Reversion to the Political Mean, Part 2 – Rational and Ethical 

            Rational democratic governments promise a lot and deliver a lot, but the promises don’t match what they deliver. 

            By its nature, a democratic process can institute any kind of government, including those of authoritarian nature. Sometimes the messiness of democratic systems causes the populace so much frustration that they elect a “strongman” leader and back his or her continued accrual of power to right some widely perceived wrong or just to make the “trains run on time”. In this discussion, I’m considering a democratic society that hasn’t reached this level of frustration. 

            Also, I’m considering a genuine democratic government, not an authoritarian system that pretends to be democratic but controls all the elections in one way or another. I will not differentiate socialism yet, as that can exist under either authoritarian or democratic systems, though the latter seems to be stable only in special situations, such as when the nation is very wealthy from a natural resource industry. 

            NOTE – Socialism is very confused in public discussion today. I’m using it in a stricter sense, in which a large part of the means of production—the source of a country’s wealth—is owned and run by the government. This will include democratic Norway and authoritarian China but will not include the democracies of Great Britain or Canada. The latter have extensive social welfare programs that are founded on robust capitalist economies. That is not true socialism. 

            The promise of the American democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. As Schumpeter pointed out, the first two are not really accurate. The government is empowered by the people and can be removed by the people, but those officials govern. The hope is that this control creates a government that is at least “for” enough of the people enough of the time that the populace is satisfied with it. They feel they could change it in the next election, or they can live with what they don’t like about it. 

            It’s important to realize that just satisfying a majority is not enough. Any reasonably sized coherent minority that feels disenfranchised can destroy a democracy. A large majority of people have to see themselves empowered individually as citizens in order to maintain stability over generations. 

            The American system is not ethically based. The idea that people will respond to ethical fairness as a main criterion for government is not at all what the founders had in mind, nor has it worked out that way. The founders seem to me to have understood the fundamental competitiveness and individual, family, and tribal survival instincts inherent in any social organization of the human race and created a system that attempts to incorporate and use those tendencies to power a healthy, wealthy, and stable society. 

            The stability comes from keeping the correct balance between the power of different coalitions, which I’ll refer to as tribes, and the power of the government. One of the important modern types of tribes is, of course, a corporation. 

            Thus, a primary function of the government becomes refereeing the competition between these collectives such that none of them gains destabilizing influence. The power to do this must come from the people as individuals. The intent is that the rights of the individual will be protected from encroachment by tribes, because each individual will eventually vote his or her interests as an individual over the interests of their tribal allegiance. In this way, the government reflects the collective will of individual citizens rather than the will of those same citizens as represented by tribes. 

            This has always been problematic because every individual is a member of several tribes and has increasing benefits from those memberships as the power of any of those tribes increases, so the interests of each individual can tend to submerge into the interests of the tribe. The universal interests of importance (physical security, individual freedoms, pursuit of happiness, healthcare, living wages, etc.) common to individuals of all tribes fail to operate as a check on the growing power of a few tribes. 

           The tribal connection offers—or appears to offer—advantages to its members that require restricting the same advantages for members of other tribes. Instead of members acting in the interests of all individuals to grow and share an economy for the benefit of all, improvement in quality of life becomes a zero-sum game between tribes. If unchecked, this inevitably becomes a negative-sum game in which everyone is worse off than before, though some will be better off than others. It’s a race for control of diminishing resources. 

           Of course, reversion to tribes defined by deeper differences, including race and cultural background, is a powerful force as lines start to be drawn. It is universally destructive, as it separates natural economic allies into warring camps that keep the needs of both sides from being adequately addressed. We see this today particularly in the inability of the different American racial groups to work together to address the economic inequalities that affect large portions of all their groups. 

           Unfettered competition between tribes is existentially destabilizing to a democracy. It creates the same political environment that originally spawned feudalism and I believe will have the same result. Society degenerates into a race between tribes to garner enough power to insulate themselves from the fall that is coming. Only members at the tops of their tribes will be able to do this, and their success will mostly be survival. Even they are unlikely to be happy about their quality of life, but as it is better than what others have—both in other tribes and beneath them within their own tribe—they will accept it and defend it. Weaker tribes and individuals will seek inclusion in stronger tribes for protection, and, voila, we have a growing feudal system. 

            Despite the fact that no one wants this outcome, it seems to be where we are headed. It’s as if the forces that drive it are a natural reversion to a political mean, and that mean is feudalism. 

            What about socialism? I’ll address that next. 

Hugh Moffatt 
Watertown, Massachusetts 
May 1, 2020