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Tag Archives: Thomas Hobbes

Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

Most great thinkers have speculated about the kind of leadership that might give rise to a better society, analyzing it through what's sometimes called a “normative” lens: What should we be doing?

In Leviathan, for example, Thomas Hobbes argued for a single, absolute sovereign to hold together the social contract. He was addressing a debate over how leaders should act—whether they should follow their citizens' wishes or act in the interests of future generations, against current pressures.

Other thinkers have focused on the real-world, actual path to leadership, leaving justice and civic virtue out of it; a more “descriptive” lens. For example, Robert Caro's The Power Broker, required reading at many college campuses, focuses on just that idea. How does power actually work? (Part of his answer was that power doesn't always corrupt, but it does always reveal.)

Or take Niccolò Machiavelli’s well-known brand of statecraft:

Whoever desires to establish a kingdom or principality where liberty and equality prevail, will equally fail, unless he withdraws from that general equality a number of the boldest and most ambitious spirits, and makes gentlemen of them, not merely in name but in fact, by giving them castles and possessions, as well as money and subjects; so that surrounded by these he may be able to maintain his power, and that by his support they may satisfy their ambition.

Machiavelli may not have had access to statistical analytic tools, but the cross-national data seems to back up his crony-focused approach, according to the four authors of The Logic of Political Survival.

Over the course of 500+ pages of formal game theory proofs and model testing, they make a strong case for what they call Selectorate Theory.

That book is a bit dense, so for the layperson, two of the authors—Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith—also distilled their findings into the far more readable The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

Their idea is that governance—public or corporate—is driven by the self-interested effort of leaders to acquire and keep their power.

Under this lens, all policy decisions are a play for the loyalty of key backers, whether it’s the inner circle in a dictatorship or a whole populace in a democracy.

The logic of a leader’s political survival dictates all of the varieties of governments we see, from monarchies or corporate boards to communist states and democracies. According to Selectorate Theory, it boils down to the relative size of three groups:

The Nominal Selectorate (interchangeables), which has at least some small voice in choosing the leader. This is the pool of potential supporters.

Example: Millions of individual voters or small shareholders.

The Real Selectorate (influentials), who actually choose the leader.

Example: Senior members of the Saudi royal family or big institutional shareholders.

The Winning Coalition (essentials), whose support is critical both to gaining the leadership and to keeping it.

Example: A handful of board members and senior management.

Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art, and science of governing.

The difference in the relative size of these groups determines how much a leader can get away with and what the quality of life is like for those at the bottom of the system.

Dictatorships are governments based on a small winning coalition formed of a handful of generals, bureaucrats and regional leaders. The real selectorate is also small, and drawn from a large population.

In democracies, the opposite is true: the winning coalition is large, and the real selectorate is almost as large as the nominal selectorate. This means that dictators can keep their jobs by handing out private goods to their cronies, whereas democratic leaders have to dole out public goods to maintain their power. That seems to square pretty well with observations in the real world.

De Mesquita and Smith place the governance of most publicly-traded companies on the dictator side of the scale. A very small number of people usually determine the political survival of a CEO – small enough that the CEO can maintain power by making this small group happy rather than working for all of the shareholders.

In cases where companies have large groups whose approval is essential for leadership, public goods like increasing share value reward everyone and become the focus of the leader.

Much of political theory has focused on what justice and civic virtue looks like, without much evidence of the way things really work. But to change the world for the better, it is not enough to take a philosophical position. Wishful thinking has never been a wise starting point.

De Mesquita and Smith conclude that leaders shouldn’t be taken at face value on their motives.

Appeals to ideological principles and rights are generally a cover. J.P. Morgan had it right: There is always some principled way to defend any position, especially one’s own interests.

They propose five rules to keep a hold on power in any system:

1. Keep your “Winning Coalition” as small as possible.

The smaller the symbiotic group of people beholden to you, the more efficient it is to retain leadership through giving private benefits.

2. Keep your “Nominal Selectorate” as large as possible.

You’ll want to keep your inner circle on its toes by having many people waiting in the wings to replace them. You also want a large tax base to draw from.

3. Control the flow of revenue.

State bankruptcy is a political crisis. It either means the leader cannot purchase political loyalty from key backers or, in a democracy, cannot afford pork-barrel projects to buy popularity.

4. Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.

And make sure you’re the only one with access to the treasury.

5. Don’t take money out of your supporters’ pockets to make the people’s lives better.

Starving illiterates don’t make good revolutionaries, whereas dissatisfied cronies can oust you.

As a ruler, your inner circle may include very few of the people who brought you to power in the first place. Your fellow revolutionaries may be too much in the habit of revolution to be safe colleagues going forward. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince:

It is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.

Much as we may wish it weren’t the case, the authors’ data suggest corrupt dictatorships or oligarchies handled in this way are actually quite stable and long-lasting.

As long as the leader offers more benefits to his essentials than they could expect from alternate leadership, the incumbent enjoys a large advantage, and coup attempts often fail. For example, from 1917 until the 1980s, all but one Soviet leader ruled until his natural death. The exception, Kruschev, was deposed after reneging on promises to cronies.

The three most important characteristics of a coalition are: (1) Loyalty; (2) Loyalty; (3) Loyalty. Successful leaders surround themselves with trusted friends and family, and rid themselves of any ambitious supporters.

Though the logic of politics cannot be changed, it can be applied to finding windows for change.

The beginning of a leader’s rule or his or her terminal illness mark unstable periods of the reign, particularly if an heir has not been assigned and groomed. Sometimes it's a financial angle: Under severe financial pressure, even an autocratic leader may see that political reform holds the best promise of political survival.

(In Taiwan, for example, Chiang Kai-Shek expanded his own coalition, in response to various pressures, until one day he found himself in a democracy.)

If an autocrat's “inner circle” feels that their future is insecure, they will be incentivized to improve the lot of the nominal selectorate in case they someday find themselves on the outside. Mobs may take to the streets or storm government buildings when they are encouraged to do so by someone powerful, like a military leader. And with this blessing from the inner circle, the power of the people can often topple the leadership.

While there is a lot of precedent for nasty regimes being overthrown, certain conditions are necessary to prevent another dictatorship from taking hold. Countries without the political curse of natural resource wealth are more likely to succeed in democratic revolution, because they rely on a well-fed and productive populace to sustain them. The overall structure of the populace and its underlying stability or instability, cohesiveness or disjointedness matters greatly.

And in the end, given that political regimes are extremely complex systems, some of this can simply be hard to predict.

If you liked this post, you might also love:

Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others – Idealists among us would hope that people with power who break the rules quickly and loudly fall off the corporate ladder. But, as the research asks, is this the case? Or does the very act of breaking the rules fuel perceptions of power and make the person more powerful?

Why Performance Won’t Get You Promoted – If you’re going to play the game you should at least educate yourself on the unwritten rules. In an NPR interview, Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer highlights why performance won’t get you promoted and why power is corrupting.

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

"Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less."
“Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less.”

Morality fascinates us. The stories we enjoy the most, whether fictional (as in novels, television shows, and movies) or real (as in journalism and historical accounts), are tales of good and evil. We want the good guys to be rewarded— and we really want to see the bad guys suffer.

So writes Paul Bloom in the first pages of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. His work, proposes that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee … ”

What is morality?

Even philosophers don't agree on morality. In fact, a lot of people don't believe in morality at all.

To settle on some working terminology, Bloom writes:

Arguments about terminology are boring; people can use words however they please. But what I mean by morality—what I am interested in exploring, whatever one calls it— includes a lot more than restrictions on sexual behavior. Here is a simple example (of morality):

A car full of teenagers drives slowly past an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. One of the teenagers leans out the window and slaps the woman, knocking her down. They drive away laughing.

Unless you are a psychopath, you will feel that the teenagers did something wrong. And it is a certain type of wrong. It isn’t a social gaffe like going around with your shirt inside out or a factual mistake like thinking that the sun revolves around the earth. It isn’t a violation of an arbitrary rule, such as moving a pawn three spaces forward in a chess game. And it isn’t a mistake in taste, like believing that the Matrix sequels were as good as the original.

As a moral violation, it connects to certain emotions and desires. You might feel sympathy for the woman and anger at the teenagers; you might want to see them punished. They should feel bad about what they did; at the very least, they owe the woman an apology. If you were to suddenly remember that one of the teenagers was you, many years ago, you might feel guilt or shame.

Punching someone in the face.

Hitting someone is a very basic moral violation. Indeed, the philosopher and legal scholar John Mikhail has suggested that the act of intentionally striking someone without their permission— battery is the legal term —has a special immediate badness that all humans respond to. Here is a good candidate for a moral rule that transcends space and time: If you punch someone in the face, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

Not all morality has to do with with what is wrong. “Morality,” Bloom says, “also encompasses questions of rightness.”

Morality from an Evolutionary Perspective

If you think of evolution solely in terms of “survival of the fittest” or “nature red in tooth and claw,” then such universals cannot be part of our natures. Since Darwin, though, we’ve come to see that evolution is far more subtle than a Malthusian struggle for existence. We now understand how the amoral force of natural selection might have instilled within us some of the foundation for moral thought and moral action.

Actually, one aspect of morality , kindness to kin, has long been a no-brainer from an evolutionary point of view. The purest case here is a parent and a child: one doesn’t have to do sophisticated evolutionary modeling to see that the genes of parents who care for their children are more likely to spread through the population than those of parents who abandon or eat their children.

We are also capable of acting kindly and generously toward those who are not blood relatives. At first, the evolutionary origin of this might seem obvious: clearly, we thrive by working together— in hunting, gathering, child care, and so on— and our social sentiments make this coordination possible.

Adam Smith pointed this out long before Darwin: “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.”

This creates a tragedy of the commons problem.

But there is a wrinkle here; for society to flourish in this way, individuals have to refrain from taking advantage of others. A bad actor in a community of good people is the snake in the garden; it’s what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls “subversion from within.” Such a snake would do best of all, reaping the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs. Now, it’s true that the world as a whole would be worse off if the demonic genes proliferated, but this is the problem, not the solution— natural selection is insensitive to considerations about “the world as a whole.” We need to explain what kept demonic genes from taking over the population, leaving us with a world of psychopaths.

Darwin’s theory was that cooperative traits could prevail if societies containing individuals who worked together peacefully would tend to defeat other societies with less cooperative members— in other words, natural selection operating at the group, rather than individual, level.

Writing of a hypothetical conflict between two imaginary tribes, Darwin wrote (in The Descent of Man): “If the one tribe included … courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.”

“An alternative theory,” Bloom writes, “more consistent with individual-level natural selection:”

is that the good guys might punish the bad guys. That is, even without such conflict between groups, altruism could evolve if individuals were drawn to reward and interact with kind individuals and to punish— or at least shun —cheaters, thieves, thugs, free riders, and the like.

The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy

there is a big difference between caring about a person (compassion) and putting yourself in the person’s shoes (empathy).

How can we best understand our moral natures?

Many would agree … that this is a question of theology, while others believe that morality is best understood through the insights of novelists, poets, and playwrights. Some prefer to approach morality from a philosophical perspective, looking not at what people think and how people act but at questions of normative ethics (roughly, how one should act) and metaethics (roughly, the nature of right and wrong).

Another lens is science.

We can explore our moral natures using the same methods that we use to study other aspects of our mental life, such as language or perception or memory. We can look at moral reasoning across societies or explore how people differ within a single society— liberals versus conservatives in the United States, for instance. We can examine unusual cases, such as cold-blooded psychopaths. We might ask whether creatures such as chimpanzees have anything that we can view as morality, and we can look toward evolutionary biology to explore how a moral sense might have evolved. Social psychologists can explore how features of the environment encourage kindness or cruelty, and neuroscientists can look at the parts of the brain that are involved in moral reasoning.

What are we born with?

Bloom argues that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote in a letter to his friend Peter Carr: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.” This view, that we have an ingrained moral sense, was shared by enlightenment philosophers of the Jefferson period, including Adam Smith. While Smith is best known for his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he himself favored his first book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The pages contain insight into “the relationship between imagination and empathy, the limits of compassion, our urge to punish others’ wrongdoing,” and more.

Bloom quotes Smith's work to what he calls an “embarrassing degree.”

What aspects of morality are natural to us?

Our natural endowments include:

  • a moral sense— some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions
  • empathy and compassion— suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away
  • a rudimentary sense of fairness— a tendency to favor equal divisions of resources
  • a rudimentary sense of justice— a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished

Bloom argues that our goodness, however, is limited. This is perhaps best explained by Thomas Hobbes, who in 1651, argued that man “in the state of nature” is wicked and self-interested.

We have a moral sense that enables us to judge others and that guides our compassion and condemnation. We are naturally kind to others, at least some of the time. But we possess ugly instincts as well, and these can metastasize into evil. The Reverend Thomas Martin wasn’t entirely wrong when he wrote in the nineteenth century about the “native depravity” of children and concluded that “we bring with us into the world a nature replete with evil propensities.”

In The End …

We're born with some elements of morality and others take time to emerge because, they require a capacity for reasoning. “The baby lacks a grasp of impartial moral principles—prohibitions or requirements that apply equally to everyone within a community. Such principles are at the foundation of systems of law and justice.”

There is a popular view that we are slaves of the passions …

that our moral judgments and moral actions are the product of neural mechanisms that we have no awareness of and no conscious control over. If this view of our moral natures were true, we would need to buck up and learn to live with it. But it is not true; it is refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology.

It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.


Still Curious? Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil goes on to explore some of the ways that Hobbes was right, among them: our indifference to strangers and our instinctive emotional responses.