Hanlon’s Razor: A key to understanding bad decision making in government

“________ ________ is crooked.”

Fill in the blanks with your least trusted, least liked elected official. We’ve all heard it; many of us have thought it. Our incredulity at the absence of good sense in certain public decision-making processes lends support to the idea there must be some sort or kind of illicit benefit at work.

It is here Hanlon’s Razor comes into play. Hanlon’s Razor is a philosophical razor which suggests a way of eliminating unlikely explanations for human behavior and it reads something like this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Those are words to live by when sourcing motives in a political narrative. I’ve known corrupted people. I know of one holding office in Lubbock right now. But corrupted and corruption are two different matters1. Weak people are sometimes corrupted by evil. It’s unfortunate but it happens.

However, corruption in public office? It is rarer than our basest instincts might lead us to believe2.

Stupidity, on the other hand, is far more common. Being polite folks whose mothers told us to avoid the “S” word, we prefer incompetence, but because some acts defy courtesy and logic alike, frequently stupid is the only word that fits.

While giving a notion a fancy name like Hanlon’s Razor doesn’t make it true, surely experience tells us incompetence is a greater promulgator of misdeeds, both public and private, than corruption. 

Innocently incompetent reasons … very bad decisions.

It’s not uncommon to see a governmental body call a fifty million dollar capital improvements election after five minutes discussion but spend 30 minutes in the same meeting deciding whether the new pickup should be Ford or Chevy. Is it because they don’t care about spending fifty million dollars? Or do we naturally prefer to discuss what we know and can wrap our minds around?

“He’s on the take” is simpler than investigating. It skips the facts and jumps straight to the conclusion we presumed in the first place.

Simpler is the key word here. The temptation to take the shortcut to malevolent motives when dealing with political opponents is as lazy as it is irresistible.

There are alternate routes to eliminate before we settle on the road to perdition. Stupid Street is a well-travelled thoroughfare in public affairs. Running parallel to Stupid Street is Lazy Lane. These account for most bad decisions and you can take either road and end up in the same place.

Strangely, we would feel better … if we knew someone made off with an extra million dollars in the ranch account.

Often travelled but seldom confessed is the Hoodwinked Highway. Government officials, elected and hired, are no less vulnerable to a great sales pitch than the rest of us.

This is likely what happened when the county rushed two years ago to spend $6 million on less-than-latest voting technology. The new equipment did nothing the old didn’t do; but someone convinced commissioners they were getting a bargain and $6 million later we still don’t have a voter verified paper trail (a paper trail would have answered critical questions in the last primary election).

Criminal malfeasance? Not by design. Just mundane incompetence. They traveled down the Hoodwinked Highway blinded by the slick spiel of someone pitching a year-end clearance sale.

What did we get? Machines that do precisely what the old machines did: count votes and render an electronic tally. The new ones do it no more quickly nor accurately than the old ones.

They’re not all crooks; and the dirty little secret is, it may be none are.

Who was paid off? No one. Not a shred of evidence anywhere. The vendor was one of only three certified to sell election equipment in Texas; it doesn’t need to bribe anyone for a sale.

It’s not the first time elected officials spent money foolishly and it won’t be the last. Every sales professional will tell you, the easiest sale is to someone who is spending other people’s money.

Strangely, we would feel better about the waste if we knew someone made off with an extra million dollars in the ranch account. We’d at least have understood the motivation. But it just didn’t happen that way. Imagining the worst doesn’t make it so nor does it make it any easier to address the challenge of public incompetence.

But a “good-hearted” public official who consistently makes bad decisions probably needs to be thrown out …

Let’s segue to today’s issues of county reserves collapse and the medical examiner decision. Both appear to be serious problems. But even if both are genuine crises it is not necessary to conclude the behavior was criminal. In each instance, we can readily imagine innocently incompetent reasons to have made what may prove to be very bad decisions.

What Hanlon’s Razor really does is to remind us motive and reason are difficult to discern unless disclosed by the doer. And since no one likes to admit having been incompetent, public officials often resort to justifying ill-advised decisions. Once they begin rationalizing their ineptitude they’re left looking criminal even when they’re not

They’re not all crooks; and the dirty little secret is, it may be none are. Actions and results are what we judge. Motives are someone else’s purview, but a “good-hearted” public official who consistently makes bad decisions probably needs to be thrown out just as quickly as one who is on the take.


1If “corrupted” and “corrupt” is a distinction without a difference for you, please indulge me for the space of this column; think of it as “the corrupted” and “the corruptor.”

2I’ve only personally dealt with one public official I believe to have been corrupt in the classic sense; he’s no longer in Lubbock and no charges were brought, much less proven.