Understanding Politics: Point/Counter-Point

by Thomas McQuade and Chidem Kurdas

Our previous post and the ensuing discussion raised points for and against the appropriateness of understanding markets as complex adaptive systems. We discuss here whether the same approach can say something useful about modern political systems, taking the US as the illustrative example.

Thomas: I think it could be useful to apply concepts from complex systems to understand governmental arrangements. I’ll concentrate here – with a very broad brush – on the legislative branch. Congress and its agencies can be seen as a social arrangement in which the participants pursue their particular aims via repeated, structured interactions. This process adapts to inputs from voters, lobbyists, and others. A body of legislation and associated directives is an emergent effect.

Two interrelated aspects of this particular system stand out immediately—its concentration of power and the relatively weak feedback constraining the exercise of this power. In these respects, it differs markedly from markets and science. 

This is a highly centralized arrangement, endowed with the power to pass legislation or initiate projects that benefit particular individuals or groups at the expense of others. It is no surprise that it would be a natural focus for special-interest lobbying. This side-effect can, of course, induce negative feedback. If voters realize such activity is going on and disapprove if it, they could vote against candidates who engage in it.

In practice, this reaction has been relatively weak—many voters themselves may be beneficiaries of at least some special interest legislation, and in any case the activity is so pervasive that they are rarely presented with an untainted candidate. And even if such a candidate succeeded in entering Congress, he would find it difficult to further his projects, benefit his constituents and get reelected without “playing along” with the legislative packages pushed by his fellow representatives.

It is standard Public Choice reasoning to concentrate on the participants’ self-interest in terms of self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement, with the need to get reelected as an overriding concern. While there is a large element of truth and useful analysis there, it misses the point that, under the systemic arrangements in place, even participants with the highest motives and the greatest desire to help their fellow man must engage in compromise, logrolling, and the manufacture of one-size-fits-all legislation. The arrangements are the problem; the people are … people.

What we have here is an adaptive system, but one which, inadvertently, is structured to grow by destructively feeding off other systems, particularly markets and firms. That we still, after over 220 years of its operation, enjoy the level of prosperity that we do is testament to both the resilience of markets and the innovative good sense of Madison et al. in implementing such constraints within their system as they did.

Chidem: Certainly almost all experience points to the weakness of voter feedback as a control mechanism. In addition to the reasons you mention, there is another powerful barrier to effective electoral oversight. As Ilya Somin’s extensive review of the evidence shows, voters do not have adequate knowledge to control public policy. Moreover, he points out that voter ignorance is largely a rational choice and unchanging over the decades, despite the massive growth in education.

Somin persuasively argues that the more complicated and extensive the government sector, the less of it the electorate understands. Small and simple government would help reduce the problem, but we’re moving fast in the opposite direction.

Given that  voters have at best limited effectiveness in overseeing the centralized power, the other fundamental constraint, that is the constitution, has to be all important. The good sense of Madison et al., as you put it, is the main basis for American freedom and prosperity.

The system argument is useful for highlighting the weakness of negative feedback to special-interest legislation, which explains its growth. But obviously this approach only goes so far. On its own it is incomplete.

Deeper understanding requires that one consider the role of the Constitution—which is not a necessary part of an adaptive system, though we know from history that it arises under certain conditions.  … to be continued …

25 thoughts on “Understanding Politics: Point/Counter-Point

  1. Whether rational voter ignorance is cast in terms of individual appraisement of informational cost-benefit or as a necessary epistemic condition, it does not provide a satisfactory analysis of the systemic characteristics of political complex adaptive systems. Whereas social sub-orders based on voluntary interactions, such as markets and science, may function well despite the rational ignorance of participants, the same cannot even remotely be said for the outputs of political systems, which have been dominated by war, mass murder, and the expropriation of property. In contrast to institutional arrangements based on voluntary interaction, feedback in a political system is largely toothless for several reasons, not the least of which is its claim to legally initiate coercion against individuals, tax economic wealth, and especially in Thomas’ and Chidem’s discusssion, to play by rules which it determines. In this sort of milieu, constitutional constraints on the exercise of harmful political activity are hardly sufficient impediments.

  2. Troy,
    Thanks for providing the link. I had not seen Adam Martin’s piece before. It’s excellent. His conclusion
    “that markets have tight feedback from the extended order, while polities do not, and thus that ideas matter more in politics than markets.”
    merits thought.

  3. Bill, you’ve packed a lot into that paragraph. I’ll take mild issue with “Whereas social sub-orders based on voluntary interactions, such as markets and science, may function well despite the rational ignorance of participants, the same cannot even remotely be said for the outputs of political systems”

    Rational ignorance does not play a major role in the functioning of free markets because participants makes decisions that pertain only to themselves, not about the system. You decide to buy a hamburger for yourself, not what to do with the economy. Since you have a very strong incentive to make the right choice and you buy hamburgers repeatedly, you won’t be rationally ignorant.

  4. It seems self-evident that the Constitution has been a complete failure at constraining the abuse of power by the politicians. And this is due largely to the fact that far from being “inadvertent” political systems are very specifically structured to grow by destroying. By theft and murder. Politics is the art of getting away with it and politics evolved to satisfy a very fundamental drive in human nature. The drive to live large on minimal effort or as Bastiat observed to live at everyone else’s expense.

    Bastiat suggested minimizing this drive in human nature by making killing and looting more painful to engage in than working for a living. How can we make politics more painful than working for a living?

  5. Need a Constitution with even more restrictions and fewer loopholes. Might want to think about how to create a truly independent judiciary. Might want to figure out a way to hold legislators personally responsible for the outcomes of their legislation. Throw in some sunset laws. Only allow the Congress to meet for a week a year. Require them to have nongovernment jobs, and do not pay them for their service other than to pay for their transportation to D.C. for the week. Require them to read the legislation — and pass a test on said legislation. If they cannot pass the test, they cannot vote on the legislation. In off election years, allow all the states to vote out one legislator in a national ostracism. All legislation must have attached a justification from the Constitution on how it is legal to pass it. If a legislator votes on 10 pieces of legislation declared unconstitutional, he will be removed from office.

    Just a few ideas.

  6. I think Efinancial is way too hard on Madison & co. The US Constitution was a huge success IMHO. Can he cite a written constitution with a better record?

    I wonder what the limits to constitutional design are. Is there a *good* tamper-proof constitution? If such a thing exists in some abstract sense, can we figure it out? Would we even know it if we saw it? If the social world is complex (enough to exhibit computational universality) then it might not be possible to design a political system that is sure to hold up and keep power limited while continuing to will “work well” in some normative sense in the novel environments of the unpredictable future. If there is some such impossibility result out there, then it would seem to apply also to anarchy, which is a very simple design for a political system.

  7. “I think Efinancial is way too hard on Madison & co. The US Constitution was a huge success IMHO. Can he cite a written constitution with a better record?” – Roger Koppl

    There may not be one with a better record, but that does not prove that this was one was successful. Britain has no constitution: even the “unwritten constitution” explicitly gives Parliament the power to pass any regulation the majority votes for–i.e., nothing about interstate commerce or anything to slow the tide of growth; some protection of rights like free speech, but nothing to prevent nationalization of all media for example.

    Yet, how much “worse” has Britain done than the US over the period? Arguably they have done just as well, and with the exception of the 1940s-1960s had little scare of losing rights to an all-powerful state; and we had something similar at least once, with FDR.

    Arguably, it is the common heritage forged by common law, the enlightenment, the free prosperity that came from trade in Britain prior to the founding of America that kept both free, and had little or nothing to do with America’s constitution.

  8. Maybe you’re right, Liberty, but I tend to think the US Constitution has made a difference. No Constitution works miracles. They are limited tools. I hope I did not exaggerate. I agree that you totally need that liberal tradition for a Constitution to “work.” It’s true that we had the Dred Scott decision, but we also had Brown v Board of Education, Miranda, Gideon, and so on. Don’t those cases and open fights between Congress and the White House and so on all support the idea that the Constitution has helped?
    It is also true that the British constitution is unwritten. But they sure had some history behind it! And that history gave rise to the articulation of liberal principles constraining the state, such as the right of habeas corpus. The fledgling US did not exactly have such a history because of the Revolutionary breech with England. I kind of think the US Constitution helped to fix the idea that our political system is basically Whig-liberal. The system evolved from there, of course, but the Constitution was an early steering event, I think, and an enduring, if not insuperable, obstacle to increases in arbitrary state power.

  9. Roger, if by “anarchy” you mean “no rules” or “no societal constraints” and the hope that somehow that will all work out, then I agree: anarchy is a simple design. Simplistic, even. If, on the other hand, you mean “no ruler” or perhaps “no centralized rule-book”, then I don’t agree: there are decentralized possibilities for implementing societal constraints that are not so simple. Complex, even. (But if one thinks that these are ready to go and all we need to do is to get rid of the current government, then we are back into simplistic territory.)

  10. Mr. McQuade has apparently not embraced the principle of KISS. However, I appreciate all of the discussion. T Camplin throws the proverbial “kitchen sink” at the problem but I like the idea of making all legislators unpaid voluteers.

    I agree with liberty that the “common heritage” is far more important than any written rules. But given human nature politics is devilishly attractive. HOw to make it more painful without burdening ourselves with the bureaucracy that might be required to implement T camplin’s rules?

    Maybe if each citizen agreed to the following: We hold this truth to be self-evident, that all men are not created equal but that they are each endowed by their creator with the unalienable right to Life.

    The dictionary definition of politics is that it is the “art of government.” Lenin observed tnat government is “power, nothing more.” Power to violate man’s right to Life.

    If every citizen agreed to the “unalienable right to Life” than politcs would be outlawed and punishable in a most painful way.

    Is it possibe that all human justice could flow from this single idea? How could this “common heritage” be created?

  11. “Point taken…”? RK – we’ve had centuries marching through Mr. McQuade’s non-“simplistic” territory and here we are. Might makes right seems the common thread and it has resulted in less freedom and more injustice. How can this be the correct way to live?

  12. @Efinancial:

    Huh? So I’m Thrasymachus because I freely acknowledge Thomas’s point that his version of anarchism is not simplistic? Presumably, that’s not what you meant, but then I not following you at all.

  13. RK – My understanding of McQuade’s comment is that people will fall into chaos without a “leader” to show them the way and societal constraints are beyond there ability to implement with simplicity and justice. I interpreted your “point taken” as agreement. Apparently I was mistaken.

    Troy – the bureaucracy your suggestions require include: A committee to draft a new constitution; A board to monitor and enforce the restrictions; perhaps the “independent” judiciary could fulfill this function but would require a Ministry of Independence to identify, select and monitor the judges; A Bureau of Personal Responsibility to define and enforce on Legislators; a Committee to draft sunset laws; a Department of Sunsets to monitor and enforce sunsets; The Bureau of Non-Government Jobs to define said jobs and monitor legislators participation; a Department of Transportation to reimburse legitimate travel by legislators; A Ministry of Ostracism; A Department of Justification and each bureau would of course motivate its own Special Interest groups, for and against.

  14. Well, the Constitutional committee would disband afterwards. The judiciary would of course be in charge, as it is now, of making sure everything passes Constitutional muster. Each law would automatically have a sunset provision — 10 years — so no committee needed there. Put everything into a database so that the laws needed to be revoted on automatically come up, so no dept. of sunsets needed — just a secretary. Your Bureau of Nongovernmental Jobs just seems to be arbitrary. You either have a job or you don’t. If you don’t, you can’t run for office, and if you quit or get fired or laid off, you have a certain amount of time to get a new job, or you have to resign. No bureaucracy needed for that — just a Congressional committee made up of Congresspeople. Committees like that aren’t bureaucracies. Transparency laws and legislators’ requirements to keep their info updated in the database the public has access to (and will happily monitor for free) takes care of that. The only legitimate travel is to and from DC for the week in question. Turn in your receipt ot the secretary when you walk through the door. A few weeks pater, get reimbursed. No Ministery of Ostracism. It’s a simple election. Everyone is on the ballot every off-year. Whatever is already in place for elections would take care of that. No dept. of justification. It is up to the legislators do do the justifying. If they can’t, it’s not allowed to come up for vote.

    In the end, these things would keep the government changing much more than it does now — which is a good thing for any complex system. More, the sunset laws would kill off many laws, killing off many bureaucracies currently in place. A handful of secretaries and databases to replace all the laws we would end up losing (and not passing)? I’ll take it.

  15. Mr. Efinancial, sorry if I wasn’t clear. Societal order is not very likely to just happen “with simplicity and justice”; not very likely to miraculously coagulate from unconstrained interaction. Simply removing the current coercive constraints does not, in itself, further the process of growing such an order.

  16. As you know, Thomas, I very much agree with your last comment. For me, the impossibility of “just lifting” the dead hand of the state from human affairs implies a design problem. I don’t think you would quite agree, but I admit that I don’t really get your POV in this regard. Anyway, if you take my design perspective, anarchy begins to fade into more statist views. Strange but true, I think.

    If you can’t “just remove” the state, then you have to decide you’re going to dismantle the machine. This regulation must be eliminated before that one. We must open competition in area X before eliminating public service Y, and so on. You’re going to have to set up markets, which means you’re going to have to design markets. Vernon Smith and others have show us how to design markets.

    When we are designing and instituting a market, we are engaged in political action intended to create a kind of substitute for what would have evolved were it not for the unfortunate influence of the state. If evolution is pretty much “uncomputable,” then we have to go slow and be highly inductive and empirical as we dismantle the machinery of the state. We have to be willing to reverse and amend some of our choices.

    We will be creating structures that we hope will eventually be autonomous and run without anything properly labeled “taxes.” But before we reach the presumed ultimate goal of “anarchy,” these things will be subject to political influence and control. At some point, IMHO, it becomes a matter of taste whether we consider the resulting design-influenced system “anarchy” or not. Moreover, we will be learning as we go. We cannot be sure that we won’t learn that some state structures cannot be completely eliminated. We have no example of a complicated modern economy without a state, so we can’t be sure the totally zero-state option is feasible.

    Thus, even imagining the best possible circumstances for the emergence of actually existing anarchy, we find that it is not so clear where we cross the line from “statism” to “anarchy” and we find that we cannot be sure we will even wish to go all the way to full-on anarchy if we somehow could. It’s not so much that I specifically desire a state. It’s the fact that the anarchist goal becomes, in my view, rather wispy and abstract even assuming away all public-choice reasons for supposing statist will frustrate meliorative efforts. I’m not really sure what it even means to be an anarchist *unless* in the simplistic and unfortunate sense we both (I think) repudiate.

  17. Roger, I think you have stated a consistent position very clearly. I hope my explanation here of what there is about it that doesn’t work for me will be even half as clear.

    First, I can’t see the dismantling of the state as a design project. I think there’s a knowledge problem there. Yes, we know a bit about markets, but then there are the various arrangements without whose generation of supporting functions markets cannot work well – security, law and legal institutions, money, among others. We know things about those, too. But there is no blueprint for putting it together, and even the concept of an effort to deliberately build such an order – composed as it would be of complex systems within complex systems – seems misplaced. Even proceeding step by step, trying to build it by carefully replacing parts of the state as you go along, would likely be fraught with unintended consequences. And there is no single-minded “we” to press on regardless with the project.

    Second, it sounds like you assume that you would use the existing political arrangements to accomplish the task. But it seems to me that the incentives built into those arrangements are such as would readily thwart such a deliberate effort, far short of anything you would like, let alone a stable anarchy.

    If I think a direct approach is infeasible, then my only hope is an indirect one. If the state cannot be repaired and rebuilt, then it will have to be bypassed; killed by the slow cuts of irrelevance. This could only happen if alternative systems to provide the useful functions that the state currently co-opts were to emerge, however slowly, and these could only emerge from the interplay of small beginnings undertaken entrepreneurially, in competition with each other, with no guarantee of success, and in danger of attracting destructive state attention. And the intellectual underpinning for such enterprises could only come from a coherent social theory with a lot more practical relevance than the dominant paradigms of current economics or sociology. All that may indeed sound wispy and abstract, but that’s an indication of how far we are right now from having a real grasp on the problem.

    That’s why I am keen on the idea of complex adaptive systems as a unifying framework for social theory. Not only does it look like it could provide a home (and a place to grow) for those parts of economics and sociology that seem to me to capture the reality of the social world, but also it has (at least some) general academic respectability in that it appears to have promise as a useful framework for understanding a range of biological and chemical phenomena as well. Not the least of its attractions is its implication that complex societal systems are not likely to be able to be built in the sense of being directly, consciously engineered; they have to be grown.

    I don’t see anarchism as a goal, in any deliberate, preplanned sense. I don’t (and could not) know with any precision at all what the many systems that would go to instantiate a highly decentralized, stable, adaptive society would look like. The result, if it were to happen, whether in the context of our current society, or in the aftermath of a Dark Age, or in the population of a new planet, would be the unpredictable outcome of a process, a process seeded by entrepreneurial experiments based on believable social theory.

  18. Hi Thomas,

    I wish I had the time for a more expansive reply, but I am at a meeting. Anyway, I agree that the epistemic problem with complex systems is bigger than most folks tend to recognize. As far as I can tell, that goes for most complexity theorists working on economic topics. I think all this stuff about computability that I’ve been going on about for a while really shows how hard the epistemic problems are. I often cite Velupillai 2007 in this connection.

    My argument was not really that “we” should plan “anarchy.” I was trying to say the even if “we” could somehow do so, the whole distinction between what is and is not anarchy kind of evaporates. As we were saying earlier in this thread, up with Humean status quo bias. Nevertheless, I stand by Popper’s piecemeal social engineering. You don’t accept that, I gather?

  19. Roger, I do accept it, but as defense. I admire those who, either intellectually or practically, work to resist state growth and maybe on occasion succeed in temporarily reversing it in particular areas. I don’t see how it can be a long-term solution, however.

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