We seem to be living through a remarkable political transition. All of our previous forms of government are descending into a disarray. A few decades ago, regimes built around unquestioned central planning collapsed in a heap. From that experience we concluded that decentralized, democratic organization was our highest state of existence, our End of History. Now those decentralized entities are sputtering, their dysfunction driven by the same fundamental problems of collective decision-making that destroyed their old rivals.
As we contemplate what form of social structure will best allow us to pool our resources toward common goals, it might be wise to revisit the most fundamental factors at work in politics. Why do we have politics? Why do we need government? What’s the point of our investment in public life and collaboration?
Politics grants rational agency to a structure that lacks a brain. Through politics, we breathe spirit into an entity drawn from our imaginations, lacking any tangible existence, granting it a capacity to reason and take deliberate, coordinated action like a person. This social adaptation allows us to take advantage of the wealth and security we derive from living in communities larger than kinship groups. Politics allows us to live in cities.
Why bother? Human beings can grow stronger and smarter by bringing more people and their brains together toward common goals. Cooperation lets us solve problems that would be impossible for us to address individually, or in small kinship groups. The first of those problems was mass agriculture. Out of the wealth of mass agriculture came cities. Out of cities comes the cauldron of technical adaptations that converted us from shaved apes to a thriving, dominant species.
There is no politics in a band of hunter-gatherers. Our English word, politics, comes from the Greek word for city, polis. Politics evolved because city life grants us tremendous evolutionary success, but it is a highly unnatural condition for humans. Urbanity makes demands on our bodies and minds that our biology has not adapted to bear. Despite the wealth and security of urban existence, something inside us still craves patterns of life we evolved to enjoy over hundreds of thousands of years. We build artificial forests and savannas within our cities to help us retain our sanity in this unnatural landscape. As individuals, we struggle to thrive in cities. And we chafe under the politics that urban life demands.
Human prosperity grows with the size of our circle of cooperation, so we experience an incentive to form larger and larger collective units. But there’s a catch. The larger that circle of minds, the clunkier the executive process becomes. And the more people we try to encompass in that circle, the lower our capacity to incorporate their interests. A larger political unit produces more potential success but brings with it a social friction in the form of reduced decision-making efficiency and declining empathy. Have you ever heard a city described as “cold?” That same coldness of large groups makes politics feel threatening and distant.
Our capacity for coordination in large groups is hampered by our limitations in cognition and empathy. First, the volume of data and calculation required to effectively manage a collection of human beings increases exponentially as the group grows, quickly overwhelming the capabilities of a single person, or even an assembly of people. The more people in a group, the greater the complexity.
Second, our ability to feel beyond our nerve endings is quite limited. We compensate with empathy, an adaption that lets us conceptualize the sensations of people whose biological feedback (nerve-endings, etc) we do not experience. However, our capacity for caring seems to naturally reach to roughly the size of a kinship group, perhaps as few as 150 people (“Dunbar’s Number”). Beyond that circle, our capacity to experience of the emotions of others drops off precipitously absent some socially engineered extensions.
In other words, with more people in a collective, the harder it becomes to make competent choices. As they say, too many cooks spoil the soup. One cook thinks we’re making French onion, another wants gumbo, and the next is aiming for tomato basil. The outcome is inedible.
The original solution to the problem of large-scale human organization was to choose a king. In many early cultures, those kings started out being elected, or at least chosen by a collection of powerful people. That king would operate with unquestioned power, using his brain as the brain of the collective. It worked to solve the primary concern of our earliest human governments – organizing the defense of their investments in settled agriculture or capturing the land and investments of others. Output from settled agriculture made the first cities, and their politics, possible. Kingship allowed large groups to coordinate their activities better than previous orders, but it did nothing to extend the limits of our rulers’ empathy.
Very quickly all of the world’s richest agricultural land came to be controlled by groups of people organized under monarchies. There was a cost to this success. By investing all of the group’s executive decision-making in a single brain, they improved their capacity to dominate the landscape and protect their agricultural investments from thieves or vandals. They also gained the ability to harness collective labor and initiative toward relatively simple collective goals, like building irrigation systems or public edifices.
A single brain in a single body may make rapid, coherent decisions for the group, but it has no biological means to feel what that group is experiencing. Empathy, which bridges that limitation, only extends so far. Monarchies survived under constant pressure from the misery they inflicted on the masses whose interests and experiences never made it into the limited calculus of the ruling machinery.
This is the central dilemma of politics from its inception into the present day. Government exists at constant tension with human biological limitations. Our ability to think or feel in large groups is too primitive to match our collective ambitions.
We’ve learned how to create governments powerful enough to steer the actions of large groups of people, but we struggle to make those governments smart enough, or responsive enough to the vast span of our experience, to thrive beyond certain limits. Our feedback mechanisms remain too primitive, and the cognitive capacity of those governing entities is too modest, to process the wealth of data and decision-making a large collective demands.
Kings or queens or presidents only feel their own pain. Their nerves don’t extend into your fingers. If their choices grant them rewards while worsening your condition, then the only biological signals they experience may tell them they have succeeded. Distribute power among many people and the same limits remain. Power broadly enough distributed to operate within the limits of our empathy, undermines decision-making. Concentrate power sufficiently to enable decisions to made, and those decisions will lack a grasp of the complexity of the issues, and a compassionate appreciation of those decisions’ impact.
What results eventually is a governing system in which those who succeed in obtaining some power use that power to further their own biological interests. This dynamic exists in democracies as readily as dictatorships, because the underlying biological incentives remain consistent regardless of the system.
Philosophers have been wrestling with this problem for ages, from Socrates’ guardians to Locke’s social contract. Politics is the story of our social and technological evolution struggling to extend beyond our innate biological limits.
Clues to a more effective social order might be found in nature, where other, much simpler organisms have evolved far more effective systems for collaboration. Our failure so far to recognize their potential, and how to mimic them, has been influenced by our misunderstanding of how they work. Once we see how they work, then the starker problem comes into view. Biological adaptations necessary for thriving large colonies is missing in humans. We have to manufacture them out of social and technological adaptations.
Suggest to someone that a human society should function more like a colony of ants or a beehive, and you’ll hear a predictable objection. No one wants to be a mindless drone, enslaved to the will of a single “queen.” Asked to compare hive organisms to human societies, most people would say that they resemble communism or feudalism, where individuals live in mindless service to a master.
What’s funny about this characterization is that it’s utterly backward. There is no executive authority in an anthill. Ant colonies don’t reason, decide or plan. Every ant, like every bee, operates in an autonomous manner, carrying out its own biological programming for its own rewards. These creatures have evolved such that each individual reaps rewards for behavior that serves the larger good of the whole. A single ant climbing a leaf in your garden is looking out for #1 every bit as much as a Wall Street trader. That ant’s colony is improved by the individual’s reward-seeking behavior.
An anthill seems to think in a manner similar to our autonomic brain functions, through a neural net composed of many independent nodes sharing signals and genetically programmed responses. A nerve cell in your arm is not “subservient” to the cells in your brain. That cell operates with no knowledge that a brain exists. My nerves operate in a network, sharing outcomes and goals through a biologically encoded reward structure. Our concept of individual rationality has some weaknesses that impair our understanding of our world. From Stuart Russell in his book about AI safety, Human Compatible:
Another critique of the theory of rationality lies in the identification of the locus of decision making. That is, what things count as agents? It might seem obvious that humans are agents, but what about families, tribes, corporations, cultures, and nation-states? If we examine social insects such as ants, does it make sense to consider a single ant as an intelligent agent, or does the intelligence really lie in the colony as a whole, with a kind of composite brain made up of multiple ant brans and bodies that are interconnected by pheromone signaling instead of electrical signaling?
From an evolutionary point of view, this may be a more productive way of thinking about ants, since the ants in a given colony are typically closely related. As individuals, ants and other social insects seem to lack an instinct for self-preservation as distinct from colony preservation: they will always throw themselves into battle against invaders, even at suicidal odds. Yet, sometimes humans will do the same even to defend unrelated humans; it is as if the species benefits from the presence of some fraction of individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves in battle, or to go off on wild, speculative voyages of exploration, or to nurture the offspring of others. In such cases, an analysis of rationality that focuses entirely on the individual is clearly missing something essential.
Our age-old characterization of hive animals brainlessly carrying out orders from a commander toward someone else’s benefit, is an example of humans seeing nature through the lens of our experience. Hive animals evolved, at the level of DNA, a rewards matrix that serves both themselves and the hive. Hive animals function far more like market participants than like proletarians in grey jumpsuits.
When people look down on a city from the top of a skyscraper, how often do they describe what they see in ant-metaphors? People are “scurrying around like ants.” They see movement and structures that look to us like an anthill. That isn’t an accident. We lag behind these creatures in the sophistication of our communal living thanks to an evolutionary branch that diverted energy toward developing large individual brains. In time, that investment might pay off in biological groups with overwhelming success. For now, though, ants remain the planet’s most successful animal species.
In human societies, as in the natural world, adapting to sustain successful large societies probably depends less on creating a central brain than on evolving a decentralized matrix of rewards for behavior consistent with collective life. The problem is that we share none of the biology which brings ant or bee behavior into line with shared needs. We developed politics instead of hives, because the behaviors we’re most drawn toward as individuals are incompatible with the growth of large, successful collectives. Human societies that have grown most wealthy and powerful always contained a police power you won’t find in an anthill.
What emerges from decline of democracy and socialism might be some adaptation, based on computer technology, that merges elements of market liberalism with the executive coherence of 20th century socialism. Prototypes of this order have already taken shape in some smaller nation-states like Denmark and Holland. The greatest weaknesses of this order are our two persistent biological limitations – our inability to sense each other’s needs beyond the reach of kinship, and the simple cognitive challenge of processing mass data. A government big enough to encompass a vast nation is too big to care about me personally, and it produces too many decisions for a central authority to competently execute.
Thanks to technology, we might already have the capacity to solve that second, data-processing and calculation challenge. What may emerge next is a government with the power to plan and control a massive population, which yet retains the weakness of our inherent empathy. As the Chinese continue to tinker with AI, we may be seeing this new form of government emerge with troubling consequences.
Our Chinese cousins may be building the machine for effective human planning that escaped earlier totalitarian regimes, but toward whose interests? If someone solves the computational problem of controlling a vast nation-state without somehow extending the biological limitations of human empathy, what horrors might that resultant state inflict? If the Chinese experiment with AI produces the wealth and power one might expect, then we may have a problem on our hands.
As our technological evolution promises new extensions of political power, our innate biological limitations threaten to skew those efforts toward frightening outcomes. Any competent step forward in our political development should be taken in humble acknowledgement of our biological needs and limits.
This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.