Anyone having witnessed a decision-making process in The Netherlands? You might have noticed it evolves around the need of everyone involved being heard. Based on the traditions of bargaining and consensus decision making it is still highly relevant today. In Dutch culture even a receptionist or cleaning lady is asked for his or her opinion when it directly or indirectly affects them. This process sometimes raises eyebrows abroad. Compared to a top-down approach, decision-making by consensus is lengthy and often complex. The Dutch believe it to be essential. It is built on a thousand-year history. Five facts about why.
Feudalism in Europe
The first thing to understand is that The Netherlands never had a real feudalistic society. In feudalism, a small group landed nobility wields all power, the rest of the population being either serfs or slaves. The Netherlands was the only country in Europe where nobles had relatively little power or no power at all. This prevented the creation of a noble class that expected to be served. A top down approach in The Netherlands has never worked. This created a population that throughout its history from top to bottom has felt freer in their attitude1.
No large estates
When you drive through the country you see that there are no large uninterrupted stretches of land. Then as now, there is always a ditch, a canal, a river or a waterway. In the Middles Ages these formed easily defensible boundaries, which made it difficult for people with power to conquer land. Water is difficult to cross on horseback, or with heavy metal armour, shields, swords and equipment. It was not for lack of trying that land holdings for even the richest remained relatively small. It prevented the creation of vast estates and anyone from wielding real significant power, making society much more egalitarian.
The feudal system was based on a lord living off the earnings of his peasants. Lords were not interested in educating them. Education would jeopardise status quo and an uneducated serf works the plough as well as an uneducated one. Serfs were therefore interested in doing only what was necessary for survival. In the Netherlands, this system did not work. Due to constant flooding, to ensure that land stayed safe enough to have crops both grown and harvested vigilance and heavy maintenance was required. Land was at risk of overflowing almost every day. If a problem like a dike break was imminent there was often no time for requesting permissions. Action had to be taken immediately and with everything and everybody at hand. Lords therefore needed educated people who would take responsibility, take initiative and think ahead to anticipate problems. Education of the middle and lower in The Netherlands reached heights in 1300 that in the rest of Europe were reached only three to five centuries later. This created a population that expected being heard.
Many parts of The Netherlands were frontier country around the year 1000. Marshes, bogs, low–lying land subject to frequent flooding were not attractive in their natural state. Lords interested in increasing their agricultural land had to induce people to come and live there. To make it attractive, they gave pioneering people willing to work there, ownership of the cleared land and granted them their personal freedom. This was unique when compared to the rest of medieval Europe, were some 95% of the population had no rights whatsoever. It induced entrepreneurial people to settle, much like the conquest of the West in the US. And it made many people of the low and middle class, a landowner. More than half a millennium before the rest of Europe, servitude in the Netherlands became extinct.
The balancing act of water
The last driver behind the Dutch being consensus seekers is the fight against water. This peaceful land, where the fine cows now graze contentedly, has been submerged and recaptured perhaps half a dozen times. Since times immemorial, the Dutch had to cope with the fact that water does not respect boundaries. It would flood one manor as well as the next. Some dykes that were built around a thousand years ago are a hundred kilometres long. That required many people giving up a part of their land and invest time, money and effort all for the greater good. Since now there were many (small) landowners, many people had to be consulted and persuaded to cooperate. Only the recognition of the grave consequences of flood and tidal surges and the real and significant threat of it forced parties to compromise some of their ambitions or interests to come to acceptable solutions.
So, the Dutch consensus culture was based on the widespread and early freedom of the ordinary population. The weak feudalism and its high degree of self-organisation created an exceptional balance that did not allow one group to bend society to its own interests at the expense of others. It created a society where also lower classes expected to be heard and the dangers of water forced people to co-operate with all.