The Abilene Paradox, Or, Why Not Just Burn the Money Instead?

Rep. Paul Shepherd (R, Riggins) Proposes Dinner in Abilene

Rep. Paul Shepherd (R, Riggins) Proposes Dinner in Abilene

An Idaho House of Representatives Committee has advanced a bill declaring that Idaho lawmakers can void federal laws and court decisions. The House State Affairs Committee voted to send the bill, HB 461, to the full House.

As you read this, law firms are lining up for the lawsuits. WC has no objection to paying lawyers money. Because, you know, lawyers. But WC’s lingering scruples suggest the money to be paid to lawyers in a legal fight absolutely certain to strike down this idiot law might be more usefully spent by burning it on street corners in downtown Boise. That would generate heat and light, which would benefit Boise’s considerable homeless community. Pouring the money into lawsuits? Not so much.

HB 461 is the idea of Rep. Paul Shepherd (R, Riggins), a sawmill operator. Rep. Shepherd believes lots of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have violated the Constitution, including the one-man, one-vote ruling; citizenship for those born in the United States; and EPA rules on things like suction dredge mining. To describe Rep. Shepherd’s grasp of American government as “confused” is probably an understatement. His defense of his bill at the committee meeting seems to have consisted mostly of phrases from Fox News and disarming chuckles. Rep. Shepherd had in hand a letter from the Idaho Attorney General warning him the bill was unconstitutional. And wasn’t there a war or something about this once?

The Committee approved the bill on a split vote and sent it to the floor of the state house even so.

Reading the minutes of the committee meeting, you can see a classic example of the Abilene Paradox. That’s a common breakdown of group communication in which each member of a group mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise any objections. Prof. Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”, tells a nice anecdote to illustrate the paradox:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Among the members of the Idaho House State Affairs Committee, it’s pretty clear a majority thought the bill was a stupid idea, as they considered what the Feds might do in response. But, instead of working through those details, the majority voted to take the road to Abilene. WC offers his congratulations and sympathies to Reps. Lynn Luker, R-Boise; Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello; Elaine  Smith, D-Pocatello; and Margie Gannon, who is filling in for Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, who voted not to go to Abilene. But if they had been a little more explicit about the consequences of HB 461 the trip might have been avoided entirely.

Perhaps common sense – or a grasp of constitutional law – will prevail on the floor of the Idaho House or in the Senate, or at lame duck Governor Otter’s desk. Otherwise, Idaho is going to spend buckets and bucket of money on lawyers in an unwinnable fight.



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