Who Gets Veto Power?

A while back, I worked for a tech company where I reported to the company’s CEO.

The main thing I learned was never to take a job at a company founded and run by a business-school professor.

The other thing I learned was that in the wrong hands, veto power can cause a lot of trouble.

Even though I reported to the CEO, the company’s board had to approve everything I produced.

By itself, that requirement was stupid but okay. If the board members wanted to be involved at that level of detail, fine.

The problem was that each individual board member had veto power. The board had to approve my plans unanimously. A single “nay” vote sent me back to the drawing board.

And two of the board members always disagreed with each other. No matter which one I tried to please, the other would veto what I did.

That’s the kind of brilliant setup you get from a business-school professor. My actual work was easy; getting the board to agree was damn near impossible.

So are there any general lessons to be drawn from that situation?

Fewer veto holders

Let’s simplify things: Suppose that only one board member wanted to veto everything. Then the company could never do what the majority thought was best. It would only have two choices:

  • Do nothing, or
  • Do what the single veto-holder wanted, against the judgment of the majority.

Applied to society

Similarly, consider a society in which, say, 0.15 percent of the population has trait X. In other words, 99.85 percent are not X, and fifteen-hundredths of one percent are X.

If you took the United States as an example, its current population is about 329,000,000. Then 328.5 million of the people would not be X, and 500,000 of them would be X.

Should law and social policy support the happiness of the 328.5 million people who aren’t X? Or should they be tailored for the 500,000 people who are X — in effect, giving them veto power over the majority?

Giving the X group veto power means hurting the majority to help the small (less than one percent) minority.

And suppose that in addition to group X, another small minority is Y, while another is Z. Do they all get veto power?

Then we’re back to the board of directors situation: multiple people who always veto each other. It becomes impossible for society to function.

Personally, I think that if other factors are equal, every person’s welfare should count equally. If you’ve got 328.5 million people whose welfare conflicts with the desires of 500,000 people, then you take care of the 328.5 million.

You do your best to avoid unacceptable harm to the 500,000, but you’ve done the math: 328.5 million is a lot more than 500,000. You take care of the vast majority. The minority will have to adjust. It shouldn’t get veto power.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life, Philosophy, Political Science, Society and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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