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.

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