The Spectacle Blog

Sorry, You Can’t Delegate Responsibility

By on 5.23.13 | 9:10AM

Once upon a time I was a naval officer. There was a saying back then, to the effect that you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility.

What did that mean, you ask? Well, the example you'd hear in junior officer training was that the captain of the ship can give you the authority, for example as "officer of the deck" when underway, to give orders to steer a certain course and speed and to deal with any emergencies that arise. But, whatever happens, the ship is the captain's responsibility.

So, if the ship was at anchor outside a harbor somewhere, and the captain left you in charge as the watch officer while he went ashore for dinner, you had the authority to take such actions as you deemed prudent. If a storm came up and the ship began to drag its anchor, you were authorized to take steps to prevent a mishap. But, if notwithstanding your efforts the ship drifted and ran aground, the captain was responsible.

This was a real life rule. If the ship ran aground, the captain's career went with it. Maybe your career as well, along with anyone in the crew who was negligent. But the captain? He was toast.

This was a harsh rule, unforgiving, and its application might seem unfair in some circumstances. But it created the right incentives, as I'm sure you can understand.

Today, at least in the public sector, we have unfortunately and conspicuously abandoned this rule. So last fall, our Secretary of State gives a talk about Benghazi saying that she accepts responsibility. But she is not serious, for she follows that statement by what is in effect a denial of responsibility, insisting that no consequences should ensue. 

Our President does the same, and to this day we don't know exactly where he was or what he said or failed to say that fateful night. We only know that Americans died that night, that forces ready to go to the rescue were ordered to stand down, and that mysteriously no one is accountable. Well, except for the producer of a video seen by no one, which produced attacks extraordinarily well coordinated considering they were spontaneous.

And it is the same with the IRS. We behold this week a circus like atmosphere in Congressional hearings, where exasperated members of Congress are confronted by witnesses who know nothing, recall nothing, and regret nothing. A stone wall. One after another, witnesses claim that, although technically responsible for the actions of IRS offices under their supervision, they really didn't know what was happening. Thus a systematic operation to intimidate and harass law abiding American citizens, who sought to exercise their First Amendment right to engage in political speech, was carried out for over two years, across two election cycles, and may well have had a decisive effect on the 2012 presidential election.

And today, who can say about the military? It's not so clear that the rule applies even there, when commanders relieved for seeking to send aid to the embattled retire and remain silent. How about a sense of responsibility? A sense of honor?

At every turn, people with responsibility claim that they should not be held accountable, because they chose to look the other way. They knew better. And so do we. We should be rid of them, and of all the politicians who give them aid and comfort.

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