Naomi Campbell

About models

What are we talking about?

When you hear about models it is often about people like Naomi Campbell or Heidi Klum. Yet, there are far more fascinating models out there. They may not dwell in the spotlights but everyone employs them. Scientists are the most heavy users. These models are simplifications or abstractions of reality and are used to explain things or to make predictions.

Game theory model

Indeed these models are as sexy as the scientists using them so a picture might not have drawn your attention. But then again, sexy is just a temporary phase in life. So what kind of models are we talking about? You can think of:

  • models to calculate the trajectory of the planets in the solar system
  • models to forecast the weather
  • models to predict the spread and the mortality of a virus
  • models to estimate the impact of a proposed measure on the economy
  • models to predict the impact of climate change

In the 1970s weather forecasts were of poor quality compared to today. And they didn’t go a lot farther than the day after tomorrow. Today predictions are more accurate and go up to two weeks in advance, even thougt the longer term predictions are not as good as those for today or tomorrow.

This improvement is the result of weather forecast models and computers. Computer models have improved over time, and a lot of hard work of scientists has gone into them. Usually about 50 different models are used together to make a weather prediction. Models are important tools to make sense of what happens in the world. There has been a course named Model Thinking by Professor Scott E. Page of the University of Michigan on the Internet. Much of what you read here comes from this course.

Why use models?

When making plans for the future, models can be useful. You can ask yourself, what might happen if you choose a particular action. An economist might use models to predict the consequences for economic growth of a proposed policy measure. Predictions made with models do not always come true. For instance, most economists didn’t see the financial crisis of 2008 coming despite all the models they had at their disposal.

In 1972 a group of scientists using a computer model warned that we would have run out of oil and some other crucial natural resources by 2010. They may have been a few decades off the mark but their warning made people and policy makers think about the fact that the resources of our planet are limited.

When models fail people may start to doubt the experts. This can be dangerous. On average experts do better than uneducated guesses. Only, small errors can lead to dramatic misses so an uneducated guess can sometimes be more accurate than an expert calculation. Experts usually don’t make the mistakes laypeople make so they do better on average.

Models can be wrong because they are simplifications and don’t take everything into account. For instance, an economic model to predict demand for goods and services doesn’t include the preferences and budgets of each individual consumer. If you had all that information, you might be able to make very accurate predictions, but that may be impossible.

There are good reasons to become familiar with models and the issues that come with them. Models can make us think clearer. People who use models usually are better decision makers than those who don’t because they have a better understanding of the situation. Models help us to use and understand data. And they assist us with designing solutions for problems and setting out strategies.

Using multiple models together

Proverbs can disagree with each other. Two heads are better than one but too many cooks spoil the broth. And he who hesitates is lost while a stitch in time saves nine. Contradictory statements can’t be true at the same time but they can be true in different situations or times. It may be important to know which advice is best in which situation, or more often, which combination of advice.

Models are better than uneducated guesses and using more models together can lead to better outcomes than using a single model. That is why up to fifty models are used to make a weather prediction. People who use a single model are not good at predicting. They may be right from time to time just like a clock that has stopped sometimes shows the correct time.

Smart people use several models and their personal judgement to determine which models best apply on the situation at hand. Only people using multiple models together make better predictions than mere guessing but they can be wrong. Still, models can help us to think more logically about how the world works, and eliminate a lot of errors we would make otherwise.

Model thinking

When you plan to work with models, you need to think logically from assumptions to conclusions, and then verify the outcomes with the use of experiments or gathered data. This way of working is called model thinking. It gets even more complicated when you use different models together as the outcomes may differ. And so you might have to consider which models apply best on the situation at hand and evaluate the different outcomes. Model thinking usually consists of the following steps:

  • name the parts

A model consists of parts. For instance, if you want to figure out which people go to which restaurant, you need to identify the individual people as well as their preferences and budgets. You also need to identify the restaurants and their menus and the price of those menus. And so the parts are the individual people, their preferences, the restaurants, their menus and the price of each of those menus.

  • identify the relationships between the parts

A model comes with relationships between the parts. For instance, the financial system is interconnected because financial institutions lend money to each other. If one bank fails, loans may not be repaid, and other institutions may get into trouble too. And so it might be a good idea to identify the relationships between financial institutions and how much they depend on one another.

  • work through the logic

Suppose you want to calculate the length of a rope that you want to tie around the earth at one metre above the surface. Assume the Earth’s circumference to be 40,000 kilometres. The formula for circumference C is: C = πD, where D is the diameter of the Earth. In this case C = π(D + 2m) = πD + (π * 2m) = 40,000 km + 6.28m.

  • doing experiments

You can design a model on a drawing board and then reality may turn out to be quite different. Model need a reality check. For instance, if people are often jammed near the exit of a room, you could explore the effects of putting a post before the exit to prevent people from pushing each other.

  • identify logical boundaries

With the use of models it may be possible to identify boundaries. For instance, if you think of allowing interest rates to go negative, you may want to estimate how low interest rates can go. If interest rates go below a certain level, for instance -3%, most people may stop saving so the interest rate can’t go lower. To estimate that interest rate, you may need a model predicting savings at different interest rates.

  • communicate the findings

If you have used a model then you may have to expain your findings, and therefore the use of the model. For instance, to explain why interest rates can’t go below -3%, you may discuss how you have used the model to come to your conclusion. To support your model you may have used a survey asking people at which interest rate they will stop saving.

Outcomes

Models come with different types of outcomes. Models can help us predict which of type of outcomes will materialise in reality. Possible types of outcomes are equilibrium, cycle, random, and complex.

  • equilibrium

Equilibrium outcomes end at a specific value and stay there until conditions change. For instance, if you set the thermostat of the central heating to 20°C while the room is 17°C, it will turn on the heating until the room is 20°C and stop once the temperature has reached this level. By then the water in the device might be heated to the point that the room will heat up further to 21°C.

But the heater will remain off as long as the temperature is above 20°C so the room will cool down after some time as long as the outside temperature is lower. The heater will only start again once the temperature goes below 20°C. So after some time the temperature will be close to 20°C and remain so until you set the thermostat to another temperature.

  • cycle

Outcomes of the type cycle show a repeating pattern. For instance, there is a business cycle in the economy causing growth to alternate with slumps. Therefore a model for economic growth could identify a trend, which is the average economic growth over a longer period of time as well as cycles of growth and slumps.

  • random

Random outcomes are impossible to predict even though there may be boundaries or a limited number of possible outcomes. For instance, if you play a game of cards, it is impossible to know on beforehand which cards you will get even though you may know that you won’t get a joker card if it is not in the game. Likewise, if you throw a dice, you can’t predict the number but it will be between one and six.

  • complex

Complex outcomes are hard to predict but they are not random. For example, the demand for oil and the supply of oil tend to slope up in a fairly predictable manner. The price of oil depends on all kinds of things, such as reserves, people in markets, and politics, so an oil-price model is probably complex. The model might be wrong quite often too but it may do better than mere guessing.

Using and understanding data

An important application of models is using and understanding data. If you can make sense of data, you may find information that you can use. This can be done in the following ways:

  • understand patterns

There may be patterns in the data. For example, there may be fluctuations in economic growth that can be explained by a business cycle model.

  • make predictions for individual cases

A model can give a relationship between different variables so you can predict an unknown variable if the other variables are known. For example, the price of a house may depend on the neighbourhood and the number of square metres. So, if you know the neighbourhood and the number of square metres, and the relationship between these variables and price, you can predict the price of a house.

  • produce bounds

For example, if you use models to estimate predict the weather two weeks from now, there is too much uncertainty to come up with an exact temperature, so a model will probably produce a range with a lower bound and an upper bound of the temperatures that might occur.

  • test

You can use models with the data to ‘predict’ the past. In this way you can test models and check how good they are. For example, if you have the economic data from 1950 to the present, and you have a model that predicts the unemployment rate based on the economic data of previous years, you can use the data from 1950 to 1970 in the model to predict the unemployment in 1972, and then check whether or not the prediction is close to the real unemployment figure of 1972.

  • predict other things

For example, you may have made a model that predicts the unemployment rate, but as a side benefit it might also predict the inflation rate. Another example is that early models of the solar system and gravity showed that there must be an unknown planet, which turned out to be Neptune.

  • informed data collection

For example, if you want to improve education, and make a model that predicts school results, you have to name the parts, such as teacher quality, the education level of parents, the amount of money spent on the school, and class size. The model determines which data should be collected. There is no reason to collect data on school size if you don’t use it in you model.

  • estimate hidden parameters

Data can tell us more about the model and the model can tell us more about reality. For example, a model for the spread of diseases is the Susceptible, Infected, Recovered (SIR) model. If you have the data of how many people are getting the disease, you can predict how the disease will spread over time.

  • improve

After you have constructed a model, you can use data to improve it and make it closer to the real world.

Making decisions, strategies and designs

Models can help with making decisions, setting out strategies and designing solutions. A few examples can illustrate that:

Financial contagion risk
Financial contagion risk model
  • decision aides

Models can be used to make decisions. For instance, at the time of the financial crisis of 2008, you could have made a model of financial institutions like Bear Sterns, AIG, CitiGroup, and Morgan Stanley with the relationships between them in terms of how their success depends on another. As some of these companies were starting to fail, the government had to decide whether or not to save them. This model can help to make that decision. The numbers represent how much one institution depends on another.

So, if AIG fails then how likely is it that JP Morgan fails? The number 466 is big. The number 94 represents the link between Wells Fargo and Lehman Brothers. If Lehman Brothers fails, this only has a small effect on Wells Fargo and vice versa. Lehman Brothers only has three lines going in and out and the numbers associated with these lines are relatively small. For the government this can be a reason not to save Lehman Brothers. AIG has much larger numbers associated with AIG and can be a reason to save AIG because a failure of AIG cancause the whole system to fail. This is why some financial institutions were deemed ‘too big to fail’.

  • play out different scenarios

History only runs once. But with models of the world, you can play out different scenarios. For example, in April 2009, the Federal Government decided to implement an economic recovery plan. You can run models of the economy and look at the unemployment rate with and without the recovery plan. It doesn’t mean that what a model shows would really have happened without the recovery plan, but at least the model provides some understanding of its effect.

  • identify and rank levers

It can be worthwhile to implement the measures that have the most effect. For example, one of the big issues in climate change is the carbon cycle. The total amount of carbon on Earth is fixed. It can be up in the air or down on the earth. If it is down on the earth then it doesn’t contribute to global warming. If you think about intervening, you may ask where in this cycle are there big levers? Surface radiation is a big number. If you think about where to interfere, you want to think about it in terms of where those numbers are large.

  • help to choose from policy options

Suppose there will be a market for pollution permits. We can make a simple model and tell which one is going to work better. Suppose a city has to decide about creating more parks. More parks might seem a good thing but if people want to move there and developers build large apartment buildings around them, it might not be such a good idea after all.

Featured image: Naomi Campbell at Festival de Cannes. Georges Biard (2017). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Model Thinking [link]

The assembly of the canton Glarus

Swiss democracy

In the interest of the people

For a society to function, it needs an order only a government can provide. Over time more and more people came to believe that a government should work in the interest of its citizens. That is quite a leap. Traditionally governments were often a kind of crime syndicate providing a protection racket. Citizens paid taxes to a lord or a king who provided them with security against other lords, kings and ordinary criminals.

Even today many governments work in the interest of their elites while officials take bribes. Except for Northwest Europe, Canada and New Zealand, governments range from a bit corrupt to highly corrupt. Even when a government isn’t corrupt, it might be incompetent. If a business provides poor service you often can go to a competitor. Poor quality governments are harder to avoid as it often involves relocation.

country-corruption-map
corruption per country (flaxen = most clean, crimson = most corrupt)

The above graph from Transparency International gives an indication of corruption in each country. Poverty is a cause of corruption but corruption is also a cause of poverty. If a government is corrupt, money is transferred to unproductive people. Investors will be wary of making investments so interest rates need to be higher to attract capital. This makes fewer investments profitable so the country will be poorer.

Non-corrupt high quality government isn’t easy to come by. And democracy doesn’t guarantee that a government does its job well. But if a government already is of good quality, democracy can make it more responsive to the interests of its citizens. But democracy can undermine the effectiveness of a government if citizens allow their narrow personal interests to prevail over the general good.

Main features

The Swiss have the most trust in their government.1 That may be because of the unique features of Swiss democracy. Switzerland is also a wealthy country, partly because Swiss banks have been a safe haven for criminals, tax evaders and dictators all around the world. For instance, Switzerland has been important for Nazi Germany’s war effort by facilitating trade with the outside world.

These issues shouldn’t cloud the evaluation of the Swiss political system. The Swiss have a unique combination of representative and direct democracy. The government and parliament administrate the country but if citizens feel the need to take matters in their own hand, this is possible.

Switzerland uses direct democracy in the form of referendums more than any other country in the world. These referendums are binding. The government must respect the outcome.2 The Swiss use the following types of referendums:

  • mandatory referendums on changes in the federal constitution
  • optional referendums on other federal laws that will be held when 50,000 eligible voters demand for it
  • similar rules exist on the state and communal levels, but the constitutions of the states deal with the specifics
  • citizens can propose a change in the constitution via a popular initiative, and the electorate can decide whether to accept the initiative, an alternative proposal from the government or parliament, or to keep things unchanged

Switzerland is a federation of 26 member states called cantons. The member states have a large degree of independence. The Swiss constitution promotes making decisions at the lowest possible level and delegating power to a higher level if that is deemed beneficial.

The citizens of the Swiss states elect the Council of States (Senate) by majority vote. They can cast as many votes as there are vacant seats. Voters can propose representatives and influence the fractions of different political parties.

The Swiss elect their National Council (Congress) every four years by proportional representation. The people vote for a political party. Optionally they can vote for a specific person on the candidate list of the party.

Executive power has been distributed in Switzerland. The daily affairs of government are performed by the Federal Council consisting of seven members. It is customary that all major political parties are represented in the Federal Council.

Constitutional changes need a double majority, which means that majority of the electorate as well as a majority of the cantons must support it.

Most Swiss communities use direct democracy to make decisions. In a few small cantons people can vote directly by the show of hands.

Evaluation

The use of representatives in combination with referendums means that citizens aren’t burdened with the daily affairs of government but still are in full control as they can vote on any issue if they feel that is needed. Direct democracy allows for a more fine-grained alignment of government decisions with the wishes of the citizenry as on some issues the majority might be liberal and on some others it might be conservative.

Before laws are introduced, interest groups such as state governments, political parties and non-governmental organisations are consulted, and their concerns are taken into account. As referendums tend to come down to yes or no questions, this consulting is important.

Proportional representation allows for multiple political parties that more closely match the preference of voters. New parties can emerge more easily. It also means that small shifts in voter preferences tend to have little effect on the political landscape.

Swiss voters can influence the make up of the political fractions of multiple political parties, which means that the people who are elected in parliament for one party are more likely to be acceptable to voters of other parties as well.

All major political parties work together in the Federal Council as there is little room to forward political agendas. That is because citizens can always call for a referendum. In this way referendums can contribute to political stability even when parliament consists of several smaller parties.

The use of direct democracy in Switzerland makes it less relevant who is in government so that political discussions tend to focus on issues and content rather than people and rhetoric. The Swiss tend to be well-informed about the issues that are at stake.

Proportional representation as opposed to win or lose elections foster cooperation as individual political parties don’t have a majority and need to work with other parties to achieve their political objectives.

Proportional representation reduces the need to spend large amounts of money on political campaigns and other manipulations like gerrymandering, voter fraud and vote suppression as the effects of these actions tend to be limited. In the United States a small margin in a swing state might decide who becomes President.

Many countries have strict limits to political donations and campaign spending. Switzerland does not have them. This is not as harmful as it might be without proportional representation and referendums.

Direct democracy undermines the work of lobbyists for a law doesn’t pass if it is not supported by a majority of the voters. And so interest groups need to convince the citizenry rather than politicians.

In Switzerland the Congress represents the nation as a whole while the Senate represents the states. A decision needs the consent of a majority of the parliament of the nation as well as a majority of the cantons.

Most countries have a Congress and a Senate but they aren’t federations like Switzerland. In unitary states the role of a Senate varies. For example, it can focus on protecting the constitution against laws that violate it.

Switzerland doesn’t have a Constitutional Court or a Senate to protect the Constitution. There is no good safeguard of human rights. The majority can vote for stripping the rights of minorities. Switzerland is bound to the treaties it signed but safeguards to protect human rights could be an improvement.

Conclusion

The Swiss are satisfied with their political system. Even though it has a few weak points, there is good reason to believe that other countries can benefit from implementing a similar political system in which the citizens have the final say. Yet, different nations might opt for somewhat different versions of direct democracy.

Some people think that a better political system is possible. There are many ideas but few of them have been tested thoroughly. The Swiss political system has proven to work in practice. It allows citizens to vote on proposals to alter and improve the political system. So even if a better system is possible, the Swiss political system may be the way to get there.

To make direct democracy work, there are conditions that need to be met. The citizens must be informed, reasonably educated and willing to engage in rational discussions. Laws must be thoughtfully crafted with extensive consultations as referendums often boil down to simple yes or no decisions. Mistakes can be made, but they can be learning opportunities as people need to deal with the consequences of their choices.

The Swiss federation can be a model for the European Union and the United States. By delegating responsibilities to the state level it might be possible to reduce bureaucracy in the federation while increasing the legitimacy of the centralised institutions. Swiss democracy might also be a model for a world government if that ever comes to pass.

The Swiss political system promotes a political culture of compromise and cooperation. It is built into their system and therefore their political system is a strong design. For those who are accustomed to divisional politics or politics centred around people rather than issues, it may be difficult to understand that a completely different way of doing politics is possible and that it can work out better.

Featured image: The assembly of the canton Glarus. Democracy International (2014). [copyright info]

1. Government at a Glance Fact Sheet OECD. (2013). [link]
2. Switzerland’s Direct Democracy. http://direct-democracy.geschichte-schweiz.ch/ [link]

Origins of Political Order cover

From human nature to a state

Survival of the fittest

Evolution theory can explain how biological organisms evolve over time. Genes determine their nature, which means how organisms behave and what they look like. Genes mutate randomly and this causes variation. It is a reason why humans differ in size, behaviour and skin colour. Mutations are passed on to the organisms’ offspring. These mutations alter the features of organisms. Those that are better suited for their environment are more likely to survive and procreate. This is natural selection or survival of the fittest.

The basic principles of evolution, variation and selection, apply to human societies as well. There has been a lot of variation in political institutions throughout history. Societies that succeeded in adapting to new circumstances usually survived the ones that didn’t. The development of societies can therefore be seen as social and economic evolution. Political institutions are an important part of society. And even though institutions are planned or designed deliberately, while biological variation is random, social evolution looks like natural selection because of competition.

As a consequence later civilisations were wealthier and more powerful than earlier ones. For instance, industrial societies are more powerful than agricultural societies. But social evolution isn’t straightforward. Remnants of earlier phases of development continue to exist once a society moved to the next stage. So, after a society has entered the industrial phase, many farmers still farmed the land in a traditional way without machines. And some modern democratic countries still have a king or a nobility.

Family groups

The earliest humans were hunter-gatherers who didn’t know of property. They lived like chimpanzees in family groups consisting of a few dozen individuals. These groups were self-sufficient. If another family group invaded their territory hunter gatherers could move on as population density was low and there was no property to defend.

Family groups were egalitarian. Social differences were based on age and gender. They had no permanent leader and there was no hierarchy. Leaders were elected based on group consensus. Usually women married outside their group to live in the group of their husbands. Marriage was a means of managing relations with neighbouring groups.

After the invention of agriculture population density increased dramatically and people came into contact with each other more often. Struggles became more intense as farmers invested in the land they cultivated. Harvests had to be protected against thieves. This required a different form of social organisation that included property.

From families to tribes

People became organised in tribes. A tribe consists of a number of related family groups who share common ancestors. Usually descent in a tribe is traced through the male family line. A common ancestor of a tribe might well be a mythical person. In this way it is possible to have large tribes. Tribes are often egalitarian. The family groups of the tribe usually remain independent but they can join their forces for war.

War is the main reason for organising in tribes. A tribe can muster more men for war than a family group. Property rights in tribes usually were related to the family groups rather than individuals. Land remained with the family group and couldn’t be bought or sold. The leader of a tribe usually had no authority over the tribespeople and couldn’t force them to obey. And so there was no rule of law. People had to enforce their rights themselves and blood feuds were common.

Religion plays an important role in organising large scale action. The question whether religion created the social order or that religion was invented to justify the social order is never answered. Most likely the causal relationship went both ways. Tribal organisation isn’t natural so people won’t revert to it once the social order fails. Tribal organisation is sustained by religious beliefs, which are often about common ancestors.

Tribes can develop into chiefdoms. A chiefdom has a lord who has armed vassals. It is the most basic form of political organisation. This type of political organisation came to dominate human history and it still exists today in the form of warlords, militia, drug cartels and street gangs. Chiefdoms have power to coerce people that didn’t exist in group based societies. Chiefdoms already have some features of states.

From tribe to state

Liberal social contract theories assume that states emerged when citizens agreed to subject to a state in exchange for safety and other public services. But tribespeople only temporarily gave up their freedoms to meet an external threat like an invasion. And so the reason for the first states to emerge appears to have been violence or the threat of violence, not the desire for a social contract. States differ from tribes in the following ways:

  • States are the highest authority and have a centralised hierarchy.
  • The state has a monopoly on the use of legal coercive force.
  • The authority of the state is based on territory rather than kinship.
  • States have a justification based on religion or political philosophy.

Population growth and increased population density have been important causes of technological improvements like irrigation works. This allowed for a division of labour and the emergence of elites, which promoted state creation. If the population density is low, conflicts about land and access to resources can be solved by relocation, but this option disappears once population density increases or when physical borders fence in the population. The factors that allowed for the first states to emerge were:

  • There must be a surplus of means of existence to support a state.
  • Society must be large enough to allow for a division of labour.
  • Natural borders must fence in the population so people can’t escape when they are oppressed.
  • Tribespeople must subject themselves to a higher authority either because of an external threat or the charismatic leadership of a leader.

The first states may have emerged when one tribe subjected another. In order to rule the other tribe, the victorious tribe may have introduced centralised repressive institutions and established itself as the ruling class. The threat of being subjected may have induced other tribes to develop more permanent and centralised authoritarian structures. Still many tribes just assimilated conquered tribes and states never emerged.

It seems likely that religious ideas played a major role in the formation of early states as religion can provide sufficient legitimation for the loss of freedom coming from the subjugation to a leader or a hierarchical structure. Religious authority can make it easier to create a large military to subjugate rebellious tribes and to create peace and stability on the home front, which in its turn strengthens the religious authority of the leader.

Certain conditions had to be met for the first states to emerge but there are too many interacting factors to produce a strong theory on how the first states emerged. It may not be important to have such a theory as states nowadays are well-established. States now innovate and copy each other’s institutions because they are in a competitive struggle with each other.

Featured image: Cover of The Origins of Political Order

From: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution of Francis Fukuyama.

US Declaration Of Independence

What a social order needs to be

Humans imagine that they have rights and obligations and belong to social classes. This is what is meant with social order. There has been a variety of rights and obligations and social classes throughout history.1 Societies usually have a ruling class who invents the social order and benefits the most from it. A social order needs some kind justification to convince everyone to accept the rules that come with it. That is where religion comes in. You can compare the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law from 1750 BC, with the United States Declaration of Independence from 1776 AD.

The Code of Hammurabi declares that the Babylonian social order is based on universal and eternal principles of justice dictated by the gods. It divides people into three classes, nobility, ordinary people and slaves. The code then sets out all kinds of laws and punishments for transgressions. The United States Declaration of Independence begins with the following words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

On closer inspection 3,500 years didn’t make a lot of difference. The eternal principles are replaced by self-evident truths but the order still needed divine support. There is no mentioning of classes. All men are created equal. But the devil is in the detail. Women and slaves did not have these unalienable rights when the constitution was written. Only nobility was done away with as businesspeople were the new ruling class. In the 200 years that followed slavery was abolished and women received equal rights before the law, but businesspeople are still the ruling class.

Saying that people are equal and have equal rights is problematic. People are not equal in their abilities as well as their opportunities. For example, we can imagine the right to live but we all die. Some people die young while others live very long. Many people are poor and have no access to good education. Some are rich and can go to the best universities. Still, we imagine that people have equal rights, just like the Babylonians imagined that people are divided into classes.

Social orders are the result of history, economics, and politics. Ideas are at the basis of them. Equality is a revolutionary and modern idea that has gained ground during the last centuries. It has affected political orders on every corner of the globe. Even the worst dictators now say in public that all people are equal.

A social order is also a collective imagination. A social order doesn’t exist in reality as such, but only in the minds of people. If people agree on a social order, whether it is a division into classes or the notion that everyone is created equal, it can be stable. Social orders bring peace and stability and that is the most compelling reason to have them. If people agree on a social order they can cooperate more easily as the order settles many matters that would have to be negotiated otherwise. A reason why certain social orders prevail over others is because they create more powerful societies.

Featured image: United States Declaration of Indepence

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

Origins of Political Order cover

The state of human nature

Social animals

Humans are social animals who live and cooperate in groups. Social animals like humans cooperate on the basis of kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Kin selection means that sexually reproducing animals are more likely to help one another if they share more genes. Reciprocal altruism is an exchange of favours or resources between unrelated individuals. These behaviours aren’t learned but are natural to the species. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives and in many ways they behave like we do.

Chimps live in family groups of a few dozen individuals. They learn to cooperate with reliable congeners and to avoid those who aren’t reliable. In a chimpanzee band a leader may emerge if he or she proves to be impartial when resolving differences. Chimps have enough memory and communication skills to guess how others will behave. They have some social rules too. Chimpanzees can cheat and betray and probably experience feelings comparable to guilt when they break the rules.

Chimpanzees can be violent like humans. Chimpanzee males cooperate to go outside their own territory to attack and kill males from neighbouring groups. Humans in primitive tribes and gangs sometimes do the same. Chimpanzees do not have families but they have separate female and male hierarchies. Chimpanzee politics looks a lot like human politics. The alpha female or male earns her or his status from building coalitions and gaining support. Once a female or male has become dominant, she or he has some authority to set rules and settle conflicts.

Typically human

Chimpanzees can’t achieve the high level of social organisation like humans can because they don’t use language. Language enables humans to exchange information about who is reliable and who is not with the help of gossip. A chimpanzee has to experience first-hand whether or not a congener is reliable and it can’t share this experience with others. This limits the number of others a chimp can cooperate with. Language enables humans to cooperate on a larger scale.

Language also allows humans to make abstractions and to invent theories. Words can refer to concrete objects but also to abstract classes of objects like dogs and trees and even invisible forces like gravity and gods. This makes it possible to produce mental models like it is warm because the sun shines. People see correlating events and imagine causal relationships. The ability to theorise helps us in the struggle to survive. For instance, if someone dies after eating from a certain plant, it can be useful to see a causal relationship between those events.

Religion

The ability to create mental models and to connect causality to invisible abstractions is also the basis for religion. Religion made people cooperate on a larger scale than would otherwise have been possible. If the size of a group increases then its ability act collectively diminishes. In large groups it is difficult to distinguish between the contributions of individual members so cheating and other forms of opportunistic behaviour are common. Religion can help to solve this issue by promising rewards in the afterlife for those who cooperate and punishments for those who don’t.

Religion is a mental model of reality where causality is attributed to forces that can’t be observed by the senses. This can lead to theories like the harvest is failing because the gods are angry so it is a good idea to sacrifice a goat to please them. In this way rituals emerge, for instance sacrificing a goat in the planting season. Rituals have another role too. They bond communities so rituals can outlive the beliefs that created them and lose their meaning. Humans endow rituals with intrinsic value and they can become a goal in itself. For instance, many atheists still celebrate Christmas.

Norms and values

Humans are conformist normative creatures, which means that we invent rules and norms and tend to adhere to them. Norms differ per culture but the ability to conform to norms is part of human nature. Adhering to rules is not a rational process but it is based on emotions that control our social behaviour like anger, shame and pride. The ability to use rules greatly reduces the required negotiations needed of social interaction and permits more efficient collective action. That’s why evolution has programmed us in this way.

Rules limit our individual freedom of choice. Traffic rules, for instance, make us drive on the right side of the road. Institutions are rules too. Institutions are stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour. Humans can become attached to rules and institutions, for instance, a constitution or a religion. Societies are inherently conservative with regard to norms and values. This can make societies stable but it can turn into a problem once rules have outlived their usefulness and become an obstacle to change.
The struggle for recognition

One person can recognise the status of another, including the value of his or her gods, beliefs and customs. Humans organise themselves in social hierarchies so the struggle for recognition differs from the struggle for material goods. Material goods are absolute so in an economic transaction win-win is possible. Recognition is relative so recognising one person tends to be at the expense of others.

It is part of human biology. Chimpanzees compete for the status of alpha female and alpha male. Humans not only desire recognition for themselves but also for their beliefs and groups. A lot of human struggle is about recognition of groups, for example women, minorities and homosexuals. There may be an economic aspect to it like equal pay for women, but it is primarily about recognition. This is called identity politics.

Recognition can’t be enforced. Leadership comes from recognition that a specific person a person has exceptional courage, wisdom or is impartial in conflicts and a desire from a community to have a leader and submit itself to him or her. Once a society develops, recognition is often transferred to political institutions. In both cases the political order is based on legitimacy and the fact that people adhere to rules.

Social change and political development

These features are the basis of the evolution of more complex forms of organisation. The natural form of human organisation is a small group of family and friends. Our inclination to favour family and friends can be overcome by rules and incentives, for instance the requirement to hire a qualified person or the business profit that comes from doing so. Higher forms of organisation like institutions aren’t natural, and if they fail, humans revert to lower forms of organisation in small groups like gangs.

The ability to theorise enabled humans to create large societies. Most notably, ideas about ancestors, gods and other invisible forces created new rules and strong incentives to adhere to them. Our inclination to attach intrinsic value to mental models and theories promotes social stability. It also makes societies conservative with regard to ideas and rules. Rules and institutions often emerged to meet a specific challenge and become a burden once they have outlived their usefulness. Social change is often not a process of small incremental steps but of long periods of standstill alternated with sudden dramatic and often catastrophic changes.

That explains why violence has been important for political development. The fear of a violent death motivates people to do things they wouldn’t do out of mere self-interest. Stakeholders in a society tend to hold off the necessary changes so that violence or the threat of violence is sometimes required to end the stalemate. The human desire for recognition means that politics is seldom about mere self-interest. People make judgements about meaning and the value of people and political institutions.

Political institutions are the underlying rules by which societies organise themselves. These come in three basic categories: the state, the rule of law and accountability. The state is a hierarchical, centralised organisation that exercises a monopoly on legitimate force over a defined territory. The rule of law is a set of rules of behaviour reflecting a broad consensus in society that is binding to everyone, including the elites. It includes human rights., law and order, property rights, and contract enforcement. Accountability means that the government is responsive to the interests of society.

The diversity in political development has mostly been the consequence of differences in living conditions. Groups split up and then developed their own ideas and norms. Groups also had contact with each other. This was another important incentive for change. Still, societies that were far apart, found remarkably similar solutions for their political orders. Nearly every society had been organised along kinship at first. As rules became more complex, most societies developed states based on impersonal forms of governance like centralised bureaucracies.

Featured image: cover of The Origins of Political Order

From: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution of Francis Fukuyama.