20 August 2006

Political Survival

By coincidence, just after posting my prevous piece on the importance of considering political survival as a constraint on any government, the EconTalk podcast on The Logic of Political Survival came out. Like others, I found this fascinating, and not satisfied with the 88 minutes of interview with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, I bought the book, which arrived on Friday.

The book in many ways lives up to its promise, but there are a few annoyances with it. The errors in the English are quite distracting: the first chapter is titled "Reigning in the Prince". It's just conceivable that this is some kind of clever pun, but if so it doesn't quite work - it looks much more like ignorance of what reining in is. The title is taken from the sentence on page 4, "On the basis of our analysis, we propose ways of reigning in not ony Hobbes's Leviathan, but Machiavelli's well-advised Prince as well". That makes perfect sense if it means "reining", but has a quite different meaning if "reigning" were really intended, as well as sloppy grammar. (That is, it could refer to ways of reigning in the context of Leviathan or The Prince. I think it doesn't).

The other problem is more general, not specific to this book. As you can see, the book compares the authors' theories with those of other political scientists, from Hobbes and Machiavelli to the present day. There is a glaring ommission, though: an influential political thinker who produced a large body of work looking at the same questions. I shudder to think of the sarcasm that will come my way when I tell a Marxist about a new theory that governments are necessarily constrained for their survival to act in the interests of a definable powerful subset of the population.

This is not a problem with the theory - while the "Selectorate" is in many instances identical to what some call "The Ruling Class", in other cases it isn't, and the reasons for both the similarities and the differences between the two concepts are illuminating. But because of that, I think the comparison would have been worth making by the authors. If the Selectorate is identifiable as a class in the Marxist sense of sharing the same relationship to the means of production, that makes it easy for the leader to produce semi-public goods that benefit the Selectorate at the expense of the rest of the population, and harder to produce goods that benefit the "Winning Coalition" at the expense of the rest of the Selectorate. Conversely, if the Selectorate cuts across classes, then many policy choices would be available to favour one class within the Selectorate at the expense of others. This will have interesting implications on the behaviour of the government within the context of the theory, which in the part I've so far read and in the parts I've skimmed, don't seem to be studied.

Of course, there are many avenues for further development opened by the theory, and that is just one, but it is an obvious one that occurs to anyone who has, like me, a passing even if hostile aquaintance with Marxism.

I have a bit of an interest in Catholic theology, on the basis that since this is what the brightest minds half the world could produce spent about a thousand years on, it is likely to have some value, even if it is fundamentally flawed. In the same way, a large proportion of political science in the twentieth century was carried out in a Marxist framework, and while it is no doubt the worse for it, it is a stretch to dismiss it as worthless, less worthy as a point of comparison than Hobbes or Machiavelli, or to examine Lenin and Mao as political practitioners without giving any attention to the theories they expounded before coming to power.

Even if I am wrong about there being useful insights in Marxist theory that are worth looking for, it is also the case that the world today contains a large number of ex-Marxists, ex-Marxist political parties, and even ex-Marxist countries. Is it really the case that they need to forget everything they ever learned about politics? So long as the dogmatic approach is rejected, it would seem more productive to show that modern free political scientists are looking at the same questions as the Marxists in much the same way, and drawing conclusions that in some cases agree and in others disagree with aspects of Marxist political theory.

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