard had been changed to allow the position to be filled on the basis of an essay. Needless to say, the essay must have been a seminal work of stunning proportions. Such a document, that propelled the first black into the most coveted slot at the premier law school on the planet, would normally be held up to other “less than stellar” students to show that, they too, could rise to stratospheric heights if they applied themselves.

    This essay should be protected under glass and on display at the Smithsonian as a national treasure. Along with this, the words that so impressed the appointment committee should be carved in granite in their entirety and placed in a position of prominence at Harvard. No one could deny the historical significance or import of this essay.

    Yet, this document is unavailable.

    Perhaps if we were allowed to read the words, conservatives would find the same confidence as Kevin Drum and you have in Barack Obama.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps if we were allowed to see the long-form birth certificate, some conservatives, among other fringe types, would find the same confidence as Kevin Drum and Michael Reynolds have in the president’s citizenship status…

  22. michael reynolds says:

    AIP:

    You just have to poke them with a stick, don’t you?

  23. Scott says:

    Is there a variant of Godwin’s law that applies to long form birth certificate?

  24. Jay Tea says:

    jwest, I wonder if the Law Review position were like his Nobel Peace Prize and award for Transparency in Government — awarded not for anything he did, but for what he might do, given the chance.

    Come to think of it, that also covers his election to the presidency…

    J.

  25. Tano says:

    Such a document, that propelled the first black into the most coveted slot at the premier law school on the planet,…

    Actually, the writing requirement was used merely to win appointment to the rather large editorial board (over 80 members). There was nothing particularly novel about a black man being appointed to the review.

    What was remarkable, and won Obama great notice, was his election as president of the review – the first black to hold that position. That resulted from an election by all the other editors. He was able to win that election in an atmosphere of considerable partisan division, because he was trusted and admired by people on all sides.

  26. wr says:

    Oh, goodie. We can now add the Harvard Law Review to the vast and ever growing list of prestidious things that one must despise in order to be a conservative.

  27. Tano says:

    We can now add the Harvard Law Review…

    Nah, don’t take these scumbags seriously. They just throw any crap they can make up against the wall and hope that some of it sticks. They seem not to have anything else to do with their lives….

  28. Jay Tea says:

    What was remarkable, and won Obama great notice, was his election as president of the review – the first black to hold that position. That resulted from an election by all the other editors. He was able to win that election in an atmosphere of considerable partisan division, because he was trusted and admired by people on all sides.

    Interesting statement. I would have thought that scholarship, intellect, legal aptitude, and writing ability would be key factors in such a position. But it turns out that Obama was chosen on a “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” platform.

    I would never have guessed that “Editor Of The Law Review” was so much like “Prom Queen.”

    J.

  29. Tano says:

    I would have thought that scholarship, intellect, legal aptitude, and writing ability would be key factors in such a position.

    Why would you think that? All the editors are intelligent, have legal aptitude and writing ability. That would not be there otherwise. They select a president for his ability to manage the workload, to manage the editorial staff, and to do so in a manner that all would find fair.

    Actually I don’t believe you think much about issues like this for any reason other than to dream up stupid charges to hurl against Obama. Derangement, its called.

  30. jwest says:

    It is well documented (however unreported on OTB and in the liberal MSM) that Sarah Palin gave up a six-figure per year job with the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission in order to comply with the law when she exposed corruption within the commission. This was an act of courage and character that demonstrated true leadership abilities.

    Had Barack Obama exercised even a fraction of the integrity Palin showed, he would have turned down the editorship of the Law Review in favor of a student more deserving by way of academic achievement, or, attributing accepting that undeserved honor to his youth, he would have declined the Nobel Prize.

    Why not give him a few Purple Hearts and the Medal of Honor? He’s done just as much to deserve those too.

  31. wr says:

    jwest — I’d like to congratulate you on what may well be the dumbest thing ever posted on the internet. Obama should have turned down the editorship because jwest — who knows absolutely nothing about the Harvard Law Review, how it works or the people who were there at the time — would come to believe many years later that there were others who were more qualified.

    Hmm, I wonder why jwest automatically assumes all those other students were more quailified. Why all those non-black students were more qualified… It is indeed a mystery.

  32. Jay Tea says:

    Why would you think that? All the editors are intelligent, have legal aptitude and writing ability. That would not be there otherwise.

    Objection, your honor. Assuming facts not in evidence.

    And I’m not making accusations, I’m just declining to go along with the presumptions. I’d be curious to know what his qualifications for the editorship were, and what were some of his accomplishments during his tenure were.

    You know, the kind of stuff that people have asked about every single other position he’s held, and never once gotten any kind of satisfactory answer.

    I realize we should just shut up and mind our betters, but I’m just a wee bit too ornery for that. Call me a “bitter clinger.”

    J.

  33. wr says:

    Add Jay Tea to the list of righties who have no idea what the Harvard Law Review is, how it functions, and what it does.

  34. michael reynolds says:

    You know, if we would just allow the use of the n-word jwest and Jay T and Wiley and the rest could save themselves and us so many tedious, circumlocutious comments. They could get right to what they really mean.

  35. Jay Tea says:

    The n-word, michael? Nitwit? Nincompoop?

    Newsflash, nimrod. Not all negative statements about Obama are related to his Negroid (well, half-Negroid, half-Caucusoid) ancestry — not even nominally. And it’s numbskulls like you that have nullified the potency of the race card, negating it to the point where it’s a nomination of notoriety, of negligible, if not actually nonexistent power but truly noteworthy as a badge of honor. If you were only more niggardly of its usage, it would still have its nefarious nature.

    J. (Who’s thoroughly “n-worded” out)

  36. Jay Tea says:

    wr, then feel free to educate me.

    …must… suppress… guffaws… control… slipping…

    wr educate ANYONE? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Sorry, folks, thought I could hold that in…

    J.

  37. Grewgills says:

    You JT are a bitter clinger.

  38. Jay Tea says:

    It’s my secret shame, Grew. I don’t know how I live with it.

    J.