Monkey Politics and Political Entrepreneurship

Sometimes people think of politics as this far-away thing that's about elections and Democrats and Republicans. They imagine that if they simply don't talk about elections and political parties, that politics won't matter and they will not have to deal with all of that stuff in their communities. This is not actually true.

Politics is not a far away thing; it is a fundamental feature of all primate social groups. Politics is the social maneuvering, moral posturing, coalition building, fighting, and even cooperative work in pursuit of social or economic power and goods. As long as there are gains to be had by social maneuvering, and a dynamic in which to compete, apes will engage in politics. Politics is pervasive, this is unavoidable.

The important question, for the health of our communities, is what particular kind of political dynamic we have, because this determines what kind of things we do to compete for social status and power, and what the overall outcome of that competition is for the community.

If the game is to just maneuver socially, intimidate and use violence, and be holier than the next guy and thus be entitled to his loot and women, then people play that game, and we get a nasty outcome. This is not always open bloody conflict, it can be quite subtle; optimal zero-sum social maneuvering is often unconscious, low-key, plausibly deniable, patient, and (mostly) friendly, so that others can't unambiguously notice and gang up in reaction. So even when things look friendly, there may still be stealthy competition that leads to a bad overall outcome.

On the other hand, if the game is to compete on the basis of most useful service to the group, best value delivered to the customer, and most insightful research produced, then people play that game, and things get good. Science is a great example of this, where it became cool to publish new knowledge about the natural world backed up by documented or replicable observations, and thus all the rich gentlemen went on voyages of exploration and built labs and laid the foundations of Science instead of whatever they were doing before. Modern entrepreneurial Capitalism is another example; the rule of law, specific legal and accounting structures, and markets all became functional enough that the selfish and ambitious pirate types found it easier to become highly productive captains of industry than to raise rebel armies or sail around looting and pillaging.

So getting politics right or wrong, in the sense of which mode of competition we get into, is a matter of very large differences in outcome quality. When we are stuck in a zero sum game, status and other political values are exchanged, but nothing is gained over the long term, and we are little better than animals. But the great thing about Man is that sometimes we can get ourselves into these positive sum games where there are still winners and losers, but the long term trend is to build and build and accomplish great things for ourselves.

This is relevant to any community of people. Even if your goal is simply to live well, part of life is everyone seeking better things for themselves, and a wise community will pay some attention to what mechanisms are provided for that.

But what can we actually do to get politics right in our communities? If you're in an economy dominated by intimidation and looting, you can't just declare that all interaction should be on the basis of peaceful voluntary exchange and rational self-interest; you'd still get looted, even if your buddies agree. If your community is under the control of some advanced stage memetic cancer that makes unproductive holiness competitions the basis of all interaction, you may not even be able to get your buddies to agree that something is wrong without getting mobbed and cast out by the believers. If everyone is milling about like a herd of cats, unable to achieve what they'd all like to achieve for lack of coordination, what can they even do?

Sometimes you just can’t get to a good political dynamic no matter what anybody does, but often you can if someone talented puts in a bunch of work. For example, in the simple case of a straight cat-herding coordination problem, someone could take it upon themselves to build up legitimacy, take a leadership position for the group, and then use their position of authority to change the dynamics, for example by acting as a nexus of coordination for productive work by delegating tasks, making key decisions, and so on, and exiling or executing people who do antisocial stuff. The more complicated cases beyond the simple coordination problem are obviously different, but the fundamental idea is similar; someone can change things with a bunch of work.

But why would they do it? They will have to invest a lot of effort and resources, and are likely to face sometimes very harsh resistance from people who would not benefit from the change. No one wants to expose themselves to that.

Unless they get to take a cut of the new situation they created. Then the political entrepreneur will have incentive to invest his time and effort to fight through the difficulties involved in creating the new political dynamic. It is after all traditional for the guy who takes over something and becomes the new authority to take a few extra wives or something…

But wait, what’s this about “political entrepreneurship”? An entrepreneur is someone who identifies a difficult but valuable problem and puts in the huge amount of work it takes to solve it and scale the solution, and then takes a big cut of the value created. A political entrepreneur someone who does this for a political problem.

The problem with political entrepreneurship is that there’s no market as such and the transactions aren’t all voluntary, so we can’t rely on that as a systematic reason for the outcome to be good; sometimes the political “entrepreneur” is just some guy taking over a space and exploiting it. Even so, the sincerely prosocial political entrepreneur can often make large improvements in the political dynamic, and can do so profitably.