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.


The WTO as Catalyst of Democratization

In a statistical analysis written up a few years ago in the journal Democratization, I found that countries belonging to the World Trade Organization (WTO) or its predecessor, the GATT, were more likely to attempt and sustain democratic government than ones that did not. By contrast, I found no such “boost” from participation in global or regional human-rights treaty regimes. This WTO effect showed up in models that also included a measure of trade openness, suggesting that the increased trade flows that membership is supposed to produce were not the source of the association. The statistical analysis wasn’t properly designed to identify a causal relationship, but I speculated that the WTO effect had to do with institutional and organizational changes it spurred within countries seeking to join:

Of all the organizations included in this analysis, the GATT/WTO is the one most explicitly and exlusively linked over the past half-century to deliberate Western efforts to globalize liberalism as such. Working in tandem with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the GATT/WTO has encouraged developing countries to create and sustain certain laws and practices in order to realize benefits from increased economic exchange with the world’s wealthiest states. Although democracy is not an explicit criterion for membership, it is certainly part of a larger suite of of liberal institutions and norms that are preferred by these organizations and their most powerful members. The decision to participate in this regime sets in motion a range of elite and technical exchanges aimed at producing certain kinds of institutional outcomes. In this manner, formal participation in this liberal project may facilitate or accelerate the development of local and international expectations, and even specific new actors, conducive to the establishment and persistence of democracy.

I was reminded of my conjecture by a story I read this morning on Laos’ ongoing effort to win WTO membership. At this point, 159 countries are already members, so we don’t get that many more chances to observe the effects of joining on domestic political economies. Still, this one seems to fit the story line so far:

After almost a decade of major economic transformation, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is on the brink of World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership.

But the small country’s Herculean effort to join the exclusive trade club is a reminder to the ten other least developed countries (LDCs) now seeking membership of the cumbersome process involved.

“LDCs think it is easy to accede to the WTO, like becoming a United Nations member, but it is not,” Nicolas Imboden, director of the Geneva-based Ideas Centre, told IPS. The non-governmental organisation has been counselling Lao PDR, whose accession will be completed in October, for fourteen years. It is now starting to assist Liberia and Comoros, two other least developed countries on a waiting list that also includes Afghanistan, Bhutan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Sao Tome, Sudan, Vanuatu and Yemen.

“They have to adopt the rules of the WTO and this is a huge task for most of them,” said Imboden. “They must undertake reforms, completely revise their legal systems and establish rules that apply to all foreign investors and importers, without discrimination.”

Imboden noted that many LDCs justify clamouring for membership on the grounds that it will open up new markets, a motive he argued is “flawed”, since LDCs already have good trade relations with most countries.

Rather, the “benefits” of membership are mainly domestic: aligning national economic policies with the WTO regime sets up the basis for improved economic efficiency and attracts companies eager to invest in these countries, not because of their market size, but to export to the neighbouring region.

“Reforms related to WTO accession require a change of attitude, not only a change of law,” Khemmani Pholsena, vice-minister of industry and commerce for Lao PDR, told IPS. “Lao PDR has reviewed and enacted some 25 trade-related laws and 50 other legislations since 2000. And I believe that these reforms will strengthen the rule of law, thereby cutting down on undue privileges and possibilities of corruption.”

If the statistical model is capturing something real, then these transformations should marginally improve the odds that Laos will transition to democracy. Of course, the observed “effect” is probabilistic, not deterministic, so I’m not suggesting that Laos will start holding free elections as soon as it joins.

I do, however, expect that Laos will eventually democratize, and that when it does, that data point will further reinforce the clear liberal trend in human political organization. As far as I’m concerned, what I said at the end of that 2008 paper still holds:

Taking a longer view, the evidence that international integration and the global trend toward democratic rule are interrelated is compelling. In his landmark work on the dynamics of political institutions over time, Paul Pierson reminds us that change processes involving complex causes and slow-moving outcomes are not readily explained by the kinds of models social scientists usually employ, especially in statistical analyses. When we focus narrowly on the kinds of discrete transitional moments studied here, these limitations do not loom so large. If we switch our vision to the long haul, however, they could be critical.

From a historical perspective, we might think of these transition events as the visible signals emanating from a slower-moving but also much-harder-to-quantify process of political and economic development that includes institutions at the levels of state and society as well as regime. Watching for patterns at this temporal and geographic scale is a bit like watching for climate change. The mechanisms generating the larger pattern are extremely complex and undoubtedly include elements of endogeneity, contagion, threshold effects, and feedback loops, to name just some of the possibilities. This kind of causal complexity makes it very hard to isolate the effects of specific variables, especially when the data we might use to test those relationships are often scarce or unreliable. And yet a pattern emerges. The production of greenhouse gases accelerates, temperatures rise, glaciers retreat, and species disappear.

Meanwhile, trade flows swell, international organizations, proliferate, more countries attempt democracy, and fewer of those democracies fail. The nexus of these trends almost certainly lies in the functional links between democracy and economic development–links that promote exactly the kind of positive feedback loops Pierson identifies as a key mechanism for path-dependent change in political institutions. When governments discover they cannot survive by force alone, they must find ways to secure the habitual, quasi-voluntary compliance of the populations they seek to rule. To secure that compliance, they need to promote prosperity and remove incentives to rely on force as a means to effect political change.

The second half of the 20th century demonstrated convincingly that the combination of democratic governance with market-based economies offers the most effective means to achieve those ends in a durable way. That combination does not always produce immediate gains, but at present there appears to be no sustainable alternative, so polities that try democracy and fail almost invariably try again. As Robert Bates argues, ‘The creation of limited government may not be sufficient to secure high levels of investment, much less the growth of national economies. But assurances to investors surely are necessary to secure the formation of capital,’ and thus to allow economic growth to occur. As technological and political developments have expanded the possibilities for global exchange, governments have increasingly reached out to one another in an effort to create new opportunities for growth and then to help their citizens realize the resulting gains. Thus, even as the instantaneous and visible status of many countries’ domestic political institutions remains highly volatile, the historical trajectories point decidedly toward a world increasingly composed of states with elected governments linked by dense networks of economic exchange and political and legal entanglements.

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