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.

A Case Study in the Limits of Generalization in Comparative Politics

If you’re here because you’re interested in comparative politics, you ought to go chug yesterday’s rich post on Nate Jensen’s blog about what legislatures in authoritarian regimes do and then chase it with Tom Pepinsky’s addendum on his own Indolaysia blog. Nate solicited thoughts on this topic from some of the best minds in the field, including Tom, and you can learn a lot in just a few minutes of reading.

What struck me in reading those posts was the sharp tension in comparative politics between the general and the specific. Nate’s question has been a focal point for comparativists for nearly a decade now, and the arc of that inquiry it has inspired should be familiar to anyone who works in this field.

  1. A particular case or new line of deductive theorizing suggests an intriguing puzzle.
  2. Some solutions to that puzzle are tabled in the form of broad conjectures.
  3. Patterns are found in cross-national data that seem to confirm those conjectures. (Note, though, that the preceding two steps do not necessarily occur in that order).
  4. The field buzzes with the promise of a new covering law, the Holy Grail of political science. Conference panels abound.
  5. People with expertise in specific cases start to nibble at that law, identifying permutations or exceptions in the parts of the world they know. By the time they’re done, there’s practically nothing left.
  6. Distracted by the next big puzzle, the field fails to notice what just happened.
  7. The policy community discovers the covering law and incorporates a few of its prescriptive implications (“Consociationalism good! Presidential systems bad!”) into current practice.

Okay, so those last two may be a little mean spirited, but you get the idea: there’s some meta-irony here. The quest for covering laws keeps serving up failures, but the quest itself ends up following a recurring pattern.

On the specifics of how institutions shape politics, I think Nate’s virtual round-table also provides a nice reminder of the limits of functionalist theories of institutionalism. Functionalist theories see institutions as intelligently designed solutions to specific political and economic problems. For any formal political institution, we should be able to work backwards from the fact of the institution’s existence to the problem it was intended to solve and then show in practice how the institution’s origins support that line of reasoning. Voilà.

The problem is the disconnect between the assumed version and the reality of how institutional arrangements come into being. In some cases, historical institutionalists have mustered compelling evidence to show how the original institutional innovation was deliberately and successfully designed to solve a specific problem in a specific case. Most of the time, though, the backstory on how a particular institution actually came to exist in any instance chosen at random looks rather different from that first instantiation. And when a functionalist theory gets the “how” part wrong, it’s going to get the “why” part wrong, too.

Scott Desposato’s contribution to Nate’s post on legislatures in authoritarian regimes provides a nice case in point: Brazil. That country’s 20-year, military-led authoritarian interlude didn’t proactively decide to create a legislature as a way to credibly commit to the protection of its subject’s property rights or to craftily divide its opponents. Instead, it inherited an elected legislature from the democratic regime it toppled, which inherited its basic contours from the colonial metropole that built it. If the Brazilian junta can be said to have made a choice here, it was the decision not to demolish an extant legislature, but that choice surely had as much to do with inertia and the expected costs of such a destructive act as it did with the anticipated benefits of keeping an elected legislature around.

These path dependencies are less problematic for softer versions of institutionalist theory that emphasize the marginal and contingent effects of specific institutions under a variety of conditions, as I think Jennifer Gandhi does in her award-winning book on political institutions under dictatorship.

Even there, though, the layers of contingency pile up pretty quickly. Institutions that seem to function a certain way in a certain set of cases for a certain period of time start to do different things or simply become less relevant as the economic, social, and technological context changes around them, and as wily humans looking for an edge keep innovating. For example, in an era of ubiquitous and instant communication, the information-gathering and opposition-moderating functions that authoritarian legislatures are sometimes said to serve may now be satisfied in other ways, as Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Molly Roberts suggest in a widely-cited paper on the selective censorship of China’s Sina Weibo social-media platform.

So where does that leave us? I think the opening line of Barbara Geddes’ contribution to Nate’s blog post sums it up nicely:

Autocratic legislatures play different roles and serve different functions in different dictatorships.

In other words, “It depends” is about as close to a covering law as we’re going to get.

On Global Governance, Wishing Won’t Make It So

The “future is now” special report in Foreign Policy magazine’s September/October 2011 issue includes a couple of pieces that predict a significant deepening of global governance in the near future. In “Come Together” (link), American University professor of international relations David Bosco reflects on the consequences of the 9/11 attacks and the global economic crisis of 2008 and concludes that we may have “reached the point at which the world is more centripetal than centrifugal.”

The messy, halting, and fragmented project of global governance may have advanced far enough now that conflict, crisis, and the intense pressure of events lead not to the flying apart or hollowing out of existing institutions but to their consolidation. When crises hit, policymakers are pulled toward more international governance rather than less — sometimes in spite of themselves. The reality of interdependence may finally have insinuated itself into the instincts of policymakers…Multilateral instruments are getting more power and responsibility not necessarily because they’ve earned it, but because there seems to be no other option. Global institutionalization, at least in the economic realm, may now be a one-way ratchet: the only real options are keeping the status quo (which virtually everyone agrees is untenable) or ceding more power to the center.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of international relations at Princeton University and former Director of Policy Planning at the Department of State under President Obama, makes even bolder predictions in a piece titled “Problems Will Be Global — But Solutions Will Be, Too” (link):

By 2025 the U.N. Security Council will have expanded from the present 15 members to between 25 and 30 and will include, either as de jure or de facto permanent members, Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa, either Egypt or Nigeria, and either Indonesia or Turkey. At the same time, regional organizations on every continent — the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, some version of the Organization of American States — will be much stronger. Each will follow its own version of economic and political integration, inspired by the European Union, and many will include representation from smaller subregional organizations. In the Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey could provide the core of a new Middle East free trade area; alternatively the European Union could be interlocked with an emerging Mediterranean Union.

Like Bosco’s, Slaughter’s predictions are based on her sense that globalization is inexorably strengthening demand for international governance.

Driving this massive multilateralization is the increasingly global and regional nature of our problems, combined with an expanding number of countries splitting off from existing states. National governments will remain essential for many purposes, but managing bilateral relations and engaging in successful global negotiations with nearly 200 states will become increasingly unwieldy.

What Bosco and Slaughter have given us is the liberal institutionalist view of international relations in the early twenty-first century. Complex interdependence in the global political economy is creating new threats, but one person’s threats are another’s opportunities for mutual gains from cooperation. To realize those gains, however, states must create institutions that solve problems of coordination and enforcement. And so they will.

As sympathetic as I am to their hopeful visions, I’m more skeptical than Bosco and Slaughter about the prospects for deeper global governance in the near future. As observers of institutional development have repeatedly shown, the prospect of mutual gains from better governance does not lead inexorably to the development of new regimes or the strengthening of existing ones. Disagreements over exactly what the rules ought to be and how to share the costs and benefits of enforcing them have a tendency to scuttle or cripple most integrationist projects. Institutions may be useful as solutions to problems of cooperation, but demand does not lead automatically to supply.

Right now, globalization probably is broadening and deepening possibilities for mutual gains from international cooperation, but obstacles to collective action may be strengthening as well, as America’s and Europe’s relative power declines and new powers arise. I think we’ve seen this dynamic at work in the failures of the Doha round of talks on new rules for global trade and the Copenhagen conference on climate change in 2009. In both cases, there was no lack of mutual interest; instead, it was the shifting balance of power that impeded deal-making. In Doha and Copenhagen, rising powers demanded larger concessions than established powers were willing to make. Those failures would seem to favor the established powers for now, but the rising powers probably believe (correctly) that time is on their side. As a result, they have little incentive to strike a deal now that might lock them into terms less favorable than the ones they might get 10 or 20 years hence. A similar pattern has emerged recently within the European Union, the deepest of all international-governance projects. There’s been talk of new layers of financial cooperation, but there’s been even more talk of scuttling the common currency, and newer members have increasingly pushed back against the old-timers’ demands on many political matters as well.

In short, I think Bosco’s and Slaughter’s predictions are more aspirational than rational. As a “new liberal” by temperament, I share those aspirations, but I’m far more skeptical than they are about the amount of institutional development we’ll see in the next couple of decades, when states’ relative power is so much in flux.

What Cycling Has Taught Me about Rule of Law (and Other Social-Science Geekery)

I make my living as a political scientist, but my big hobby is cycling. I’ve been riding a bike for fun and for exercise off and on for more than two decades now, ever since I was a teenager and first got hooked on mountain biking in the woods behind my parents’ house in Carrboro, NC. Nowadays, I usually spend 10-15 hours on the bike each week, most of it on the roads in and around Washington, DC. I haven’t raced in a few years–a handful of crashes convinced me to get out of the formal side of the sport–but I still do a lot of fast group rides, some of which draw scores of riders when the weather’s nice.

When I’m on my bike, I try to push my work life to the back of my mind and just concentrate on the ride. That, and the exercise, are usually the point of the thing. Still, I’ve spent my entire adulthood training to think like a social scientist, and road cycling is an inherently social endeavor, so the mental firewall sometimes crumbles. When that happens, one of a few recurring themes usually comes to mind, depending on the situation.

1. Rule of law doesn’t mean that laws rule. Social scientists who study political and economic development talk a lot about the importance of “rule of law,” which boils down to the idea that sensible laws are predictably and fairly enforced. According to many development theorists, rich democracies like the United States have prospered in large part because they transitioned early from arbitrary and capricious regulations to rule of law. Poorer countries will only see their economic growth rates take off and politics stabilize, the thinking goes, when they manage to make the same shift.

Even in the United States, though, rule of law can be startlingly incomplete. When you’re perched on a 17-lb. carbon-fiber sculpture, trying to share the road with streams of 3,500-lb. hurtling steel boxes, you’re constantly reminded that the formal rules only tell a small part of the story. Most drivers exceed the formal speed limit most of the time. Almost no one comes to a complete stop at stop signs, even though that’s what the rules of the road tell you to do. (Cyclists are probably worse about this one than drivers, by the way, often blowing through stop signs where cars are already waiting.) A lot of people in Maryland, where I live, talk on hand-held mobile phones while they drive, despite the fact that the state passed a law last year banning that behavior. Some drivers expect cyclists to clear the road for them, even though the law in most (all?) states instructs cyclists to take the lane when the rider judges that it’s not safe to squeeze onto the shoulder. Significantly, this gap between formal and informal rules doesn’t just happen when the police aren’t around. On numerous occasions, I’ve had police officers tell me to do something not prescribed by law (e.g., avoid this road, stay on that bike path), apparently because they thought it was expedient.

If you tried to survive in this environment by counting on people to follow the formal rules, you’d be toast. Some of this is just ignorance of the law, but some of it–like speeding–is the result of informal practices that dominate the formal rules. Some of those informal practices might be more efficient than their formal counterparts, but surely some are not. So, even in places where “rule of law” supposedly prevails, many of our daily practices are still built around shared expectations based on unwritten and sometimes inefficient rules, and these unwritten rules can be very hard to dislodge when they are widely followed.

These observations have strongly influenced how I think about prescriptions for better governance in “developing” countries that are based on changes to formal rules. Some political scientists and economists place great faith in the idea that desirable social outcomes can be brought about by crafting rules that will give people incentives to behave in the ways we’d like. On paper, that idea makes some sense. In practice, however, this yawning gap between formal and informal institutions on the roads reminds me that real life is a lot more complicated.

2. Some people act as if (your) life is really cheap. There are a lot of bad or distracted drivers out there who unintentionally put themselves and cyclists at risk; whenever I encounter them, I might shake my head, but I’m not all that surprised. What do surprise me are the extraordinarily dangerous things some drivers will do to send cyclists a message when they don’t like how those riders are behaving on the road. As far as I can tell, these people just don’t think my life is worth very much, or they just don’t think about it at all.

A couple of years ago, I was on a big group ride in a semi-rural part of Montgomery County on a Saturday morning when a driver apparently got frustrated with waiting behind us for a safe place to pass. On a fast downhill, where our group had stretched into single file and was travelling at or above the 30 mph speed limit, this guy decided to try to pass, then abruptly pulled his car back to the right, splitting the line of cyclists right in front of me. A couple of seconds later, he hit his brakes hard, even though the riders in front of him were still flying down the hill at the same speed. I swerved just enough to avoid ramming straight into his back bumper, clipping the back-left corner of his car instead. My chin hit the trunk, then I flipped through the air and landed on my bum in the opposite lane. Lucky for me, no cars were coming the other way. Without a word and with barely a pause, the driver sped off to his house, which turned out to be just a half-mile down the same road. He pulled into his garage and stayed inside, even when the police came.

That’s just one of many close calls I’ve had on the road with drivers who seemed to be using their machines to tell me how they felt about my presence or behavior on the road. Sometimes it’s just a yell as they pass, but at least a few times a month it’s more: a swerve that squeezes me to the edge of, or even off, the road; a tailgater who could kill me with just a touch of the gas; a guy a couple of weeks ago who sped by, pulled over, jumped out of his car, and screamed at me to come fight him, apparently because I’d delayed him at the last traffic light. (I’ve been part of that particular scenario a few times now.)

It’s hard to imagine that these drivers would engage in these behaviors if they could think through all the potential costs of their actions. For starters, I’d like to think my life is worth something to them, if only in the abstract sense that most of us see human life as a thing worth protecting. Even in totally selfish terms, though, an incident in which I’m badly hurt or killed would be a huge inconvenience for the driver, too. The police, the insurance, the possibility of courts and even jail time–all of that’s going to be a much bigger hassle than the few extra seconds they might wait for a safe opportunity to pass me.

I sometimes think of these angry drivers when I’m reading theories of civil war and other forms of political violence. In the past couple of decades, a lot of the thinking about why civil wars happen where and when they do has centered on the assumption that violence is an instrument which organizations use to advance their political interests, and that individuals who choose to participate in that violence do so after weighing its expected risks and benefits. I still think both of those assumptions can be useful ones for purposes of theorizing about violence, but my experiences on the road have also taught me that those assumptions have stark limits. Sometimes, people threaten or use violence in ways that just don’t seem to take much account of the consequences, and trying to understand that behavior as the product of cost-benefit analysis can take us pretty far away from reality.

3. We all belong to tribes. Cyclists often ride in packs, and the conversation in those packs often turns to drivers. In those conversations, “we” (riders) are typically described as good people doing good things for bodies and our planet, and “they” (drivers) are often described as careless or even bad people who are thinking only of themselves and denying us our rightful place on the road. We share stories of injustices suffered by ourselves or other riders on Facebook and Twitter, and when one of us is threatened by a driver, others often rally around to protect him or her, even if it’s someone we hardly know. That time I clipped the back of a fast-braking car on my Saturday-morning ride, a dozen guys I’ve never seen off a bike stopped their day to make sure I was okay, then waited for almost a half-hour to talk to the police in hopes of punishing the driver.

Based on my limited knowledge of anthropology, I gather this is standard in-group/out-group behavior. We see ourselves as part of a social collective with a distinct identity and way of life; we identify external threats to that way of life; and we go out of our way to protect members of our collective from those threats, even in situations where it isn’t self-evidently “rational” to do so. This is exactly the kind of us vs. them behavior that political scientists and sociologists often describe when discussing “ethnic” or “tribal” groups, usually in pejorative terms. People in rich countries are supposed to have traded in these traditional identities for more “modern” ones, and that break with tradition is supposed to give them the freedom to make decisions based on efficiency instead of obligation.

In short, cyclists may not be an ethnic group, but they sometimes act like one. That cyclists can act like an ethnic group reinforces my belief that the constructivists are right about the origins and behavior of human communities. Supposedly “modern” humans are just the same old people plunked down in different contexts, “ancient hatreds” can get pretty intense pretty fast, and modernity–whatever that is–is not a cure for these quirks of our nature.

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