Chapter 1.2: What Is Politics?

PDF version. As with chapter 1, constructive comments are requested.  Remember, my target audience is college students.  I don’t want to talk down to them,  but I want to be analytical without being overly dry and academical.

1.2: What Is Politics?

To really understand the U.S. government, or any government, you need to understand certain foundational concepts. So in this chapter we will introduce and define some important concepts in political science. The particular advantage of this chapter is that you can use these concepts to study any government or political situation, because they are universally applicable ideas. Their explanatory power is not limited to studying American government. In particular you can use them to compare how different political systems function.
What Is Politics?

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote that he could not define hard-core pornography, but, he said, “I know it when I see it.”i Many people have a similar feeling about politics. It’s easy to recognize it when we see it, but everyone struggles to define it, probably because the concept is so broad and diverse. So many different things seem to count as political, from “office politics” to election to legislating to war that it it becomes difficult to figure out what characteristics they all have in common that would allow us to define them all as politics. Unfortunately, even political scientists don’t all agree on the same definition for politics,1 but one of the most prominent definitions—and the one that I think best captures what politics is really about—comes from political scientist Harold Lasswell.

  • Definition of Politics: “Who gets what, when, and how.”ii

That definition may seem too vague to make sense of at first reading, so let’s examine it in some detail.


First, notice that it’s about the allocation of resources, which are the “what” people are trying to get. A resource is anything of value, anything for which people might come into conflict over the way it is allocated. This includes big things like land (which nations fight over) and natural resources like forests (we fight over whether they should be cut for timber or left as wilderness) as well as seemingly mundane things like how we allocate grandma’s furniture and bank account after she dies (as it turns out, families often fight ferociously over the distribution of grandma’s resources). One crucial resource that people battle over is power itself, both because power seems to be desirable in its own right and because power means greater ability to control the allocation of other resources. Businessmen fight for corner offices because it is a symbol of power and status. Politicians fight for the chairmanship of committees because it allows them to allocate more resources to their own interests.

So the first important element of our definition of politics is:

  • Politics is about how we allocate resources (things of value).


The “how” in “who gets what, when, and how” refers to any method by which we might try to get the things we want, whatever they may be. We’re accustomed to thinking of politics in terms of voting, whether people voting for politicians or politicians voting on legislation, and that is of course one of the ways in which we try to get what we want. But the “how” includes other methods, which can also take place outside of, or even in the absence of, government. Negotiation is one method of how I can get what I want. Bribery, blackmail, theft, threats, and violence are others.

This is a difficult concept for those who want to see something noble in politics, but the alternative to including them as types of politics is to make a false distinction between “good” ways of allocating resources, and calling those ways politics, and “bad” ways of allocating politics, and saying those are not politics. The problem with that approach is it begins with a moral value, and then defines politics by that moral value, so that politics artificially becomes only that which is good. By the same token, we cannot use a moral value to define as politics only those resource allocation methods we see as bad. It is much better to begin with an objective definition that comes before any moral considerations, and to recognize that politics comes with a variety of moral implications, some admirable and some not.

Another advantage of Lasswell’s definition is that it demonstrates that a) politics can exist even between just two people, and b) politics can occur without government. Politics is a group-level phenomenon, that cannot come into existence until there is more than one individual. The allocation of resources from nature to oneself may involve interesting technical problems (“How do I get that coconut down from that tree?”) but it doesn’t involve bargaining, negotiation, theft, etc. But the very moment another person enters the scene, politics comes into existence (“Will he help me get that coconut down from that tree, and if so how much will I have to share with him? Or will he just hit me on the head and take the whole thing?”).  So while politics is a group-level phenomenon, that phenomenon comes into existence with the smallest possible group size: two people.

Readers who are familiar with the book Robinson Crusoe can see an example of this in literature. Crusoe’s solitary life on a desert island presents an interesting technical challenge of survival, but no more. However when another person arrives on the island, everything becomes a political issue involving the allocation of resources, most notably Crusoe’s decision to enslave this new person—whom he names Friday—and allocate Friday’s labor to himself. That politics exists in groups as small as two is easily demonstrable. Every marriage, for example, is an on-going political struggle. Who will earn how much money, who will wash the dishes, who will choose where to go on vacation, etc. Unhappy marriages are those that use “bad” methods to resolve these issues, including threats, blackmail, and violence. Happy marriages are those that use “good” methods of politics, primarily negotiation and compromise, to resolve these issues. But notice that avoidance of the political issues isn’t the sign of a good marriage. No marriage can actually avoid these issues. College students will find that a two-person group inevitably produces politics if they share a dorm room. This is one reason why single-rooms in dorms are always in demand, and more and more colleges and universities are making them widely available—because students don’t enjoy the politics of dorm life.

So the second important element of our definition of politics is:

  • Any method by which we allocate resources is political.


A key to understanding politics is to recognize that the “who” in “who gets what, when, and how” is anyone and everyone, not just “government officials.” That is, politics takes place whether or not government is present. Government is unavoidably political, but politics existed long before humans had created formal institutions of government.

In fact politics isn’t even limited to human beings. If you are a dog-owner, you almost certainly engage in games of “who gets what, when, and how” with your pet, whether it’s “who gets to sleep on the bed,” or “who gets the pie left out on the counter” or “when Fido gets to go for a walk.” Dogs are often remarkable politicians, from sneaking around stealthily behind our backs to guilt-tripping us with their sad brown eyes. Every time you give in, the dog has beaten you in politics.

For another example of non-human politics, consider the allocation of resources among other social animals, chimpanzees for example. The book Chimpanzee Politicsiii explains how a colony of chimpanzees in a zoo allocated food, power, and social influence, despite having no formal government. One example involved a trio of three male chimpanzees, each of whom desired to be the most dominant in the colony. The initial dominant male, Yeroen, was toppled from his position by a rival male, Luit, despite having strong support from the females in the colony. One of Luit’s methods of taking power was to violently attack females who were friendly to Yeroen, so that eventually they were frightened to support him. The third male, Nikkie, indirectly assisted Luit by consistently refusing to come to Yeroen’s aid. Later, Nikkie successfully challenged Luit, but only with the assistance of Yeroen, who evidently figured being the number two ape in the hierarchy beat being number three. The author, Frans de Waal, explains the chimps behavior in clearly political terms.

Ever since Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War…it has been known that nations tend to seek allies against nations perceived as a common threat… After his dethronement Yeroen was faced with a similar choice; on the one hand a coalition with the more powerful party, Luit, and on the other a coalition with the weaker Nikkie. Under Luit’s dominance, Yeroen’s infleunce was limited, because Luit did not need his support. At most he needed his neutrality. By choosing to support Nikkie, however, Yeroen made himsel indispensable to Nikkie’s leadership, and consequently his influence in the group grew again (pp. 180-1).

In the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his book de Waal explicitly referenced Laswell’s definition of politics:

If we follow Harold Lasswell’s famous definition of politics as a social process determining “who gets what, when, and how,” there can be little doubt that chimpanzees engage in it (p. ix).

Inevitably, all social species engage in politics, because social animals both share and fight over valuable resources. For example, birds sing and call for the purpose of attracting mates and defending territory, two very important resources (especially from an evolutionary perspective: without a mate the animal cannot reproduce, and without territory it may not be able to attract a mate or provide nourishment for its offspring). This also helps demonstrate the concept that politics occurs even in the absence of government, because of course birds have no such thing (despite the fact that a group of owls is called a “parliament of owls”).

To take it one final step further, we might even say that differing non-social species sometimes engage in politics with each other. Biologist Robert Trivers gives us the example of cleaner fish, small fish that get nourishment from nibbling the gunk off other fish’s teeth.iv To successfully allocate this resource—the nutritious gunk on predator’s teeth—to themselves, the cleaner fish have to actually swim into the mouth of a predator, which creates the potential for the predator to try to eat the cleaner fish—i.e., allocate that tasty little resource to itself. Yet they predators don’t, because they are seeking a different goal at the moment, the eradication of potentially deadly bacteria from their teeth. The predator fish are happy (to the extent a fish can experience such an emotion) to assist in allocating their germs to the cleaner fish. And of course there is not even the faintest shadow of a hint of government involved in their actions.

We know that our species, homo sapiens sapiens evolved from a long line of hominids that were social species also. When the lineage that led to humans split from the lineage that led to chimpanzees around four million years ago, the hominids that are ancestral to both species were already social animals, so we can be absolutely sure that our pre-human ancestors also engaged in politics. That is, politics is far older than mankind, and humans evolved as political animals—politics is not something we developed after we came into being. Aristotle famously said that “man is by nature a political animal.”v By this he meant that every human belongs in a social group, and those who are comfortable without membership in a group are “either subhuman or superhuman.” Although he predated our understanding of humans’ evolutionary history by more than two thousand years, his observation is remarkably congruent with our modern scientific knowledge, but if anything he understated the case. Humanity is not just political by nature, but by millions of years of pre-human genetic heritage.

So the second important element of Lasswell’s definition of politics is:

  • Politics exists even outside of, and in the absence of, government.

Political Problems: Coordination, Collective Action, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Now let’s move the discussion to some more specific concepts that occur within the sphere of politics: coordination problems, collective-action problems, and agenda-setting. This is not the last of the concepts we’ll consider in this book, but these three are important foundation stones upon which we can build. Most of the issues and concepts we’ll discuss later cannot be completely understood without these basic building blocks.

Coordination Problems
Remember that politics occurs with any size group, from a marriage consisting of two people to a nation consisting of over one billion. A persistent, ever-present, problem in politics is how to coordinate the actions of that group, to achieve a particular goal. Here is the simplest idea in this book:

  • The difficulty of coordination increases with group size.

Simply put, it’s easier to coordinate the actions of two people than of one billion people. This principle was clearly expressed by Scottish political philosopher David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature, written in 1740.

Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ’tis easy for them to know each other’s mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But ’tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and wou’d lay the whole burden on others. Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences.

This is an important statement by Hume, covering several concepts that may not be immediately apparent to you, so I’m going to develop it step-by-step. First, let’s give it more focus on the problem of coordination by snipping out just some key phrases.

Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ’tis easy for them to know each other’s mind… But ’tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it…

Two people can coordinate easily, a thousand find it very difficult, if not impossible. Anyone who has worked in various size groups can recognize the general truth of this statement. Compare going somewhere by car with just a few friends compared to taking a field trip with a large class. Just getting everyone out of the bathroom, onto the bus and in their seats can be a time-consuming process in the latter case, and that’s when everyone agrees on what they should be doing and where they should be going.

Consider how much harder it would be if they do not agree on their destination. For example, consider the differing levels of difficulty in agreeing on where to go for dinner. Two or three friends may have different preferences on where to go eat (one prefers Mexican food, another wants a burger, and the third favors pizza). These friends may argue for a while, but they can probably coordinate on where to go out for dinner, whether that is done by way of voting (“Sorry, Bob, it’s two against one”), agreeing to take turns choosing where to go (“We’ll go out for pizza next time, and burgers the time after that”), bribery (“I’ll pay for your dinner if we eat Mexican”), or dishonesty (“Hey, what are we doing at the pizza place? We agreed to burgers!”). Of course each of these methods is one of those political methods of allocating resources.

Now imagine doing that with a busload of people, or worse yet, Hume’s “a thousand people.” If everyone can go do their own thing, then there’s no difficulty, but we’re talking about coordinating their actions, so they’re all on the same page, which means in this case getting them all to the same restaurant. You’re probably already thinking of ways you could get it done, but just ask yourself this: Would those methods—those political methods—be easier, or perhaps unnecessary, if there were only a few people?

There are ways to coordinate large groups, and we will cover that issue in this chapter, but for now let’s set that aside and just note that the larger the group the harder it is to coordinate, but that even small groups can present coordination problems that must be overcome.

Collective Action Problems

Collective action problems are not nearly as straightforward as coordination problems. Let’s begin by returning to Hume, and pull a different snippet from his quote.

Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because…each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But ’tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action…while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and wou’d lay the whole burden on others.

There’s a slightly different emphasis here than just on the sheer numbers involved in a collective effort. In the case of just two people, Hume says, each knows that his effort is critical to the project’s success. That is, if he doesn’t do it, nobody will. When there are a thousand people involved, nobody’s effort is critical to success, and each would like to “free himself of the trouble” and “lay the whole burden on others.” In this statement, Hume became the first person to clearly identify what we now call a “collective action problem.”

Collective action problems are so fundamental to politics that political scientist Elinor Ostrom—a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics—has said that “the theory of collective action is the central subject of political science.”vi It is especially important that you make the effort to understand the concept of collective action problems—and I will make every effort to make it clear—because a vast range of political problems are best understood when understood as being examples of collective action problems or efforts to overcome collective action problems.

So let’s identify the two crucial elements Hume hints at that create a collective action problem.

  • First element of a collective action problem: Everyone in the group will benefit from achieving the goal.

In Hume’s example, the goal is a drained meadow. Flooded, it is of little value to anyone in the group. Cows can’t graze in it, and corn won’t grow. If the group— those who “possess [it] in common”—drain it, they all benefit, whether the benefit is to graze cows, grow corn, make a soccer field out of it. The key is not what they get out of it, but that everyone shares in the benefit.

  • Second element of a collective action problem: Not everyone’s contribution is critical to achieving that benefit.

Because not everyone’s contribution is necessary, some people may be able to achieve the benefit without putting in any effort. As Hume says, they want to free themselves of the trouble and lay the whole burden on the others, while still getting the benefit for themselves. The technical term for people who do that is free-rider. One free-rider in a group is not necessarily a problem, but if it’s a good deal for one person, every other person can see that it’s just as good a deal for themselves as well. When everyone free-rides, or at least when too many people free-ride, the group’s effort is too little, and nobody benefits.

That’s why it’s called a collective action problem. Because while everyone would benefit if they all put in the effort, every single person in the group has an incentive to not put in that effort. Despite everyone in the group wanting the benefit, the group does not achieve the benefit.

If unanimous effort—the effort of every single person in the group—was necessary to achieve the benefit, there would be no collective action problem, because no individual could shirk their share of the load and still hope to get their share of the gains. By shirking they would definitely deprive themselves of the benefit. But if my effort isn’t necessary, then I can hope that my shirking does not deprive me of the benefit.

Upon first hearing this idea, many people say, “Well, then they should all just put in the effort, then they’ll be sure to get the benefit.” But it’s important to distinguish what makes sense as a group from what makes sense for the individual. If everyone else buys into that logic and all puts in the effort, then there’s no need for my effort, and I’m a fool to waste it. But then if everybody else thinks just like me, so that nobody else is putting in an effort, I’d be even more of a fool to waste my own effort. As Elinor Ostrom has written:

Whenever one person cannot be excluded from the benefits that others provide, each person is motivated not to contribute to the joint effort, but to free-ride on the efforts of others. If all participants choose to free-ride, the collective benefit will not be produced. The temptation to free-ride, however, may dominate the decision process, and thus all will end up where no one wanted to be.vii

One common response to the tendency to free-ride is “but what if everyone thought that way?” There are two counter-responses to that. The first is, everyone does think that way, at least at some times in their lives. The second is most eloquently expressed by the character, Yossarian, in the World war II novel Catch-22, who doesn’t want risk his life flying any more missions, even though his country is trying to win a war. When asked, “what if everyone thought that way?” he replies, “Then I’d certainly be a damn fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”viii

Let’s pursue this a little further, first by assigning some values to the individual’s contribution and benefit, then by giving some examples. By assigning some value to the individual’s contribution and benefit, we can show that the free-rider is always better off than the contributor. Assume that the individual’s contribution is worth $5 (whether that’s a direct contribution of money or the value of her time does not matter) and the value of the benefit to each individual is $15. If the group successfully achieves the benefit, everyone who contributed gets the $15 benefit minus their $5 contribution, for a net gain of $10. But the free-rider gets the $15 benefit minus $0 in contribution, for a net gain of $15. When the group achieves the benefit, the free-rider comes out ahead of the contributor.

Now let’s say too many people free-ride and the group fails to achieve the benefit. Contributors receive $0 – their $5 contribution, for a net of -$5. The free-rider receives $0 – $0 in contribution, for a net of $0. When the group fails to achieve the benefit, the free-rider comes out ahead of the contributor.

If the free-rider always does better than the contributor, no matter whether the group succeeds or fails in its effort to get the collective benefit, why would anyone ever contribute? Good question, hence it’s a problem. We can show this in a simple diagram. Pay close attention to the diagram, as we’re going to do a slight transformation of it soon to emphasize another important idea.

Cost of contribution: $5 Benefit: $10 Does Group Achieve Benefit?
Yes No
Does Individual Contribute? Yes $10 -$5
No $15 $0

In this diagram, you can see the same net benefits (when given in a table like this, we call them payoffs) given above, just in the format of a table. If you follow the values down from the individual who contributes to the individual who does not contribute, you’ll see that the non-contributor—the free-rider—always comes out ahead.

I want to emphasize that I’m not encouraging free-riding behavior. On the other hand I’m not discouraging it, either. The purpose here is not to either praise or condemn it, but to simply explain why people do it. In fact one of the reasons we—as a society—try to instill ethical principles that would lead us to condemn free-riding is to try to overcome collective action problems. Ethical criticism of free-riding is one of our political method of trying to allocate resources—we’re trying to allocate the free-rider’s contribution to the group’s effort, instead of letting him keep it to himself.

Now let’s consider some examples.

  • A group of college students want to drive from Michigan to Florida for spring break. Each wants the benefit of spring break in Florida, but each wants to minimize her own cost. If only one student successfully free-rides, how does her action affect the others? How does her net benefit compare to the others? What happens if each students avoids paying her share of the cost of gas for the trip?
  • When cars burn fuel they emit pollutants. If everyone pays to keep their cars in good repair, we’ll all suffer less from polluted air, but if everyone but me pays to keep their cars in good repair, we’ll still all breathe easy. How would my net benefit compare to everyone else’s? What if everyone free-rides like me, and fails to keep their car in good repair?
  • Imagine we are on an airplane that is taken over by armed hijackers. If we all attack, we can subdue them. If everyone but me attacks, we can still subdue them. How does my net benefit compare to those who are in the forefront of the attack? What if everyone chooses not to attack?

Notice that in each of these cases the problem is that it doesn’t require the contributions of everyone to achieve the benefit. If I am one of four students going on the spring break trip, and I let the other three pay for the gas, we will still be able to get to Florida and back. If I am the only one driving a badly polluting car, the air will will not be that badly affected. And if I am the only one who does not join the attack against the hijackers, it will probably not affect the likelihood of subduing them. But everybody might come up with the same idea. And consider how much of a “damned fool” you’d have to be to pay for all the gas to Florida and back or to attack the hijackers by yourself.

Again, you might find yourself thinking of ways to solve these problems, especially the spring break problem, which is most easily solved. But the key is that these problems do require a solution—successful collective action doesn’t just naturally happen. But set those solutions aside for a few more paragraphs, and then we’ll come back to them. First, though, I want to show in what way David Hume was wrong, so that the problem of politics is even more prevalent than he thought

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Let’s pull another snippet from Hume’s quote, this time focusing on that smallest political unit—the two-person group.

Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ’tis easy for them to know each other’s mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project.

I’m a great admirer of Hume, so it pains me to say this, but he is in fact wrong. The ugly reality is that even a group of only two people can suffer from a collective-action problem, because it is not true that “the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning of the whole project.” Many projects that two people can benefit from can actually be accomplished by the efforts of a single person, meaning that one person in that group can free-ride on the efforts of another person. For example, one person could cover the cost of gas for two people on a trip, or the cost of the other person’s meal, or one person on a tandem bike could let the other person do all the work of pedaling.
When our collective action problem involves only two people, it is called the prisoner’s dilemma. The name comes from one way of explaining the problem. Two criminals rob a store together. Both are arrested with a small amount of contraband, but the police can’t prove they actually committed the robbery. So they are taken into separate rooms, where the police offer each one the same deal:

If you confess and implicate your partner, he’ll get ten years in jail, and we’ll let you go scot-free; if he confesses and implicates you, you’ll get the ten years in jail and he’ll go free; if you both confess, we’ll go easy and give you only five years each; if neither of you confess, we can only get you for possessing stolen property, which carries a two year sentence.

We can show these possible outcomes in a diagram, and we’ll call the thieves Abby and Brad. The numbers in the cells indicate how many years in jail each will get, and the number that is in the lower-left is Abby’s jail-time, while the number in the upper-right is Brad’s time in the joint.

Prisoner’s Dilemma: No Honor Among Thieves. Does Brad confess?
No Yes
Does Abby confess? No 22 010
Yes 100 55

Notice that no matter what one’s accomplice does, it’s best to fess up and blame them for the crime. You can demonstrate this for yourself by moving following either thief’s payoff from the cell where they do not confess to the cell where they do. If Brad confesses, Abby can get stay silent and get ten years in prison, or she can confess, too, and cut her jail time down to five years. If Brad does not confess, you might think Abby should stand by her man, but she’ll get two years if she does, and will earn a get-out-of-jail-free card if she does not. Because Brad is given the same offer, the exact same logic holds true for him. No wonder there is no honor among thieves (that and the fact that thieves are obviously dishonorable to start with).

You may have noticed a similarity with the collective-action problem diagram: No matter what the other(s) do, your best payoff comes from free-riding. In fact you may have realized by now that the prisoner’s dilemma diagram is in fact identical to the collective action problem diagram, just with only two people instead of a larger group. We can make this clearer by leaving our unfortunate prisoners to their fate and giving a more straightforward example.

Let’s say Abby and Brad are not thieves but roommates. They can each contribute to keeping their apartment clean, or they can try to free-ride on the other’s effort. When working with the prisoner’s dilemma, we call contributing “cooperation” and free-riding “defection.” (Why different terms? Just because the two concepts did not grow directly out of each other, but developed somewhat independently, so the scholars who first considered collective action problems were a different group from those who first worked with the prisoner’s dilemma.) Since it’s hard to put dollar values on the value of a clean apartment or one’s effort towards cleaning it, let’s borrow a trick from economics and talk about Abby and Brad’s utility. Utility is just satisfaction, and all that really matters here is that a higher value equals more satisfaction.

Prisoner’s Dilemma: Apartment Cleaning Does Brad cooperate or defect in cleaning?
Cooperate Defect
Does Abby cooperate or defect in cleaning? Cooperate 66 10 1
Defect 110 22

First consider the upper left cell, where both cooperate in cleaning. Both get utility/satisfaction from a clean apartment, but dislike the effort. So let’s assume their net satisfaction (joy of cleanliness minus their revulsion to the effort) is six. Collectively, between the two of them, their utility/satisfaction is twelve. We call that collective amount their “social utility,” the net utility of their little two-person society. But Abby realizes that her own utility will increase to ten if she defects, and free-rides on Brad’s cleaning effort. Unfortunately this will reduce Brad’s utility from six to one (he has to work twice as hard and he’s angry about having to clean up after his roommate), and it reduces their social utility from twelve to eleven, but since her own utility increases Abby is better off.

Of course Brad has the same thoughts, so he also defects and tries to free-ride on Abby’s effort. They are now in the lower right cell, the position we call “mutual defection.” But since both are defecting (nobody is cleaning), their utility/satisfaction declines down to two, because neither enjoys living in a filthy apartment. Their social utility has now declined from twelve to four—a dramatic decrease in their little society’s collective quality of life!

So why don’t Abby and Brad change their behavior, so they can both be better off? The problem is that neither one can unilaterally improve his/her position. If either one decides to start cleaning she or he becomes worse off. And if they manage to agree to both simultaneously change their behavior and start cooperating on cleaning, each again realizes that they will be better off to stop doing so. They are stuck in this position, which we call a suboptimal equilibrium Suboptimal because it is less than the optimal, or best, outcome. Equilibrium because it is a position of balance—their is no incentive or tendency to shift away from it.

What does this have to do with politics? It may seem as though I’ve wandered off into a banal soliloquy about housekeeping, but I want to point out that this is in fact a microcosm of politics. Abby and Brad are in fact each trying to shift the allocation of resources in their own favor. Each wants more satisfaction (even though it comes at the expense of the other) and each wants more leisure time (by sticking the other with the housework). The moral of the story is that even though two people, the minimal group size, might be able to easily surmount the coordination problem, they still may run headlong into the collective action problem.

The Commons Dilemma: A Special Form of the Collective Action Problem

A special type of collective action problem is the “tragedy of the commons,” ix also known as the “commons dilemma.” Instead of a meadow, assume Hume’s thousand people live around a lake full of fish. If everyone is moderate in the amount of fish they take from the lake, the fish will repopulate, and people can keep fishing from the lake forever. But if people take too many fish from the lake, not enough are left to repopulate, and soon the lake is completely depleted of fish. The logical thing would seem to be for the people to reduce their fishing to sustainable levels, but that is group-level logic, which doesn’t apply to any one individual’s decision-making. Assume you are one of those thousand people, and the group manages to agree to reduce their catch, to keep the fishery sustainable. If 999 people are moderating their catch, you won’t need to reduce your catch. You can take all you can eat and not have to worry about destroying the fish’s ability to repopulate. On the other hand, what if the group cannot come to agreement, and they continue to over-fish the lake? In that case, moderating your own catch makes no difference at all, except to harm yourself. You can’t single-handedly save the fishery from depletion—all you can do is cause yourself to have fewer fish to eat before they’re all gone.

The fishery is a common-pool resource. It presents a collective action problem because both elements that define a collective action problem are present: the collective benefit (continued fishing) and the possibility of free-riding (catching more fish when others moderate their catch). But it has two other characteristics that define a common-pool resource and create the commons dilemma. First, it is an open-access resource (nobody can be kept out of it; any and all of Hume’s thousand people can take fish from it). Second, each unit of that resource (each fish) one person takes is a unit that’s not available to anybody else. In technical terms, we say the resource is “rivalrous.” That is, while the share the resource (the fishery) as a whole, they are rivals for the individual units of it. Groundwater is another example of a common-pool resource. Most aquifers will replenish from rainwater and snowmelt, but if too much water is drawn from them too quickly, they may be depleted faster than they can replenish (and in some cases, the soils will compact, eliminating the cavities that held water, and making replenishment impossible).

Commons dilemmas are an especially important class of collective-action problems because so many environmental problems concern common-pool resources. Because one element defining a common-pool resource is open-access, one commonly proposed solution is to privatize it, turning it into a private good. Privatization may not always be possible, though, for multiple reasons. One is that controlling access may be too difficult, even if someone is nominally the owner. Imagine trying to limit access to Lake Superior, for example, even if it was officially private property. Another reason is that privatization may be politically impossible. For example, imagine the public outcry of rage if the government proposed to sell Lake Superior to the highest bidder. Finally, we haven’t even discussed government yet—so far it doesn’t even exist in our models—and in a world without government, who would respect anyone’s claim to ownership over the whole of Lake Superior? Privatization is a good solution for some common-pool resources, but for many it is not an achievable solution, and in the absence of government it is a most unlikely solution, relying on voluntary compliance, which, if it was achievable, would have prevented the commons dilemma without the need for privatization.

Successful resolution of commons dilemmas can be crucial to societies. Uncontrolled use and depletion of common-pool resources has been a contributing factor in the collapse of many societies. The near-extinction of the bison left Native Americans of the Great Plains without sufficient food resources to survive winters, forcing them to give up resistance to invading European-Americans and begin depending on them for food. In an even greater local catastrophe, the society that existed on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean collapsed entirely after the island was wholly deforested.x Particularly in the case of commons problems, failure to resolve the collective action problem can have catastrophic consequences for all the members of the relevant group.

So how do we manage to resolve our coordination and collective action problems? Often we don’t. Marriages split up, dormmates beg college administrators to find them different living quarters, countries fall apart or go to war, environmental problems linger on for decades, etc. But sometimes we do find solutions. Often those solutions involve government, but because we are building the structure of politics and government step-by-step, let’s first consider non-governmental resolutions of political problems.

Self-Governance and Agenda-setting
People often tend to think in terms of taking their political problems to a higher authority, in hopes it will provide a satisfactory solution. But what if people can resolve their problems among themselves without resorting to a higher authority (and without resorting to violence, blackmail or threats among themselves)? Isn’t that a better outcome, if it can be achieved?

The practice of resolving political problems is called governance. Governments, obviously, engage in governance, but groups can engage in governance without the presence or participation of government, too. For our purposes here, we’ll call that self-governance.

Self-governance has not received enough attention from political scientists, but the study of it is, at present, advancing rapidly. There is no agreed-upon formal definition yet, but the previously mentioned Elinor Ostrom is the undisputed leader in the effort to understand this concept of governance without government, and one of her research partners, Michael McGinnis, explains it this way.

Governance does need not be restricted to the activities of formal organizations designed as part of a “government” [with] authorities having “power over” subjects or citizens, but instead can be realized in the form of citizens jointly exerting “power with” others, as they jointly endeavor to solve common problems or realize shared goals.xi

Let’s go back to our examples of collective action problems, starting with the example of the spring break trip to Florida. Let’s imagine the worst case scenario, in which each student in the car tries to free-ride on all the others. One thinks, “Each time we stop for gas I’ll run to the bathroom and let someone else pay for the gas.” Another thinks, “Each time we stop for gas I’ll buy a bag of potato chips to share, so it looks like I’m contributing to the group effort,” and so on. So when the students get to their first gas station stop, the suddenly find that no-one is willing to pay for gas to keep them going on their trip.

Government won’t help these students out. No government is interested in their minor little issue, although to them it’s not minor at all. So they’re forced to fall back on self-governance, or else spend their spring break sitting in a gas station parking lot.

You may think the solution to this is so obvious that it’s not a good example. Of course it will be solved. But problems never solve themselves; people solve problems, or fail to, and it takes purposeful and intentional action to do so. This is a good example precisely because we can clearly show how such action to resolve the problem would come about, and can show multiple obvious solutions, so it perfectly demonstrates the potential for self-governance. All that’s really necessary is for someone in the group to take the initiative to propose a solution, or as we political scientists like to say, set the agenda. Agenda-setting is a crucial political activity, because it is how we begin to resolve our collective problems. It’s also worth thinking carefully about because agenda-setting is a very powerful opportunity for political entrepreneurialism—clever agenda-setters can ensure the outcome is to their liking more often than not.

So as our students sit there in the car, embarrassed and trying to avoid meeting each others’ eyes, one student says, “we need to solve this problem.” That’s a very tentative setting of the agenda, but it might get the ball rolling. A more effective setting of the agenda would be, “we need a plan to ensure each of us pays an equal share, and here’s what I propose.” Being the first to propose a solution is a powerful agenda-setting moment—it doesn’t ensure the outcome you want, but as long as there is at least one politically palatable solution, it almost certainly ensures that a solution will be found and agreed upon, and self-governance successfully achieved.

Frequently the proposal will be of the sort that economist Thomas Shellling called a “prominent solution,” something whose primary advantage is that it is easily recognized by all as a satisfactory method of resolving the problem. In this case, there are several solutions that would probably meet this standard.

  • We all put $100 in an envelope, and that’s the gas money. We divvy up any remaining money equally.
  • We all take turns buying gas. I’ll buy it here, Abby buys it at the next stop, Brad buys it at the one after that, Chris buys it at the one after that, then it’s my turn again and so on.
  • Everybody keep their own receipts for the gas they buy, then at the end we’ll even everything up.

Perhaps you had a different solution in mind. That’s fine, and perhaps you could persuade the group it’s better than any of these. Perhaps you can spot weaknesses in each of these solutions (there are, after all, no perfect solutions to any political problem—all institutional arrangements have some defects). That’s all to the good. I am not claiming that one of these is the perfect solution, but that each of them is a satisfactory solution, in that each of them can work to resolve their collective action problem by eliminating the possibility of free riding. As a matter of fact, I have participated in each of these three solutions over the years, so I know each one works, although not equally well in all circumstances (you might not use the same one with a group of strangers as you would with a group of friends, for example, or one may be more appropriate for a large group and another suited to a small group).

Of course some of these problems are more easily solved than others. There are fairly straightforward solutions to the spring break trip problem that can be handled through simple self-governance. Importantly, the group was small enough that the collective action problem was not exacerbated by a coordination problem.

But what about the polluting car problem? Unless there is an easy way to identify the polluting car (not all pollutants are visible), and an easy way to agree upon and enforce a solution, successful self-governance may be impossible. In the spring break example, it is quickly clear to everyone in the car that the jig is up, they’ll have to pay their share, and there are easy methods for identifying who isn’t paying their share. That may not hold true for the air pollution example because it can be harder to identify the free-riders, and because enforcement may be too difficult if the number of car drivers is too large. What might be easy on a commune with five cars becomes impossible in a town with five thousand cars.

Finally, consider the hijacking example. In this case we have a fairly small number of people, and a very strong incentive to overcome their collective action problem. If spring break at a gas station is an undesirable outcome (a suboptimal equilibrium), it doesn’t begin to compare to being killed by terrorists. But what if the hijackers prevent the people from talking to each other? How can anyone set the agenda and propose a prominent solution if no one can communicate? That problem may be unsolvable, at least in the limited time available.

Obviously that example is uncommon (although it is in fact real), but it has the virtue of highlighting the importance of communication. The ability to actually get in contact with other stakeholders, and to express our ideas to them, is a critical element of governance.

Governance without government may seem rare, but it’s actually quite common, perhaps so common that we tend not to notice it. An example that’s popular among political scientists is “sand lot baseball,” where the kids set and enforce their own rules without turning to an official governing body to make the rules and assign umpires. For example, “that shrub is second base,” “the pine tree is foul territory,” and “over the Jones’s fence is a ground-rule double.” Pickup basketball players do the same thing when they decide whether a rebound has to come out beyond the foul line or not, whether the team making a basket keeps the ball or the other team takes it, whether they’ll count three point shots, etc. It’s such a natural human activity that we tend to do it without realizing what we’re doing, which is in fact writing temporary constitutions for the governance of our temporary society.

There are more formal, officially structured, examples of self-governance, too. Churches frequently govern themselves without having an actual government. Neighborhood watch associations—voluntary groups of citizens who patrol their neighborhoods to watch for suspicious activity—also have to govern themselves—allocating watch times to the participants, and perhaps material resources like walkie-talkies or shirts to identify themselves, which also requires making sure members allocate some of their resources, time and money, to the organization. Governance without government can be even more complex, and can, in the right circumstances, persist over many generations. The Hutterites, an agrarian Christian sect, live in self-contained and self-governing communities. Leaders are elected by the people to take responsibility for various types of decisions (such as what to plant, or whether and where to buy land), but have little direct formal authority over anyone, a model that has worked for them for nearly four hundred years. In Spain there are communally owned and self-governed irrigation systems in Spain that date back as far as the 1400s.xii They have to develop a set of institutions—rules and procedures—for ensuring the maintenance of their system and a fair and satisfactory distribution of water. Similarly, there are communities in the Swiss Alps that have manged communally owned grazing land since the 13th century, almost 800 years of continuous self-governance.xiii

Notice that this concept of governance as being politics with authoritative allocation ties back into the first chapter of the book, where we said that the structure of political systems determines em>who has authority to make which decisions. That holds true in all methods of governance, even before we create formal governments.

One final note is important before we move on to an explanation of government itself, and that is to re-emphasize that the potential for self-governance suggests that the existence of government represents a failure, the failure to successfully engage in self-governance. We are so accustomed to the existence of government—we are in fact intertwined from cradle to grave in a complex system of multiple levels and units of government—that we tend to see the existence of government as obviously the correct and proper thing (which is not to say that one necessarily agrees with what that government is doing). But if we could resolve all our political problems through self-governance, the necessity for formal government would not exist. It is our inability to do so, whether because or our own human failings or because of the complexity of the problems we face, that cause us to create and turn to the power of a government for solutions.

Exercising Your Knowledge

  1. What is the definitions of politics, and who came up with it?
  2. Who engages in politics? Have you ever witnessed non-human animals engaging in politics? Give an example.
  3. Choose some political event with which you are familiar, and define the who, what when, and how of it.
  4. What is the coordination problem?
  5. What are the elements that create a collective action problem?
  6. What is a free-rider? Have you ever been a free-rider? Have you ever had anyone free-ride on your efforts? Have you ever been part of a collective action problem that was not solved because of free-riding?
  7. What is the commons dilemma? Can you think of an example of a commons dilemma other than the one given in this chapter?
  8. Have you ever been involved in successful self-governance that did not involve recourse to a formal authority? Give an example.

1. Some people see this as evidence that political science is not a worthwhile field of study, but most other academic disciplines have similar problems. Economists argue over the definitions of such crucial concepts as rationality and rent-seeking; philosophers study ethics without being able to precisely define it; biologists are still uncertain about the precise definition of a species, and physicists are still trying to figure out what gravity is. The only thing this uncertainty proves is that the world is often too complex to be adequately described by a simple definition.

i. Stewart, Potter. 1964. Jacobellis v. Ohio. 378 U.S. 184.

ii. Lasswell, Harold D. 1935. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Company.

iii. de Waal, Frans. 1982/2007. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among the Apes. 25th Anniversary Edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

iv. Trivers, Robert. 1971. “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism.” Quarterly Review of Biology. 46:35-57.

v. Aristotle. The Politics, Book 1, Ch. 2.

vi. Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action.” American Political Science Review 92(1): 1-22.

vii. Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.6.

viii. Heller, Joseph. 1955. Catch-22. New York: Simon and Schuster. p.102.

ix. Hardin, Garrertt. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science: 162:1243-1248

x. Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books. [Complete Citation]

xi. McGinnis, Michael D. 2010. “An Introduction to IAD and the Language of the Ostrom Workshiop: A Simple Guide to a Complex Framework for the Analysis of Institutions and their Development.” Manuscript prepared for the comment by participants in the Institutional Analysis and Development Symposium, University of Colorado, Denver, April 9-10, 2010. Accessed September 29, 2010.

xii. Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

xiii. ibid.


One response to “Chapter 1.2: What Is Politics?

  1. How’s the textbook project coming?

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