From Milling About to Deadlock: When hierarchies go topless
The idea of the social contract is often mentioned and seldom
understood. Politicians use that term but nobody seems to know what
they really mean by it. 17th century thinkers spoke as though there were
actual conversations or consultations in which these matters were
determined. In reality these matters must have taken place over a long
time and in various contexts. I will try to investigate what
may have happened by imagining a simple case of contract negotiation.
Imagine that a ship sank and a
group of orphans became lost on an island someplace. They all spoke the
same language but there was no older person to lead them. They gathered
fruit and bird eggs to eat. Some kids wanted to rob and eat the bird
eggs and fruit the other kids had gathered. The kids who had their food
taken from them would naturally be angry about that. After a while
the kids who regularly lost food might band together to protect each
other. It might happen that separate groups came into being and
sometimes they might not agree. Gang fights might occur. Some child
with vision, some child who could comprehend the whole situation, might
then emerge to become a leader of all of them. I think it usually
happens in an informal group that a person will emerge as the one whom
almost everybody agrees has the best sense. He or she doesn't have to
be the strongest or even the most intelligent, just the one whom most
people think is pretty fair. That person's leadership would depend
heavily on trust.
A small group like this could
evolve in several different ways. Perhaps the leader would be a very
strong person who could force people to do what he or she wanted. That
would not work very well in the long run because some of the people
would take advantage of being friends with the leader and other people
would lose out. The people that lost out wouldn't be very loyal to the
group. Then the leader would only be the leader of his or her clique
and there would be a second group that would become opposed to the
leader. The second group would find its own leader and then there would
be a chance for a sort of primitive war. The two groups might separate,
but then each group would be weaker than the original group that
contained all of the people.
In trusting someone else with authority, one must believe that
one's one interests and those of one's group will be respected. A
constitution will give a legal basis for this trust by protecting the
interests of minorities and preventing a dictatorship of the majority.
So here is a very important
principle to mark out: For peace and cooperation there needs to be
someone who is not the leader of just one part of the society. If there
are two or more factions in a group and each faction has a leader, then
that is effectively a split society. Whenever there is conflict there
will be no authority to solve the conflict. There will be nobody in the
middle to mediate any conflict. We can often see this kind of fight
brewing up in a modern society. It may be that a large factory has a
workforce that is organized into a union. The factory owner says, "I'll
give you workers 1/2 an ounce of silver for every hour that you work."
The workers say, "That's not enough. We want 3/4 of an ounce." Then the
workers go on strike, and the factory boss hires thugs to come in and
break up the strike. To avoid this kind of fight there needs to be a
third party who is neither a factory boss nor a worker, and that person
(or that part of the government) needs to have authority to come in and
tell everybody what to do.
Suppose that the third party, the
arbitrator in this situation, says workers should get 5/8 of an ounce
of silver per hour. The factory owner is unhappy and he says, "I'll get
you fired!" The workers are unhappy and the union says. "We'll
work against your superior in the next election, and you'll get fired!"
But if the arbitrator has been open and clear he may be okay in this
situation. He will say, "I looked at the accounts of the factory, and
if they gave you workers 3/4 of an ounce, then they couldn't afford to
buy enough raw materials to keep all of you at work. On the other hand,
if the factory only gives you 1/2 an ounce of silver that will let the
boss walk off with a tremendous amount of money that he doesn't really
deserve." When the election starts there are plenty of other people who
don't stand on the side of the factory owner and don't stand on the
side of the workers, and they can see that the arbitrators have been
fair. So in a society that keeps everything open and aboveboard, voters
will generally be able to figure things out correctly and keep the
arbitrator in his job.
I'm working with a really simple
society here. I'm making a very simple model society. However, the
principle exhibited here is an important one: Control should pass down
from the head of state to something like a labor ministry and then to
somebody who does the arbitrating. One kind of feedback goes back up
the chain of command. The arbitrator tells the labor ministry, "I
succeeded in doing the job you gave me. Mission accomplished." The
labor ministry tells the head of state, "Everything is working all
right with labor affairs these days." And the head of state feels that
he doesn't have anything to worry about with regard to labor affairs.
It is important to note that the head of state does not need to do much
more than to set the general goal of keeping labor relations in good
shape. It can be up to subordinates to determine exactly how to achieve
It isn't only that signals go down
and back up the chain of command, however; feedback from the general
public also goes to each level of that chain of command from people in
the community. They may say that the laborers aren't being treated
fairly, They may complain that the labor ministry is not doing its job
well enough, or they may complain that the head of state is not working
the way he should. This kind of feedback makes the arbitrator look more
closely at what has been done, it may prompt the labor ministry to
check on what the arbitrators have done, and it may warn the leader of
the country that something is going wrong and he had better fix it
before election time.
Once many people are involved
things can get complicated. The emperors of China discovered that what
they ordered didn't always get done, and they might not find out. In a
bureaucracy that had several levels, each time the emperor's order went
down a rung it could change because each level of administration had to
figure out how to implement the emperor's directives. Because officials
had their own subjective take on things, the implementation process
could slant things away from what the emperor would have wanted. Then
when the orders went out among the people and produced results in the
real world, news of what was accomplished needed to go back up the
chain of command. At each level information from lower levels would be
aggregated and the results might be sweetened to make the official look
better. So by the time a report reached the emperor it might not be
accurate enough to be truly useful.
When the emperors of China finally
twigged to this kind of thing going on, they invented a new kind of
official called a censor. The job of a censor was to go out into the
countryside to find what was really going on. If he found that anything
was going wrong he could get the concerned officials in a lot of
In a free society this kind of
investigation is often performed by the press. Investigative reporting
can reveal to the administration what its subordinate officials are
doing, and it also reveals hidden misbehavior to the voters. So freedom
of the press is a strong guard against tyrannical government.
Mao Zedong said, "Power comes from
the barrel of a gun." Ultimately, that is the justification for the
rule of the Communist
Party over China. If asked, "What right do you have to rule over the
people of China?" the only answer is, "We rule because we have the guns
and other tools of compulsion." While such a government
may be nervously aware of the power of the masses, it will have
virtually no reason at all to be protective of the rights of minorities.
At the other extreme of government
would be a formless direct democracy, a society in which every decision
would be reached by majority vote. How would you feel if disposal of
your house, your spouse, your
children, your possessions, etc. were all subject to the whims of
public opinion? They could all be taken away from you because the
majority of people in your community wanted to do something with them.
What happens if many people in a
country like China decide that they did not give the government the
authority to rule over them and so they work to take that authority
away? There are no effective feedback mechanisms, so there is no
established way to curb government excesses by vote, petition, etc.
Their authority coming out of the barrel of a gun, the only way to
change the situation is to use some kind of force to oppose them.
Gandhi used force to oppose the British Raj, but it was not the violent
kind of force dependent on weapons. There may be a hundred modalities
to produce change in a state like China, but they will go beyond the
kind of feedback that can be ignored.
When two or more power groups have
no superior to mediate among them and decide what route to take,
societies may deadlock or fission. The United States is currently in
this situation. There are several power centers that crowd around the
missing apex position: the Supreme Court, the President, two major
political parties of nearly equal strength, and the Armed Forces.
Theoretically, the Armed Forces are subordinate to the President, but
the same strategic separation that acts against their becoming the
instrument of a president in domestic affairs also makes them immune
from patronage debts to the president. The last general to challenge
the authority of the Commander in Chief was Douglas MacArthur. He
received no effective support in his efforts to control foreign policy.
However, it is still conceivable that in some time of intense
dysfunction of government the Armed Forces might perform a coup. Even
the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has no "power of the gun" to
ensure his dominance. So it is possible that an army or a battalion
might perform a coup. Alternately, a president might use his power as
Commander in Chief to assume autocratic power. The probability of any
of these developments is very low under any range of conditions thus
The current standoff between the
two major political parties, however, is a serious dysfunction. There
is no constitutional preparation for handling this kind of lock-up of
the mechanisms of government.* There is no officer of government who
stands above them and is empowered to force a compromise. The Founders
of the Republic evidently expected that no faction would endanger the
nation in pursuit of its own interests. They were wrong.
When a country is split among
several unconnected hierarchies of control that have no superior
controller, it is not clear how to depict the organization of the
country. It is not even quite clear what makes this complex combination
of humans capable of functioning as a nation. It is conceivable that
all the members of one ethnicity, religion, or other group held
together by some non-essential trait would form a component of the
nation, have its own system of social controllers, etc. Another
component of the same country might be located in a single region. If
each of these components behaved in most ways like a state, then an
intractable problem would arise whenever two or more of these
components came into conflict. The same general situation prevails in
the world as a whole, many nations jostling with each other and lacking
any superior organizational unit to mediate among them. It is clear why
there is still no world government: The nations of the world are
unwilling to give up sovereignty.
Trust is hard won and easily lost.
In a primitive tribal society the position of chief may not be
hereditary. It must in any case depend on trust. An individual with
aspirations will never become a so-called "medicine man" or shaman
unless he or she wins the trust of the community. Similarly, in the
world community it would be necessary for some group of individuals to
somehow set aside their individual national identities and begin to
function as independent executives or mediators over all nations. Similarly,
in situations wherein there are two or more strongly opposed power
groups it will be difficult for a member of any one of them to become
the leader of all.
* In the Senate of the
United States, a tie vote can be broken by the president of the senate.
However, in the House of Representatives an impasse cannot be broken by the Speaker
of the House.
Last revised 9 January 2016