The Viability of Political Formations

As Scott Page’s own work has shown, model thinking can help us understand political realities, of which the largest, most macro-level issues are with the evolution of political formations as a whole. There are several forms of human political sociality of which the nation state is the most dominant now. But we have also had kingdoms and republics and several tribal systems. What makes one give way to the other?

The background: I just finished reading Thomas Trautmann’s beautiful summary of the main themes of Kautilya’s Arthasastra, which the oldest text on politics and statecraft. One of the points he makes is that Ancient India had republics as well as kingdoms but for most of the last two thousand years, kingdoms were the norm. Trautmann says that kingdoms were both economically and morally more acceptable. Also kingdoms were both more economically efficient and politically more diverse. Strangely, modern democracy arose from Kingdoms rather than republics. Tribal communities like the Afghans haven’t evolved into democracies despite historically being more participatory in their decision making. Perhaps even more strangely, not a single Buddhist country is a real pluralist democracy, including our own southern neighbour Sri Lanka.

The Fundamental Observation. Democracy and dictatorship are neither inevitable nor completely random. Instead, they become more and/or less viable depending on the circumstances, both material as well as mental. Model thinking should be able to help us think through what is accidental and what is structural in this evolution of political systems.

The Questions: What makes certain political formations more viable than others at a given time? Is it a function of economics alone? What role does technology play in sustaining a political entity? Why do we such linear paths in the space of politics: theocracy →kingdoms → democracy rather than a more liner path?

A book worth looking at is Acemoglu and Robinson’s “Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship,” which is the best modern treatment of this issue from an economists point of view.

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