How government works

Apropos of this politically illiterate gem, I feel it is time to go over some basics.

You see, in a state of nature, every man is free and possessed of certain inalienable rights. They encounter each other, and use their faculties to delegate powers to a government to secure their lives, liberties, and property. Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…

I’m sorry, I’ll stop there and I am of course just joking, I have no idea why Jefferson thought that was plausible (and in fact no one on the British side knew wtf he was talking about).

There are a lot of sociological, archaeological, and anthropological explanations about how governments / states actually started. No one really knows, and you almost always encounter a government as a preexisting entity, so for purely descriptive purposes it’s usually a bit irrelevant. Every story ends up devolving into a parable, ideally less asinine than Jefferson’s idealized description. But some of these parables end up describing pretty well the existing meta-arrangements we see and accurately predicting how things still work. So let’s start with the high-level thesis. Governments are made of, in order:

  • People
  • Constituencies
  • Formalisms

This might be a little bit jarring because in junior high they usually address it in the opposite direction and stop halfway before they even get through the formalisms (raise your hand if your teacher ever mentioned the phrase “administrative law”). Bear with me.

You want to do a thing (canonically either stealing stuff from the next farm over, or preventing your stuff from being stolen). You cannot do the thing by yourself. So you need some other people to help.

If it’s a big enough thing you’re trying to do, those people have people. Beyond 30 or so people, it’s impossible to keep track of everyone, so if you need more than that, someone ends up delegating, even if you still know everyone. You end up with not just a guy that does a favor for you and you do a favor for him, but constituencies – that is, a chain of people with interests. In a lot of the just-so parables, these at least start off as the families of the people involved. Grug and Mog agree to cooperate to loot the next town over, because Grug and Mog both have to feed their families. Eventually Grug’s sons get big enough they can help, but they’ve still gotta be fed. If Grug goes out of his way to piss off his sons, or he’s incompetent, Grug’s sons can figure out some other arrangement, strike off on their own, maybe even kill Grug. Otherwise, they tend to follow his advice. Grug’s sons are his original constituency.

“Delegating” makes it sound like leaders are “in charge of” their constituencies. It’s more like “being responsible to”, but these are more synonyms than opposites. Essentially, most pairs of men can kill most single men, so if you have subordinates in this story, they’re there for a reason – because they trust their leader to make sure they get fed / paid / laid / etc. That level of trust can extend quite a bit, to the point where it almost appears the leader is ruling by decree, but it is not infinite.

This is because constituencies can and do clash. There’s only one prettiest slave-girl to take from the village, there’s only one best piece of farmland, only one loin of the antelope you just hunted. Who gets it? One of Grug’s sons got handsy with one of Mog’s daughters and now Grug and Mog are pretty pissed at each other – is someone getting married, or is someone dying?

Grug’s got six sons, and Mog only has one. Maybe when Grug and Mog do a raid, Grug gets a bigger cut of the loot, or maybe it’s Grug’s problem how to divide up his equal share until his sons are big enough they can actually pitch in. Eventually, usually after there are too many people for purely personal relationships to dominate, formalisms are introduced – consistent ways of handling disputes. You could call them laws, once you’ve got stone tablets to write them on (although still some people don’t bother). Some of those deal with the day-to-day of what’s allowed, how things are split, etc. Some of them are meta-level and deal with choosing who decides and how.

What happens when Grug doesn’t like how things shook out? He can suck it up and accept it, he can leave, or he can stay and do something about it. Why would he accept it, if he and his constituency are stronger than the opposition? Maybe it’s not worth the fight, it’s a big hostile world out there, and he’d rather be on the inside even if Mog is kind of an asshole. On the other hand, if he’s stronger, and yet he keeps on losing, in meaningful ways that hurt the people he is responsible to, eventually something is going to give. This isn’t just a point of pride for him – if his sons don’t trust him to look out for their interests, or the people they are responsible to will seek other arrangements, and so on down the line.

So say it with me: The point of formalisms is that they mirror the power and interests of constituencies. The point of good formalisms is that if everyone follows the rules, no one has that much of an incentive to flip the table and start a fight they could win instead, or take their resources with them and leave.

Simple formalisms can work very well. “We line up all the fighting men and count which side has more” was a pretty good decision making process back in the day, because it roughly corresponded to which side had more actual power to enforce the outcome. Variants like “we count all the land (because land feeds and pays for soldiers)”, or “we count all the money (because these burghers actually pay more war taxes than the landowners now)”, were also acceptable at various points. Often when there’s a discontinuity between where power comes from and how those constituencies are represented, there’s a bit of contention until things are resolved with appropriate mechanisms.

You might even get fancy with it. Casualties in a 51/49% battle are usually high, which isn’t good, so maybe you only accept judgments of overwhelming consensus. Maybe you figure, for a war, you need men and money, so you make sure you have a majority of both. Maybe there are some things that people will fight so hard over that you don’t even bother with the vote, because regardless of how it comes out, someone is dying if the issue is pushed. Maybe everyone agrees it’s a terrifyingly chaotic world and the only important thing is to be very clear about who is in charge at any given point regardless of what they decide. You can turn these into formalisms about “supermajorities” or “multicameralism” or “rights” or “sovereignty”, but they ultimately boil down to attempts to reduce the tension between expected formal outcomes and expected post-political outcomes when push comes to shove.

(And note that absolutely none of this hinges on whether you’re a “tribal chiefdom” or “democracy” or a “constitutional monarchy” or a “military dictatorship” – every government and leader needs to balance constituencies to remain alive; the mechanisms they use to do so are different, but they’re all analyzable via the same lens. In systems like military dictatorships, the consultative process follows the same logic albeit in a somewhat more ad-hoc way; for instance you need the support of the army itself, which means you get the army fed first, and your influence is routed through the army, so you put the army in charge of stuff partially as a payoff and partially as a control mechanism. Demographics that form core support for the state like Sunnis in Saddam era Iraq or Alawites in Assad era Syria are favored but also get drafted first, etc. This doesn’t mean you need some constitution where you explicitly write down that particular demographics or institutions get increased representation.)

This explains how you can have a formally reified action that checks all the correct boxes and is nonetheless “illegitimate”. It also explains how you can have the seeming paradox of people simultaneously describing themselves as “law-abiding” and threatening to disregard duly enacted legislation. You can have a situation where ordinarily a constituency is willing to participate in the back-and-forth of politics, have their needs and desires balanced against others, even losing more than they would in a perfect world, as long as their irreducible interests are respected – and instead they are effectively made into outlaws, where the government refuses to protect them and in fact predates on them, because the ruling coalition was able to sufficiently manipulate procedural outcomes in a way that hacked the formalism instead of addressing the actual interests of the constituencies involved.

In effect, the government attempts to not only treat them as junior partners in a commonwealth, but to exclude them from all possible future coalitions and ideally remove them from the polity – eg, by turning Grandpa into a felon because of the weapon he’s used responsibly for 70 years, or forcibly deindustrializing them until they are only fit to be a tourist playground for urbanites, or expropriating their wealth to the point where they are economically unsustainable. Under those circumstances, what exactly is the incentive to cooperate with the system?

So let’s flash forward 5000 years to Virginia. How’s that working out?

Well, Virginia mostly runs their government by counting the number of warm bodies they can stuff into voting booths (or the mailbox, if they can’t be bothered to walk to the polls). A huge number of these were imported to the DC suburbs & urban Virginia over the last 10 years or so, mostly from overseas. They don’t really pay net taxes and aren’t available for (useful) fighting, but they vote, and even when they don’t, they increase the representatives allocated to blue areas. In their infinite wisdom, the newly elected reps from those areas decided the most important thing to do with their formal power was to symbolically take a dump in the moccasins of the rest of the state by attempting to disarm them, and then try to structurally rig their formal power in perpetuity by importing additional criminals and foreigners into the polity.

It kind of seems like those reps really don’t have any intention of letting the rest of the state accommodate the interests of their constituencies – instead they have the option of a perpetual rural Illinois or inland California style colonial status, tax cattle who exist only for resource extraction and symbolic helot-style cultural attacks, or varying levels of “do something about it”.

“But wait!” shouts the increasingly nervous midwit quasi journalist (what was the last story Jamelle Bouie broke, again?) “We had a vote!” Frantically he drops a bundle of absentee ballots postmarked Tegucigalpa. “Our legitimate legislative powers have been… invoked!”

What Bouie doesn’t realize is that votes aren’t “power”. Power is power, and a lot of very smart and very nervous people spent a lot of time trying to design a government that reflected where power comes from in its formal mechanisms, and reflected what people were willing to fight over in its declaration of rights. Now that those are treated as mere paper rituals to be short-circuited, we get to see why those founders were so concerned about getting it right.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Great article, but seeing how far apart the reality of governance and the average person’s belief in how it works makes me wonder what else most people are wrong about. Particularly the possibility of fighting when the system starts being gamed so obviously and people start to abandon the system. What do most western people know of non-state political violence? Even those of us that were in the military really only saw it from the outside.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. DrBill says:

    Power is power. Power is the obedience of organized, armed cadres. Who will the police obey? Who will the National Guard obey? Who will the Marines obey? Will the deplorables even fight? Virginians will give up their guns if ordered to do so. Just like those tough Australians did.

    Furthermore, they are wise not to. Guns are easy to make. They are easy to use well enough. The deplorables lose little when they are disarmed.


    1. R. Landry - Editor says:

      Virginians wont just like Connecticut gunowners did not register when the state ordered it.


  3. Thurgood says:

    Bouie may be Grug, but Grug has his six to one advantage and that is a gross under-estimate of the naked power disadvantage of the rural constituency you describe. It may make all the sense in the rational world for them to push back. But lacking the ability to do much, other than be arrested or shot, makes being in total Bouie-like ignorance a comparatively mild handicap.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. muunyayo says:

    Reblogged this on Muunyayo.


  5. Paul Temple says:

    One of the other choices you outlined for Grug and Mog above is leaving. Which is not mutually exclusive with fighting and voting. You can do either/both of those before leaving. And this is a choice both for Grug and Mog. Libs can all gather into gun free zones or gun fee states and see what happens. Conservatives can leave a gun free state full of empty houses and empty businesses and an empty tax pot. I fully appreciate the willingness to fight. If it were my state, I’d be right out there marching with them. And I also understand that there is eventually a point where there isn’t anywhere left to flee to. But I would have to seriously question the sincerity and ability to follow through of someone who is willing to march in the street and who says they are willing to fight if they are not even willing to relocate. If we won’t even endure the discomfort and inconvenience of showing up to vote or relocating our families from Spartan districts where Deplorables must wear the dogskin cap and receive their yearly beatings, will we really risk our lives? As for the questions posted above “who will the police obey?” “who will the military obey?” it’s not so cut-and-dry. A friend of mine served in Iraq and was part of an elite group who swore to uphold the constitution–in spite of a rogue commander in chief if necessary. Part of that oath was also a Skynet-like vow not to kill our own citizens. they all wore 3% badges on their gear. I’m not predicting an outcome, except to say: in the event of an actual civil war, there would be a lot of surprises. Entire aircraft carriers would be in noncompliance to federal mandate. They are cunning to try the gun grab state by state and inch by inch rather than at once. I’ll give em that. I won’t give them my gun, though. Not even gradually.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Alfonz Cavalier says:

    Really good article, and an accurate analysis of how power political relations originally form.

    The one dimension it’s lacking is the question of fundamental beliefs and values, which go beyond just the raw facts of material life and get to how people really think and feel about their actions. It’s easy enough within your framework to understand why a strong man Hunter/ warrior type would gain power, but less so to understand how a priest/ shaman type would. Put simply, a kin group like the one you describe is less likely to think ‘we must defeat the tribe in the next valley because otherwise they’ll take our food and women’ but rather ‘we must defeat the tribe in the next valley because we are good and they are evil.’

    An effective priest or priest caste has to have real conviction in what they preach, and espouse beliefs that reflect fundamental realities. This is why so many similar beliefs and taboos replicate in different parts of the world. They can’t just be successful con men like many atheists would assert – in the brutal reality of a low surplus, primitive economy they’d be found out and destroyed.

    This still applies in our world and our system – it’s not just a bidding war for elite patronage and public resources, but a clash of deeply held, hyper rational values. The white working class implicitly understand that the left is a party that is opposed to western civilization in its bones and so they’ve stopped voting for it, immigrants feel the same and so give the left their votes regardless of any other ideological tensions (e.g. over gay stuff). This is what animates present political debate more than material conflict – making it solely a question of resource patronage is reductive, I think.


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