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.

Advertisements

Democracy and Development Revisited…Again

Over the weekend, I started reading Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth, a book that attempts to reinterpret the whole of economics through the lens of complexity theory. I’m only a couple of chapters in at this point, but the most striking thing in the book so far is a chart that shows how absurdly uneven the growth in human wealth has been over time. As he describes (pp. 9-11, emphasis added),

If we use the appearance of the first tools as our starting point, it took about 2,485,000 years, or 99.4 percent, of our economic history to go from the first tools to the hunter-gatherer level of economic and social sophistication… The economic journey between the hunter-gatherer world and the modern world was also very slow over most of the 15,000-year period, and then progress exploded in the last 250 years… To summarize 2.5 million years of economic history in brief: for a very, very, very long time not much happened; then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose.

Just a few days after I read that passage, political scientist Xavier Marquez dropped a tremendous blog post on the global diffusion of democracy over the past two centuries. Marquez opens the post this way (again, emphasis added):

People sometimes do not realize how total has been the normative triumph of some of the ideas typically associated with democracy, even if one thinks that democracy itself has not succeeded quite as spectacularly. Take, for instance, the norm that rulers of states should be selected through some process that involves voting by all adults in society (I’m being deliberately vague here) rather than, say, inheriting their position by succeeding their fathers. In 1788 there were only a couple of countries in the world that could even claim to publicly recognize something remotely like this norm. Most people could not vote, and voting was not generally recognized as something that needed to happen before rulers could rule; rulers could and did claim to have authority to rule on other grounds. Norms of hereditary selection structured the symbolic universe in which political competition took place, and defined its ultimate boundaries for most people (at least those who lived in state spaces). Yet by 2008 there were only four or five countries in the world that did not publicly acknowledge universal voting rights.

If you consider the timing, pace, and character of those two trends side by side, it’s very hard to believe that they aren’t interrelated. Take a look at this figure below. The red line replicates a portion of Beinhocker’s aforementioned plot, using world GDP estimates produced by economist Brad De Long (PDF) to show the exponential growth in human wealth over the past 200 years. The blue line plots the spread of universal suffrage across states in the international political system, as recorded in the Political Institutions and Political Events (PIPE) data set Marquez used in his blog post.

I do not read this chart as evidence in favor of modernization theory, which posits a causal arrow running from economic development to democracy and envisions that changes within specific nation-states unfold in a particular sequence: industrialization –> urbanization + education –> value changes –> democratization. In fact, the chart of long-term global trends masks lots of short-term churn in the status of specific countries and regions. Many countries have diverged sharply from the developmental sequence posited by modernization theory, and that’s a serious problem for a theory of change.

Instead, I see the chart as evidence that human society at the global level has become a complex adaptive system that is currently experiencing a period of radical transformation, or “state shift.” These trends in wealth and governance aren’t cause and effect in the traditional sense, nor are they spuriously correlated. Instead, they are twin streams of single evolutionary process that is driven, in part, by the creation, selection, and modification of a rapidly widening array of physical and social technologies. Economic complexity is simultaneously a product and a catalyst of this process, and political institutions—including the ones we use to select national rule-makers—are among the most influential social technologies also involved in this “reciprocal dance,” as Beinhocker calls it. (N.B. Weapons are one of the more influential physical technologies in this system that economists often ignore, and their interplay with the evolution of political institutions is a crucial part of this wider story, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Why would democracy and wealth grow hand in hand? On this point, I take my cues from Owen Barder, Henry Farrell, and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi. In a brilliant online talk, Barder follows Beinhocker’s lead and argues that economic development is an evolutionary process which depends heavily on processes of innovation and selection. Farrell and Shalizi describe why democracy is generally better than other forms of government at supporting those processes:

Democracy has unique benefits as a form of collective problem solving in that it potentially allows people with highly diverse perspectives to come together in order collectively to solve problems. Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies, because it brings these diverse perceptions into direct contact with each other, allowing forms of learning that are unlikely either through the price mechanism of markets or the hierarchical arrangements of bureaucracy. Furthermore, democracy can, by experimenting, take advantage of novel forms of collective cognition that are facilitated by new media.

One point I would like to amplify in this line of thinking is that democracy isn’t really a specific “thing” so much as the label we stick on a cluster of seemingly similar things. Like human “races,” political regime types are a set of concepts we’ve developed to organize our thinking about similarities and differences in forms of the social technology we call government. These concepts are neither natural nor inevitable, and they often obscure a tremendous diversity within the categories they establish. Our decision to classify something as a “democracy” depends on many different features, each of which can take a wide variety of forms without violating our mental classification scheme. On electoral systems alone, you’ll be hard pressed to find two cases that look exactly alike, and that’s just one of many relevant attributes. And, of course, even in cases we might consider archetypal, these rules are constantly evolving.

One practical implication of this point is the political version of Owen Barder’s advice to purveyors of foreign aid: instead of searching for “best practices” we can copy from one context and paste onto another, we should think about how to facilitate appropriate experimentation, feedback, and learning within societies we wish to assist, and about what kinds of changes we might make in our own rules and organizations that will further support those processes. These institutions are not modular, and we cannot control the systems in which they’re embedded. We don’t build states, we perturb them, and we should never lose sight of that difference.

  • Author

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Follow Dart-Throwing Chimp on WordPress.com
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 13,627 other followers

  • Archives

  • Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: