Complexity Politics: Some Preliminary Ideas

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have become interested of late in applying ideas from complexity theory to politics. I’m hardly the first person to have this thought, but I’ve been surprised by how little published political science I’ve been able to find that goes beyond loose metaphors and really digs into the study of complex adaptive systems to try to explain specific macro-political phenomena.

To start thinking about how that might be done, I’ve been reading: Miller & Page on complex adaptive systems; Gould and Mayr on evolution; Kahneman on human cognition; Beinhocker on the economy; Ostrom on institutions; BatesFukuyama, and North, Wallis, & Weingast on the long course of political development; and Taleb on the predictability of unpredictability.

The single most-stimulating thing I’ve read so far is Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth, which provides a thorough but accessible introduction to the principles of complex adaptive systems and then attempts to re-imagine the entirety of economics through that prism. Beinhocker dubs his reworked discipline Complexity Economics, so I thought I would borrow that phraseology and talk about Complexity Politics. Where Beinhocker asks, “Where does wealth come from, and why did it grow explosively in the past few hundred years?” I want to know: Where does government come from? Why does it take so many different forms, and why do those forms change over time? More specifically, why is democracy so prevalent nowadays? How long is that pattern going to last, and what comes next?

In the spirit of web logging circa 2003, I thought I would use this platform to sketch out a rough map of the terrain I’m trying to explore in hopes of stimulating conversation with other social scientists, modelers, and anyone else interested in the subject. Some of these probably won’t make sense to people who aren’t already familiar with complexity theory, but, hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying.

Anyway,  here in very loose order are some of the thoughts I’ve had so far.

1. Political systems aren’t “like” complex adaptive systems. They are complex adaptive systems, and those systems are embedded in a much larger system that “exists in the real physical world,” to borrow Beinhocker’s phrase. The human part of this larger system also encompasses the economy and non-economic forms of social interaction (like friendship), and the political part is not prior to, outside, or above the others, even if it sometimes aspires or claims to be. These various streams of human activity don’t just affect each other; they are all part of a single system in which human activity is embedded and is just one small part.

2. Political development doesn’t just resemble an evolutionary process. These systems are evolutionary systems, and political organization co-evolves with the economy and culture and the physical and biological environments in which all this behavior occurs. As a result, changes in physical and social technologies and the wider ecology of any of these other systems will affect politics, and vice versa.

3. In light of humans’ evolutionary trajectory, some form of hierarchical organization of our social activity is virtually inevitable, but that does not mean that the specific forms we see today were inevitable. The basic theme of organization for cooperation, and the never-ending tension between cooperation and conflict, may be “natural,” but the specific organizational expressions of these themes are not. There is no utopia or other optimal form, just an unending process of variation, replication, and selection.

4. In the human portion of this system, governments are the political equivalent of firms in the economy—organizations that bring together multiple “businesses” in pursuit of some wider goal(s). There is a great deal of isomorphism in which “businesses” governments pursue, but, as the unending arguments in American politics over the proper purpose and size of government show, this debate is not settled. In other words, there is no natural or obvious answer to the question, “What do governments do?”

5. So what is government, anyway? The defining feature of government as a social technology is the claim to the authority to make rules affecting people who are not parties to the rule-making process. Economic exchange is based on trade or contracts, both of which involve all parties choosing “freely” to make the exchange. Governments, by contrast, are defined by their assertion of the authority to compel behavior by all individuals of a certain class. In the system of government that has developed so far, the relevant classes are defined primarily by territory, but this is not the only structure possible.

6. The defining features of government are: a) procedures for selecting rule-makers, b) procedures for making rules, c) some capacity to implement those rules, and d) some capacity to enforce those rules. Variation in the form (and therefore fitness) of governments occurs along these four dimensions, each of which has many components and sub-components that also vary widely (e.g., electoral systems in democracies).

7. Because they must enforce the rules they make, all governments depend to some extent on coercion. In this sense, all governments depend on people skilled in violence, and on physical technologies—including weapons—that enable monitoring and enforcement. As relevant physical technologies emerge and evolve, governments will often evolve with them.

8. States are a particular form of government connected to the contemporary organization of politics at the global level. (I wrote more about that here.) As Edward Carr wrote in a recent blog post, however, “Many of the global poor live beyond the reach of the state.” In other words, states are just one part of the global political landscape, and all social behavior within their borders does not necessarily fall under their hierarchical structures. It’s really a matter of degree, and for a non-trivial proportion of the human population, the degree is approximately zero. On this point, see also Steve Inskeep’s work on cities in “developing” countries.

9. The economy, by contrast, is effectively ubiquitous in human society. This means that efforts to understand the emergence and evolution of government should presume that governments emerged to serve economic ends and not vice versa. Once government emerged as a social technology, path dependence kicked in, and the two began co-evolving. But the economic roots of government should not be ignored. You can’t explain or understand politics without reference to the economy.

10. Governments operate on many different geographic scales. The presumption (or assertion) by many actors at the national and international scale is that governments at these different levels are nested in a clear hierarchy: local, regional, national. In practice, though, these organizations often don’t operate that way, and the array of governments around the world is really interconnected through a mixture of hierarchical and dense networks that often overlap.

11. Once the social technology of government had emerged, it began to evolve, too. Evolution involves variation, selection, and replication. Adaptation occurs as selection and replication amplify fitter variations. In political space, rules are the building blocks, governments are the “readers” that give form to different arrangements of rules, and institutions are the results on which selection pressures act. As with other social technologies, change primarily occurs through human agency, some of it with clear intention and some of it more experimental. Mutations may also occur as a result of ambiguities inherent in language.

12. Regime types are like species. They aren’t crisp categories so much as recognizable peaks in multidimensional space defined by possible combinations of political DNA. One implication of this observation is that we may get better insights from inductive scans of this multidimensional space than we do from efforts to match real-world cases to deductively defined ideal types. After all, those deductively defined forms are just ideas, and those ideas are just another stream in the same co-evolving system.

13. Like anything else, forms of government vary in their fitness, and fitness is always situational. The evolution of forms of government should follow the usual patterns of s-curves and punctuated equilibria. There will be periods of relative stability in the system when specific combinations with a fitness edge will come to dominate, and there will be periods of rapid change when lots of experimentation and churn will occur. During the more stable phases, hedgehog-like forms that do the “fit” things well will predominate. During periods of phase shift, fox-like organizations that internalize experimentation will survive more readily.

14. Re (13), it’s unclear if democracy is the former or the latter, but I’m inclined to see it as the latter. The last 200 years have been a period of rapid change in human society, and democracy is proliferating because it is fitter than authoritarian rule in this highly uncertain environment. If that’s right, then we would expect to see something other than democracy come to dominate the political landscape whenever this period of phase shift comes to an end. I have no idea when that might be or what the world will look like when that happens, and therefore I have no idea what organizational forms might be fitter in that new era.

15. Ditto for territoriality as the basis for defining the boundaries of governments as political organizations. To imagine what a non-territorial form of political organization might look like, we can consider possibilities for political organization in cyberspace. As more and more exchange migrates to cyberspace, pressures to organize in that domain will increase. States are currently trying to maintain control of that process, and their efforts to do so are facilitated by the dependency of cyberspace on a physical infrastructure. If and when that infrastructure becomes sufficiently non-hierarchical and resilient, I expect we’ll see the center of gravity for governance shift to that (non-territorial) domain. The physical element of coercion will keep territoriality relevant, but there are ways other than direct violence to coerce (e.g., delete bank accounts, revoke accesses or permissions, block signals), and developments in physical technologies (e.g., remotely operated weapons) may also make territoriality less relevant.

16. One of the few “laws” of political behavior is Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, which implies that political organizations invariably become more bureaucratic and self-protective as they grow and gain power. Any attempt to trace political development through the lens of complex adaptive systems needs to show how this pattern emerges from the process. It’s easy to imagine a connection between this pattern and things like loss aversion and the biological drive to dominate reproduction, but it would be useful to see if we can induce the emergence of this pattern from agent-based models with realistic simplifying assumptions.

So that’s where I’m starting from. I hope to dig deeper into some of these ideas in future blog posts. Meanwhile, if you have any reactions or you can point me toward relevant books or articles, please leave a comment or send me an email.

Leave a comment


  1. Michael Evans

     /  September 25, 2012

    You seem to be rediscovering the old “constitutional” political science of Aristotle and Montesquieu. This is really exciting and fascinating. A couple of suggestions. (1) Check out Daniel Deudney’s Bounding Power, which includes a much needed perspective on the co-evolution of domestic and international political structures viz. a viz. changes in weapons technology (all of which co-evolve with economic developments). (2) I think the American founding disproves your contention that “efforts to understand the emergence and evolution of government should presume that governments emerged to serve economic ends and not vice versa.” I’m not suggesting by any means that the framing generation did not create the federal republican structure to serve economic ends, or even that they did not do so primarily for this reason. But they quite self-consciously did so with an awareness that not all economic systems and outcomes are compatible with stable “free government.” For this reason, the kind of economic system they sought to promote and create was deliberately designed to serve the end of stable free government. In other words, they tried to create a virtuous self-reinforcing feedback loop based on their understanding of Complexity Politics.

    • Thanks for the pointer to Deudney’s work, which looks interesting. I’ve been out of the academic loop for long enough, especially on IR, that I hadn’t heard of it.

      On your second point, I suspect you’re right that I was hasty in declaring the primacy of one “stream” over the other. More than anything, I was trying to push back against the notion that political institutions sit “above” economies and change in response to political considerations that can be distinguished from economic ones. It would be more appropriate to say that they co-evolve and leave it at that.

      • Richard Lum

         /  September 25, 2012

        Yes, and both Hendrik Spruyt and Phillip Bobbitt espouse co-evolutionary theories, linking the unit-level variation and competition among competing political forms with the larger system that emerges and itself feeds back on the actor-level. And Spruyt is another one that identifies economic changes as part of the shifting milieu in which political forms in Europe were changing/emerging.

  2. Interesting post, thanks. Along related lines, I thought I’d pass on the link to a chapter I published a couple of years ago in a NATO Defense College volume about the application of complexity ideas to international efforts to strengthen weak states like Iraq and Afghanistan:
    “The paradox of complexity: embracing its contribution to situational understanding, resisting its temptation in strategy and operational plans”:

  3. apm

     /  September 25, 2012

    you might find Owen Barder’s work on complexity and development interesting too.

    • Yes, very much so. In fact, it was his online talk that pushed me to dig deeper into the topic, and I’ve cited it in a couple of other recent posts. Really good stuff.

  4. Very interesting. Some of us UNC folks are pushing along the same lines, although we’re focusing more on political economy than regimes. We’ve got a paper forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics that tries to introduce the basic concepts to an IPE audience that’s used to thinking in terms of I.I.D. and comparative statics, mostly using established complex network theory. You might enjoy it.

    Click to access NetworkFinance.pdf

  5. Richard Lum

     /  September 25, 2012

    Jay, while it may be somewhat softer than what you’re looking for, Rosenau has for years been thinking and writing on the idea of complexity in international relations, and developed his own “turbulence” frame of reference.

  6. Oral hazard

     /  September 27, 2012

    A very ambitious undertaking!

    I’m wondering whether maybe a more apt metaphor for regimes is breeds of domesticated animals, rather than different species in the Origin of the Species evolutionary sense. In a very short time, stray or abandoned dogs that become feral revert to the appearance and traits of a common ancestor that never really leaves them — Civilization always three meals away from anarchy and all that.

    Coercion is often cited as the common denominator of all governments, but governments always employ carrots as well as sticks. Whether or not a remote tribal area can be effectively assimilated into a state and national laws enforced there, there is nevertheless governing going on in those tribal areas because hierarchy and society arise organically out of all human communities. Adaptive social units create sustained communal efforts to achieve efficiencies. A lot of chicken-and-egg issues arise in my mind when we talk about the role of the state vs. the role of smaller social units in providing certain services and even goods. This plays out currently in the US as the socialist vs. libertarian dichotomy, but as another commenter pointed out, it’s really part of the ancient and seemingly eternal moral philosophy question of the proper role of government.

    There is also the idiosyncratic ceremonial function played by governments, which I think we discount for the sake of political/economic analysis at our peril.

    Just some things that come to mind. Looking forward to watching this develop.

  7. Couple of random thoughts from an interested non-specialist who really likes the underlying ideas and tends to thinks similarly.

    Can’t tell if you’ve already touched on this but it might be interesting to think about institutions and structures within governance as types of technology with defined evolutionary paths in Design-Space (I’m using Dennett’s term here from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which might be worth a look but is really just a multi-dimensional space). There was an article a while back (still can’t find it) that mapped out technology developments in terms of their dependencies. If you’ve ever played a Civilization game it was a bit like that but much, much more exact. Countries could be determined to have access to particular sets of underlying technologies in place that then fixed paths of varying difficult in developing subsequent technologies.

    This relates to your point previously about perturbation versus building, it’s probably not possible to make a direct leap through Design-Space from one evolved structure-set to another radically different one, technologies will be varying “distances” from each other and the underlying “genetics” for, say, cotton are radically different to those for semiconductors. But knowing where you are in that space and where other structures are might make it easier to figure how best to perturb the systems in useful ways. Might be relatable to Acemoglu/Robinson’s ideas (though I haven’t got around to reading that book yet).

  8. Ben

     /  November 19, 2012

    The work of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann might be of interest to you. Unfortunately, his systems theory is largely ignored in the Anglo-Saxon world of academia. “Social systems” or “Theory of society” would be a good books to start with..

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