The problem with the community consensus approach

Anarchists and other leftists in the United States have seized upon an unfortunate procedural justice crutch: community consensus. That is, they have decided to locate justice in decision-making processes, and have lifted up community consensus as the only just way to go. The community consensus approach puts forward the following principle: everyone that is affected by a decision should consent to that decision and be involved in the decision-making process. This process requirement is fundamentally impossible to follow.

Consider the following very common case. A row of single-family houses is sitting on very valuable land in the middle of a big city. A proposal is made: let’s demolish these houses and put up a ten-story apartment building in their place. This proposal has its pros and cons. It would disrupt the lives and homes of those presently living in that community. But it would also increase housing supply in the area, allowing more people to live on that valuable land.

A question is raised by this proposal: who should decide what happens here? The community consensus approach answers that those affected by the decision should decide. But that is not actually what they mean. In practice, they mean that community members — defined as the incumbent occupants of the area — should decide. So those who live in the row of houses and the surrounding area are supposed to make the call in an assembly of some sort.

The problem with this approach is that it does not actually follow the principle of consensus. The decision on the proposal affects people who are not in the community. If the apartments are built, people will move in to the area to fill them. The lives of these potential movers are thus profoundly affected by whatever decision is made. If we are supposed to include everyone who will be affected by a decision, then only allowing the community to chime in is authoritarian and unjust.

Realizing this, a remedy might be proposed: just include the community and the potential movers in the decision-making process. Although this would solve the consensus problem, it is impossible to actually know who the potential movers are. We know some number of outside people will move in to these apartments, but we cannot know in advance who those people are. In fact, if the apartment building has a long lifespan, some people who will eventually live in the buildings may not even be alive yet.

So the consensus approach falls prey to two problems. First, as it is currently practiced, it wrongly emphasizes the community even though community members are not the only ones affected by decisions in their area. Second, it is actually impossible to include everyone affected by a decision because we do not know in advance who they are. This is not a technical point either. These sorts of planning decisions come up all the time, and community members often wield some power. Although community consensus is a primarily left-leaning procedural approach, it seems like wealthy communities actually use it more, often to block developments that would be beneficial to low-income people.

Ultimately the community consensus approach violates its own principles. If it is authoritarian to make decisions that affect others without including them in the process, then the community consensus approach is an authoritarian process because it does precisely that. In the place of these ultimately contradictory process-focused approaches to justice, I favor a more substantive approach to justice that tries to figure out what the right decision is, not what the right decision-making process is.