Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Persian Strategy: Deliberating while drunk

I’ve just been reading Herodutus’ Histories. In his discussion of the Persians, he writes (Book I, chapter 133) that they decide upon important matters by first getting drunk and debating and coming to a decision while drunk. Then, the next day when they are sober they deliberate and decide whether they want to stick to the decision made. If they decide yes, they go through with it. If they decide against it, they drop it, and ostensibly go back to square one. He also says they do the opposite, if they initially deliberate sober, they’ll make their final decision drunk.

I don’t know whether Herodotus is reliable on this bit of cultural history. He was an avid traveler and knew of Persian culture via first hand experience. But the more important is: is this a good way to deliberate?

Aside from the obvious benefits that it makes decision making a lot more interesting and more fun, and that if congress were to attempt it, it would probably significantly increase C-Span’s rating, those Persians might have been on to something. I think what they found useful in drunkenness was the lack of inhibitions. Perhaps in a state of drunkenness one would be less reserved during deliberation in proposing bold ideas that one might hesitate to propose when sober. One would be also be less reluctant to step on other people’s toes. Thus, things would probably be a lot more contentious and rowdy. This might have an upside, since people might be less prone to step in line behind the most charismatic voice, and so, instead of everyone falling behind the strongest personality, a broader consensus would be reached.

The opposite strategy of deliberating sober and then deciding drunk, seems a bad idea though. The impulsiveness of drunkenness would seem to just always impulsively conceding to whatever one agreed to while sober. It suggests that what the Persians had in mind was that one should consider something from multiple angles, by inducing multiple states of mind.

Nonetheless, it might be an interesting strategy to adopt. I doubt it would make national politics any worse. And it might have some novel benefits.

UPDATE: David Harsanyi has a short article at Reason Magazine, "Civility is Overrated," that we really shouldn't overrate the importance of civility in political debate. I think sobriety in political debate is overrated.


jens said...

Possibly this is the strategy British parliamentary procedure strives to emulate.

Anonymous said...

I've been aware of this decision making process for some time but thought it was Sumerian in origin. Undoubtedly a conceptual paradigm that would be useful in real problem solving; I wonder how this could be adapted by preparing sober decision making bodies to come up with unabated solutions. Your thoughts?

Unknown said...

I think that coming to the decision more than once, with enough time in between that you come to it afresh, is valuable. I think the use of alcohol is less practical.

There is an interesting opportunity for separation of powers here, between a large group of people forced to think in general terms because their decision making is prolonged over a period of time, and between their delegated representatives on the spot who could respond quickly but who could be reprimanded or replaced afterwards.

e-motion said...

No 2 without a 3. Deliberate in merriment, reconsider soberly, reconfirm in joy. Sound like a ploy. The version that made sense to me,logically and intuitively if you see.