I think about politics a lot. That may surprise you coming from someone as politically cynical as I am, but my study of politics is easing my cynicism. I'm getting some small measure of hope that current western government models may have some sustaining merit even in this age of bitter vitriol and take-no-prisoners-compromise-is-for-losers posturing. While I still find myself unable to support either of America's dueling parties, at least they are starting to make sense to me. This is no small thing.
The more I study the universe, biology, economics, Internet technology and political history, the more I see the influence of emerging complexity at work in our lives. When you look at the behaviors of very large, macro systems you find that they are difficult to study and quantify. A human brain is a system composed of trillions of data points dynamically fluctuating and interacting in every moment. A galaxy is made up of hundreds of millions of stars, each influencing all the others via gravity, and those starts are made up of countless atoms furiously bouncing off each other and generally yanking the four fundamental forces against one another. Now look at something like an economy. What is it if not a complex system? And then look at society–an incredibly complex fabric composed of numerous systems of unimaginable complexity. Any attempt to influence the behavior of something so complex and dynamic is both difficult and tough to judge. Unforeseen consequences rule the day, and correlation and causation are frequently hard to differentiate.
For most of my life, I have had a very hard time reconciling the immense complexity of human society with the relative simplicity of political ideology. This was primarily an intuitive inkling until the last 5 years or so, and it manifested itself in my study of all models of governance. I studied everything from tribalism to feudalism, from democracy to republics to dictatorships, from completely unregulated capitalism to tightly controlled socialism. I dove into the history of American politics, watching as parties emerged and vanished until two parties won out, and then occasionally swapped platforms. Through this process I have been a liberal Democrat, a conservative Republican, a fiscally conservative Democrat, a Libertarian and everything in between. So what am I now? I don't know a word for it. Perhaps metapolitical comes close.
I think the platforms of our two parties aren't even logically consistent. I'm not going to say more because people will take offense, and I think about 10 minutes of honest examination is all it takes to pick apart the self-contradictory ideas of either party. It's a fun exercise if you are bored. That has lead me to my current political obsession: how on earth are these parties successful? Why are these underlying memes so powerful and resonant with their bases when their documentation is so flimsy? How can people believe such simple, inconsistent platforms be an effective way to manage one of the most complex systems in all of the Universe?
Remember when I said I explored all the government models we've tried and documented as a species? I noticed something really interesting in that research. The wealthy tend to have most of the money in all societies. I don't care if you look at a dictatorship, communist China, or the USA–the income distribution curve is really similar across all of them. Many political revolutions are launched with the goal of changing this, and some succeed in the near term, but in the long run you see this curve return. It looks something like this:
In the image above, the horizontal axis is people and the vertical axis is money. Over time, on average, 20% of the people have 80% of the money. The model of government doesn't matter, a change in government model can temporarily reshape this curve but time will bring it back. Now here's the crazy thing. If you were to graph make this graph with one axis being all the words in a book and the other being how often they are used it would look the same. What if you graph the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes? Same curve. What about the mass of stars in a galaxy? Same curve. How about the distance of planets from our sun? You got it, the same curve appears again.
ow look at the reach of media companies. Before the Internet, 20% of media companies held 80% of the reach. The Internet completely disrupted and blew up that curve–at first. Until you find that today, 20% of the websites get 80% of the traffic and about 20% of the Twitter profiles have 80% of the followers. Almost anytime you have a large enough system that self organizes via emergent complexit you see the emergences of the Power Law. Gravity, capital, influence all act as forces that pool resources or information once a critical mass is attained. Disruptions in a system may destabilize this, as the Internet did for media, but once that disruptive force is incorporated into the system, the Power Law reasserts itself.
So where does that leave us in American politics? Most people don't deny this curve exists. Instead they disagree on why it exists and what should be done about it. Conservatives look at this curve and say that hard work, talent, ambition and determination are the key to moving toward the green. They're often right. I personally know many people from modest or even very poor beginnings who have gained personal fortunes worth millions of dollars or more through those virtues. They make a compelling anecdote. Meanwhile liberals look at this curve and say that the underlying force is greed. They're often right. I personally know hardworking, intelligent people who are near or below the poverty line. They put in as many hours or more as others. Some put themselves through college via hard work, and then find that their post-college income is not really any higher. Meanwhile, there are some in that 20% who were born into money and are lazy and uninformed.
Conservatives say the solution is clear. We should reduce government influence and allow the market to do what it does best: create wealth. After all, every dollar devoted to tax revenue can't be spent on employees, production or growth. On the other hand, liberals say the best approach is to regulate business to control greed and reckless investment. After all, any truly just society can't stand by why people suffer in poverty.
Both these philosophies strike me as frustratingly simple in the context of emerging complexity. We have a profession dedicated to the treatment of problems in one of our favorite complex systems: the human body. It's called medicine. In the medical world, blanket ideologies are quite rare. Instead different treatment strategies exist for different conditions with the implicit understanding that no approach is universal. The left/right to me seems like doctors who would say "Take an antibiotic every day" or "Never take an antibiotic." These strategies are both terrible. One would devastate the myriad of organisms responsible for supporting your own cells, and the other would throw us back more than a century in public health. You'd never go to a doctor with such a simplified model of medicine. Yet in the political world, the intentional, prescriptive approach to problem solving is rare.
I said this post was about my peace with American politics, not my frustration. Let me tell you about how I restored my faith in our Representative Democracy and its always warring Two Parties. Although our parties differ on many issues, they share a belief in many common American values. Neither party seeks to halt elections, although neither is above playing dirty when it comes to winning either. Both parties are sympathetic to corporate interests. Both parties value private property rights–no one is advocating true socialism (I can't wait to read the comments from that statement). Why, then, is America so successful over time if the differences in the two party platforms are oversimplified in the face of complexity?
Selection. When times are good, incumbents rule the vote. When things go bad, challengers start taking office. Approval ratings and voter turnout are a selection pressure. Much like natural selection in organisms, political strategies that are timely are favored. Now, this is all made more complicated because there can be a real lag between policies that produce results and election cycles, but ultimately throwing everyone out of office every few years works for political memes in a manner that looks remarkably similar to what happens to DNA over generations. Let's call it political selection.
Here is where my faith in our system is restored. While either party may be overly impressed with their memes, the founding fathers were clever enough to build a system where government must adapt over time to the changing patterns and behaviors in an incredibly complex system called society. We may have great ups and downs, but so far the American Experiment has worked remarkably well.
look forward to the next roll of the political dice, and another voluntary disruption of our governance model.