Followup to: How To Construct a Political Ideology

Related to: What Do We Mean By "Rationality"?

Politics is the art of the possible.

The word 'politics' is derived from the Greek word 'poly', meaning many, and the English word 'ticks', meaning blood sucking parasites.

Politics can be inspiring; there have been several groups that have organized to achieve wonderful ends now and in the past. Such as ending slavery, the subjugation of women, and the censorship of ideas. (None of these have, however, been brought to their full completion yet.)

Politics can also be irritating. As when some politician or bureaucrat wastes money or lies in a particularly annoying way, or when the supporters of that politician or that bureau talk about the wonders of politics while ignoring all its bad parts. (Politics can also be horrible and devastating.)

Predictably, some of us who find politics today to be more irritating than inspiring will define politics somewhat differently. For some, politics is ”a relic of a barbaric past” because politics always entails the threat of violence, and if we should ever find ourselves in a better state of affairs, politics will have had nothing to do with it. But many others would contend that wherever there's civic life there's politics – for some that's true even in a stateless society.

So, there's a little disagreement on the definition of politics. For my part, I will use the latter definition, which contends that politics deals with certain areas of life – regarding civic life, elections, war, fund-raising for a cause, influencing cultural norms, establishing alliances and so on. This is almost the same as the definition used by Wiktionary, but it seems to have a broader focus than the one used by Wikipedia. The goal of political action can then be said to be to act rationally in this domain, just as one would act rationally in any other domain.

That definition isn't too detailed, so let me try and give a fuller definition. I will do that by introducing a hypothetical scenario which explores some fundamental political strategies:

You live in a village by a river, and you are interested in building a bridge across it.  But a fisherman also lives in the village and if you'd build the bridge it would make it difficult for him to fish during that time. No one else will be directly effected by this project. You bring up the issue with the fisherman and ask what he thinks about all this.

The fisherman could then have two basic attitudes towards your project: it would  either be a concern for him or it wouldn't. If it is the latter, then you are not in any conflict, but have a (weak) harmonious relationship. All that remains is for you to build the bridge, which I'll discuss later.

First, let's assume that the fisherman opposes your plans. Let us assume that he is willing to physically prevent you from building the bridge. What can you do then, given that you still want to construct the bridge? It seems only these six general strategies are available:

Persuasion  – You can try to convince the fisherman that it is in his best interest that the bridge be built, or that the construction will not disturb him so much as he believes. That is, convince him that the project will not become problematic for him.

Deceit – You can try to convince the fisherman that the construction won't be problematic, while lying.

Trade - You take his stated preferences, true or not, as given and you offer him something in return for letting you build the bridge.

Threat – You offer to give him something/do something to him which he does not want, if he doesn't let you build the bridge.

Bypass – You ignore the fisherman and try to build the bridge without him knowing about it.

Force – You can try to physically stop him from preventing you to build the bridge. As in, hitting him on the head, poisoning him or locking him up. 

(There might be other strategies I've missed, but for now it's not necessary to know all fundamental strategies.)

Suppose now that the fisherman doesn't mind at all that you build the bridge. Well then, what happens  now?

Well, either you  want the help of others in doing this or not. If not, there's no more politics. If you do want the help of others, and they are willing to help you, then everything is also settled. But, if they do not want to help you right away, then you can use persuasion, deceit, exchange, threats and force. Bypassing is not an option here, since that would be pointless.

Each option entails costs, and they could all have too high a cost so that there's no point in going forth with anything.  In that case, it's time to do something else. On the other hand, the cost for each mode of action might be so low that any option is advantageous. In that case the only prudent move is to choose whatever has the lowest cost, the one which let's you pursue and reach the largest number of your most highly valued ends. The point is that not only does an option have costs in money and time but it can also affect any further actions in, at least, two ways. First off, if the action should fail, some, or all, of the other options might become totally improbable to succeed. And secondly, even if the action succeeds, it might have some negative effects in other non-political circumstances, making it less likely to achieve your goals. Thus, the costs worth pondering are the opportunity costs of an action - the loss is what you otherwise could have achieved.

It seems  that every political problem can be seen through the lens of this framework. Both for, loosely speaking, dealing with conflicts and producing values. What about upholding laws that support certain property rights? Well, you can persuade or force those who disagree with the norms to accept them. You can even bargain with them. What about helping those who are addicted to drugs? Same thing, you can either get their consent or choose to force them. Everything can ultimately be seen as how you interact with others.

What does this then tell us about the goal of political action? Well suppose you need to interact with others regarding the bridge-project (either with the fisherman or someone else). You will need to perceive the effects of each path and compare their effects to choose whichever is most beneficial to you.  After that has been solved, that should be the end of politics. But, what does it mean to solve the problem? Well, what goals will be harder to reach if you choose to trick the fisherman into letting you build the bridge? That depends on a lot of circumstances, but, for most villages, I'd guess you lose any chance of being on really good terms with the fisherman, and you'd lose favour with most people in the village (if you weren't already dominant in the village). And what if you'd traded with others to get their help in constructing the bridge? You'd only lost the money, probably.

Now, maybe this doesn't feel like that hard of a problem. But let's suppose that you will face one thousand such scenarios in your life, every one of which are intertwined with each other. That is, you will want to build a bridge, but you may also want to be friends to friends of the fisherman, be on good terms with everyone in the village, be secure in your property rights, help fund the building of a local town hall, change the current law on building-restrictions, support the abolishment of the Bakers' guild, do a whole lot of ordinary things and so on. Now your choice in one area will have to fit with every other area. Or, at least those you care about the most.

All of this calls for you to create a meta-strategy; a grand plan plan so all those small plans are compatible with each other and will produce the most benefit to you. How to make that plan and follow it through is the essence of political choice, it's an essential part of your goal in politics.

To know what plan to choose you need to know two things: (1) what your political values/goals are and (2) what sort of political system (society) would be best in promoting your goals.

If you know everything about your preferences, but nothing about societies, then you can't support any complex system without running the risk of supporting something which is totally detrimental to your values. If you, on the other hand, know everything about how societies function but are, somehow, unable to know what you really want, then you cannot decide what society to strive towards.

The next two posts will discuss these two issues - first goals and thereafter means.

Next post: "Choose that which is most important to you"

New Comment
14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

In your list of strategies, there is one very important option which you left out:

Submission -- You don't build the bridge.

I don't know about a politics sequence. The idea of change which is held by most people here is through either an AI, efficient charity, or behind-the-scenes economy fixing. Before going much further it may be best to explain why politics is better than at least one of these things.

The way I see it, all of these - especially the last point, which sounds unfamiliar, do you have a link? - are potentially political activities. Raising funds for AI or some effective charity is a political action, as I've defined it. The model I'm building in this sequence doesn't necessarily say that it's best to engage in normal political campaigns or even to vote. It is a framework to create one's own ideology. And as such it doesn't prescribe any course of action, but what you put into it will.

I have no link, but there's a significant number of posts about economic science for a community of non business persons. I guess behind-the-scenes economy fixing is differentiated from efficient charity by its scale, rather than anything fundamental.

So you mean that this politics sequence is intended to augment the quest for AI, efficient charity and/or economy fixing?

Hm, so economy fixing is like trying to make the markets function better? Such as when Robert Shiller created a futures market for house loans, which helped to show that people invested too much in housing?

No, that was not part of my intentions when I thought of this. But I'd guess that they would be or it won't be used by anyone.

The goal of this sequence is to create a model with enables one to think more rationally regarding political questions. Or, maybe, societal questions (since I maybe am using the word politics too broadly for most here). The intention was to create a better tool of thought.

Yes, but I owe you an apology for bringing economics up. I fell for some cognitive bias or other when remembering the number of ecnomics posts- Stuart Armstrong's is the only one in recent months where economics was the end and not a mean to some other discussion.

Basically, everyone on this board has made a pre-committment to not expend energy on politics. You'll definitely need a sequence post on the benefits of political thought as a general concept, before any posts about how to think politics properly. Why before how.

I believe I should be able both to show how to think on politics and then use that structure to show that some political action is preferable to none - and by my definition work on EA and AI are, for those methods I mention above, political question.

I do have a short answer to the question of why to engage in politics. But it will be expanded in time.

The goal of this sequence is to create a model with enables one to think more rationally regarding political questions. Or, maybe, societal questions (since I maybe am using the word politics too broadly for most here). The intention was to create a better tool of thought.

I don't think it succeeds. Rationally regarding political questions is about seeing shades of gray.

You basically argue for a idealistic liberatian view of politics which is hold in history mainly by people who don't win any political conflicts.


I don't think that the idealistic-pragmatist divide is that great, but if I should place myself in either camp, then it's the latter. From my perspective this model would not, if followed through, suggest to do anything that will not have a positive impact (from one's own perspective).

I don't think that the idealistic-pragmatist divide is that great, but if I should place myself in either camp, then it's the latter.

Pragmatists don't talk about fisherman who don't want bridges to be build but about realpolitik. Your model is build upon idealistic foundations instead of observations of how politics works in the real world.

Politics doesn't really have to be "better" than the other popular solutions, it just needs to provide better marginal utility to some people, under some circumstances.

Is marginal utility one term or two?

I don't understand the question.

I didn't know if the marginal was due to marginal utility being technical.