Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Obstructionists

During the recent health care debate, many opponents of the proposed reform bills were called obstructionists. The assumption was that obstructionism is automatically bad. I don’t think so.

Should we criticize the obstructionist who prevents a bank from loaning money to someone not likely to repay? Actually we could have used a few such obstructionists before the housing collapse, they might have kept lenders from making so many bad loans and we would not have the economic problems we do now.

What about the obstructionist who blocks big bonus payments for corporate officers who have led their companies into trouble? Such obstructionists would have been useful.

Should we criticize the obstructionist who keeps a dangerous product off the market? Merck (and many patients) could have benefited had an obstructionist blocked the release of Vioxx.

How many wars could have been prevented had some obstructionist only stood up and pointed out the problems?

No, obstructionism is not automatically bad; in fact it can be very useful. If an action would be bad, the obstructionist who blocks it is good.

Indeed there are many professional obstructionists in our society – often performing critical functions in their field of endeavor. There are athletes who obstruct their opponents, keeping them from scoring touchdowns, making baskets or reaching base safely. Fans of their teams love them (though fans of opposing teams typically feel otherwise). Police have the obstructionist function of keeping unsafe drivers off the road. Most companies have financial controllers assigned to prevent unproductive expenditures. All those people can be classified as obstructionists; they keep bad things from happening.

Now you might claim that it would be better to propose alternatives rather than just block a proposal. In many cases that is true, but even then it is better to block a bad idea than to let it take effect, even if you cannot provide the option of something better. Obstructionists perform the much-needed function of blocking what ought not happen.

However in many cases obstructionists perform another valuable function – they actually improve the proposals they try to block. For example Keith was on a project team I once led. His department assigned him to the team against his will and he hated the whole idea we were working on. He dedicated his efforts to finding every problem he could, all the reasons the project would not work. He was an obstructionist, and a darn good one. The project succeeded in no small part thanks to him. He found every possible problem and we were able to fix those problems early on. By the time we got ready to build prototypes, everything ran smoothly.

You will notice that Keith did not make alternative proposals; he simply tried to show that the project should be canceled. However in doing that he improved the project he hated. Sadly, he left the company before we went to production and I not could thank him for his good work.

Hats off to the effective obstructionists in our world. They deserve our thanks, at least if they are wise about what they obstruct.

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OregonGuy said...

Or, as I taught all my kids, offense starts through defense.

Bob said...

Letting the other side define the debate is a losing proposition. It happens in almost all debates. Calling the Tea Party attendants Tea Baggers was a vile and effective way of discrediting the Tea Party crowd. Main stream media seemed to delight in bringing this up again and again.
Claiming someone is an obstructionist because they have a different philosophy is another way of putting the negative on the entire group without any detailed facts. If you want to raise taxes to fund your pet project you take money that I might put to a different use. You become the obstructionist.
Words are important. Those that challenge the "science" of climate change are called "deniers"
Those that don't accept the government explaination about the 9/11 attacks are called "truthers".