If I was asked for two words that summarily describe any President’s job, I would pick “decision maker.” Presidents make decisions daily. They make big decisions that public hear about. They also make small decisions that public never gets to hear about. In all cases of presidential decision making, it is invariably only the difficult, the almost impossible, decisions that are brought to the President’s desk.
There are several principles that inform decision-making, but the most common and widely used principle is called consequentialism. This principle holds that any action, decision or policy of a decision maker has to consider the consequences, the outcomes or the end product. The principle of consequentialism has two lenses: self-interested and majority-interested.
Through a self-interested lens, an individual makes decisions or takes action according to what brings happiness or pleasure to the self; what serves one’s interest, or what brings satisfaction to them. They avoid decisions or actions that bring pain or discomfort to self. Almost all human beings use this lens in their day to day lives. Our understanding of self in this instance includes the extended self such as family, relatives and friends. This principle may also be applied where an individual’s self-interest intersects with a sectional interest such as one’s political or religious affiliation and ethnicity. Unfortunately, when some people are given an opportunity in public service, they import this lens into public decision making and ramifications are costly on public.
On the other hand, the majority-interest lens demands that decisions, actions, policies, directives or laws put in place by a decision maker must bring greatest happiness or pleasure to the greatest number of people. Majority-interest lens demand that the decision maker avoids decisions or actions that will bring suffering or pain to the greatest number of people. But, how is the majority conceptualized?
In a democracy like Kenya, decisions made by the President are designed to please at least 50% +1, as mitigation against catastrophic political backlash. This is because when there is backlash against a presidential decision, the Opposition will usually capitalize on the backlash for political fodder. It is this volatility aspect of backlash that a few-loud-minority sometime take advantage of to push their interests, their will, their ambitions and their desire so forcefully as to sound, to feel and to appear as if the backlash embodies popular opinion.
For instance, when President Uhuru Kenyatta recently gave a speech informing the public of decisions he had reached on Covid-19 interventions, a few people were negatively affected as would be expected in a country of almost 50 million people inhabiting 569,139 km² land mass. Those affected, plus their sympathizers, took to social media to dramatize their displeasure with the President’s directives. Unsurprisingly, the “Opposition” attempted to capitalize on the backlash to the President’s speech so as galvanize support against the incumbents.
The world over, presidents will in making decisions or giving directives, normally use the majority-interest-approach. That means that before presidents pronounce themselves on public interest matters they have to engage in political calculus. They have to carry out some kind of cost benefit analysis. They grapple with questions like how many people will benefit or be happy with pronouncements or how many will this decision, policy, or law saves from suffering or pain. If the answer is a majority, then the conclusion is that it is a good law, policy, directive or action.
In conclusion, it is important to point out that some of the most virulent resentment to government actions are motivated by some kind of self-interest. However, such self-interests are usually couched in the language of good intentions or are pivoted on majority-interest making it difficult for unsuspecting individual to decipher. The antagonism can also be framed on the basis of competing decision-making principles without appreciation of, or in disregard of, the fact that governments worldwide find consequentialism as the most rational, logical and justifiable principle for public decision-making. It turns out that in the event the antagonists were to assume power they would exercise their mandate largely on consequentialism as it relates to majority. Therefore, it is imperative that whenever an individual finds that a government’s decision or directive is objectionable, distasteful or repulsive, one must check what lens are informing their judgment as compared to government’s on the same matter.
By George Nyongesa
The author is senior associate at the Africa Policy Institute (Nairobi, Kenya)