The Political Power of Inertia

Political scientists devote a lot of energy to theorizing about dramatic changes—things like revolutions, coups, popular uprisings, transitions to democracy, and the outbreak of wars within and between states. These changes are fascinating and consequential, but they are also extremely rare. In politics, as in physics, inertia is a powerful force. Our imagination is drawn to change, but if we want to understand the world as it is, then we have to explain the prevalence of continuity as well.

Examples of inertia in politics are easy to find. War is justifiably a central concern for political science, but for many decades now, almost none of the thousands of potential wars within and between states have actually happened. Once a war does start, though, it often persists for years in spite of the tremendous costs involved. The international financial system suffers frequent and sometimes severe shocks and has no sovereign to defend it, and yet the basic structure of that system has persisted for decades. Whole journals are devoted to popular uprisings and other social movements, but they very rarely happen, and when they do, they often fail to produce lasting institutional change. For an array of important phenomena in the social sciences, by far the best predictor of the status of the system at time (t + 1) is the status of the system at time (t).

One field in which inertia gets its due is organization theory. A central theme in that neck of the intellectual woods is the failure of firms and agencies to adapt to changes in their environment and the search for patterns that might explain those failures. Some theories of institutional design at the level of whole political systems also emphasize stasis over change. Institutions are sometimes said to be “sticky,” meaning that they often persist in spite of evident flaws and available alternatives. As Paul Pierson observes, “Once established, patterns of political mobilization, the institutional ‘rules of the game,’ and even citizens’ basic ways of thinking about the political world will often generate self-reinforcing dynamics.”

In international relations and comparative politics, we see lots of situations in which actions that might improve the lot of one or more parties are not taken. These are situations in which inertia is evident, even though it appears to be counterproductive. We often explain failures to act in these situations as the result of collective action problems. As Mancur Olson famously observed, people, organizations, and other agents have diverse interests; action to try to produce change is costly; and the benefits of those costly actions are often diffuse. Under these circumstances, a tally of expected costs and benefits will often discourage agents from taking action, tempting them instead to forego those costs and look to free ride on the contributions of others instead.

Collective action problems are real and influential. Still, I wonder if our theories put too much emphasis on those system-level sources of inertia and too little on causes at the level of the individual. We like to think of ourselves as free and unpredictable, but humans really are creatures of habit. For example, a study published in 2010 in Science (here) used data sampled from millions of mobile-phone users to show that there is “a potential 93% average predictability” in where users go and when, “an exceptionally high value rooted in the inherent regularity of human behavior.” The authors conclude that,

Despite our deep-rooted desire for change and spontaneity, our daily mobility is, in fact, characterized by a deep-rooted regularity.

A related study (here) used mobility and survey data from Kenya and found essentially the same thing. Its authors reported that “mobility estimates are surprisingly robust to the substantial biases in phone ownership across different geographical and socioeconomic groups.” Apparently, this regularity is not unique to rich countries.

The microfoundations of our devotion to routine may be evident in neurobiology. Behavioral routines are physically expressed and reinforced in the development of neural pathways related to specific memories and actions, and in the thickening of the myelin sheaths that facilitate conduction along those pathways. The result is a virtuous or vicious circle, depending on the behavior and context. Athletes and musicians take advantage of this process through practice, but practice is mostly repetition, and repetition is a form of routine. Repetition begets habituation begets repetition.

This innate attachment to routine may contribute to political inertia. Norms and institutions are often regarded as clever solutions to collective action problems that would otherwise thwart our interests and aspirations. At least in part, those norms and institutions may also be social manifestations of an inborn and profound preference for routine and regularity.

In our theoretical imaginations, we privilege change over stasis. As alternative futures, however, the two are functionally equivalent, and stasis is vastly more common than change. In principle, our theories should cover both alternatives. In practice, that is very hard to do, and many of us choose to emphasize the dramatic over the routine. I wonder if we have chosen wrong.

For now, I’ll give the last word on this topic to Frank Rich. He wrote a nice essay for the October 20, 2014, issue of New York Magazine about an exercise in which he read his way back through the daily news from 1964 to compare it to the supposedly momentous changes afoot in 2014. His conclusion:

Even as we recognize that the calendar makes for a crude and arbitrary marker, we like to think that history visibly marches on, on a schedule we can codify.

The more I dove back into the weeds of 1964, the more I realized that this is both wishful thinking and an optical illusion. I came away with a new appreciation of how selective our collective memory is, and of just how glacially history moves.

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