This morning a question lodged itself in my mind: do health officials like Dr. Fauci owe us the truth? Is their role to relay the facts to us and let us make our own decisions? Or are they permitted to selectively tell truths that will permit the best outcome for everyone? Concretely, is Dr. Fauci permitted to tell us that cloth masks will not help prevent the spread of the virus if it achieves larger public health goals — namely, protecting a short supply of personal protective equipment.

Now, the real question is knotty, and I don't want to make a case one way or the other here on it. I am interested in an underlying question, though. To make the point clear let's turn the situation into a hypothetical:

Let us assume that we have an ideal Dr. Fauci, who has years and years of experience that tell him exactly what the consequences of his statements will be. He also knows in March exactly what final role mask-wearing will play in bringing the virus under control. In short, he is an expert who is well-informed that we can trust. Is Dr. Fauci permitted to temporarily withhold the truth about how critical masks are to achieve the short-term goal of preventing a run on personal protective equipment?

I would say that most of my peers who esteem Mr. Fauci and loathe Mr. Trump would call ourselves champions of democracy. But what about this question of Dr. Fauci?

If I ask myself in my heart of hearts what I really believe, here is what it is: I don't believe that Dr. Fauci owes me the truth. I believe that I owe him the truth, but I also believe that I have entrusted him to do the work of communicating recommendations for public policy that will achieve the best outcome.

Why is that? It's because I don't believe that I am qualified to make an individual decision about PPE, nor do I believe that the best outcome for the group can be achieved by delegating this decision to everyone in the country.

This is what a hierarchical decision making structure looks like: some party is entrusted to make the decision, and information flows around them. Not everyone has an equal say.

Everyone Does It

Sometimes when I'm arguing about, say, mask wearing, I'll find myself lamenting that the person on the other side seems to only parrot the party line from someone I put no trust in at all.

But in truth, I do the same thing. I am not personally an epidemiologist or a public health expert; I put my trust in an appointed expert who has a track record that I trust. And I did vote for this person! They were chosen for me. Yet I trust them.

At work, I do this even more than I do as a private citizen. Most decisions that affect my work are delegated to someone else. If I want independence, I get it by having an area delegated to me that I control. I don't understand all the details of how to write a good view layout tool, and I don't necessarily need to. Even where decision making is open and visible to all, that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone is meant to participate in making the final decision.

I almost feel silly saying all this: in truth, the process of hierarchical decision making is more familiar to most of us than human scaled democratic decision making. All of us have worked for a boss; how many of us have served on a committee?