by Tim Baldwin, JD
originally released January 23, 2012
"Diffusion of Responsibility” carries this definition: “a sociopsychological phenomenon whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for an action or inaction when others are present.” This is not a new concept, of course. It was recognized and discussed by philosophers and students of human nature for thousands of years. It was used in discussing different forms of State and government to explain which is better under what circumstances, including the United States. Let us consider the phenomena of Diffusion of Responsibility and relate it to our constitution and government.
Illustration Concerning ‘U.S. Senator, Mr. Common Fiction’
A few members of the U.S. Senate introduce a bill, consisting of thousands of pages. The Committee initially reviewing the bill recommends it be discussed at large. It goes to the floor for debate and consideration, and then for vote.
Hearings are held and expert witnesses testify. Corporations present scientific data for consideration. Credible assurances are made that the bill is necessary and the wording is accurate to meet real-life needs. Private and government attorneys testify about the bill’s constitutionality—all of the government attorneys holding that the bill is constitutional, but a few reputable private attorneys insist it is not.
Major media sources make the bill appear one way; alternative media states near the opposite. Limbaugh disagrees with Beck; Hannity disagrees with Napolitano; and vice versa. Fox News shows polls that 45% of Americans polled oppose it and 55% support it. The political party elites are using every tool to influence the vote.
Constituents on both sides of the issue voice their opinion in support or opposition—but only .05% of the constituents contacted the Senators to express their opinion. However, hundreds of Lobby groups have bombarded the Senators, consuming the staff’s time to deal with anything else. Among the Tea Party polls, 20% support it; the rest oppose it. The Republican Party supports it in large part; the Democrat Party opposes it in part.
There is not much opportunity to debate the bill because the docket is full, time is short, and the session is about to end; but it “must be decided before recess”. There are some questionable provisions in particular (in conjunction with some other laws that exist but are not discussed or known) which make the bill covertly unconstitutional.
Among the chaos, Senator Common Fiction, who claims to be a “constitutional conservative”, has to make a decision. In reality, Senator Fiction is not certain about the bill’s constitutionality but thinks it may not be constitutional. At the least, he knows the bill will continue to grow the federal government—a trend he has criticized openly. But the pressure at every point is building; and if he does not vote a certain way, the political backlash will be too great. All the while, he considers that his reelection may be undermined if he votes the wrong way. In fact, the uppers in his party told him if he does not vote in favor of this bill, then it is conceivable they will not be able to find enough party support for his upcoming bill—which of course will tremendously increase commerce in his district, thus virtually guaranteeing his reelection.
Senator Common Fiction’s thought process:
“My vote will not decide the fate of this bill or its treatment in the future; it certainly won’t destroy America and the constitution in toto. We are a strong, freedom-loving people; we will never let these things get out of hand; we must live to fight another day.
“My constituents who contacted me supported this bill--for the most part; and the ones who don’t like it have opposed me from the beginning anyway, so they will not contribute to my next campaign regardless; plus, the media doesn’t like them so their opposition will not be publicized. Since I haven’t heard from the rest of my constituents, I feel certain they are not too concerned or else they would have contacted me.
“There are 99 other Senators involved in this process, and most of the Senators in my party support it. The House must consider and vote on this bill too. Many feel the House will not pass it, alternatives already being drafted. Plus, the President said he will veto the bill in its current form.
“In addition, there has been talk about non-profit organizations preparing and filing lawsuits against this bill if it passed, so it would wind up in federal court any way; and since the Supreme Court is the ‘final arbiter’ of the constitution, they can determine the fate of this bill if they choose to take the case—if it even becomes law, which I don’t think it will.
“And besides, the people can always nullify the federal government’s actions by passing a constitutional amendment—if it means that much to them. Sure, it is the most difficult form of redress in the constitution; but still, it is their right and power. And as they say, where the people do not oppose and change the law, they are deemed to have consented.
“Since the governor and attorney general of my State go along with federal laws fairly easily because of their view of the ‘Supremacy Clause’, I expect they will do nothing about this bill if it becomes law. I can say the same thing about our State legislators. The State government will not draw any more attention to this bill than lobbyists are already doing. I am safe there.
“What I cannot do is sacrifice my hard-earned political position in the Senate, which took me 15 years of climbing the political ladder, for this one vote. After all, I will do more good for the country by staying where I am and not jeopardizing my own position too much. Two steps forward, one step back is a better approach to politics. I can always attach a rationale reason for why I voted for this bill.”
“Ok. It’s settled: I’ll vote yes.”
‘Diffusion of Responsibility’ Inherent in the United States Constitution
The United States Constitution separates the function and power of the federal government into three branches. Each branch has distinct purposes, duties, and responsibilities. Within each branch, there are multiple parts which comprise its unit. The law’s existence and the constitution’s enforcement rely on each branch. In addition, there is a fourth “branch” within the structure: the people. Where the three branches have collectively or individually failed, the people can remedy and cure by replacing the officers or amending the constitution.
Theoretically, no one action unilaterally taken will irretrievably damage the constitution or country. It requires everyone’s “consent” (e.g. lack of physical opposition) to move in that direction. Inherent within the federal system is a diffusion of responsibility and power, horizontally and vertically. Any one person within the diffused system cannot be identified solely as the responsible party to a denounced action. Politicians have a lot of cover under which to hide and seemingly have faithful supporters regardless.
While this separation has advantages, it has some inherent flaws. These flaws namely involve (1) the inability of the people to identify the sources of the political problems, and (2) the tendency of office-holders to rely on the system to correct errors or biases in their own judgment. Both of these characteristics pull the system in a direction not necessarily created or intended in the constitution.
Remedying problems can be quite daunting when the problems have cemented and multiplied over decades. In part, this is why we can continually elect Republicans and Democrats to replace each other but no substantive improvement is seen in the general direction of politics.
Comparative Facts: The Urinating Marines
A video of four U.S. Marines urinating on dead bodies of the “enemy” has been released, and the world is talking about it. As reported in the Miami Herald, psychologist Eric Zillmer discusses how easy it can become for soldiers engaged in war to violate laws and decency standards when there are a lot of participants and direct responsibility is diffused. Zillmer says, “the inhibitions against such misconduct tend to fall away as the number of participants increases, a phenomenon he calls ‘diffusion of responsibility’” (emphasis added). Still, some in the federal government are demanding punishment of the soldiers, including those under Obama’s direction.
While the Marine’s actions may deserve reprimand, the government’s hypocrisy is blaring: when a politician ignores or even disdains the Supreme Law of the Land, their violation is masked in terms of “the living constitution” or “reasonable disagreement”; but when a soldier violates a Geneva Convention rule of much less consequence to the liberty and freedom of people throughout the world, people cry out for justice. If you ask me, righteous indignation should be focused on our own politicians at home.
Application and Conclusion
Senator Common Fiction feels comfortable enough to vote for a constitutionally questionable bill because his responsibility is diffused amongst the system itself. He does not treat his position as an individual fiduciary duty, such that the fate of the country rests in his hands alone. Instead, he treats it with pure statistics, pragmatics, and economics. Where everyone else acts the same, it is little wonder why “politics as usual” is the rule, while the constitution continually reeks of hot, politician urine.
This diffusion of responsibility takes place on all levels. Observe the number of places Senator Common Fiction diffuses his responsibility in that simple scenario. The truth is, no one can point to the Senator alone and blame him for the distortion of the constitution or destruction of the country. The bill the Senator voted for may have been in theoretical works decades before he even took office. Politicians know this, and they act accordingly.
Can we ever “get back to the constitution” under these conditions? If America were talking more about the desecration of the United States Constitution than these Marines who have much more legitimate excuses than politicians who urinate on the Supreme Law of the Land, perhaps we could. But as long as the Diffusion of Responsibility remains strong in the system and is allowed to excuse the unconstitutional behavior of the government, expect the government to continue its desecration of the constitution.
© 2012-2013 Timothy N. Baldwin, JD - All Rights Reserved