The Two Fundamental Political Questions

There are a myriad of political questions under discussion, and every day that goes by there are more. All of these questions have contributed to a state of confusion. This essay seeks to cut through it, by arguing that all of those questions fundamentally boil down to two interdependent ones: Who and How Much?

Politics exists in other mammals, in particular primates, and could be said to be a cultural method of minimising violence in the distribution of resources. It’s a way of deciding who gets what, and who goes without. The first fundamental question of politics, then, is: “Who is part of the ingroup?”

All political arrangements are a way of reaching the most satisfying arrangement for the group. In cases where it’s clear who is in the group and who isn’t, such arrangements are simple. The practical reality, however, is that it’s very difficult to draw clear and distinct lines between who belongs and who does not.

It’s an easy question to answer when the subject is a family. This group derives from the strongest bond of solidarity that exists: that between mother and child. The members of the group are therefore the mother and children, plus the father, plus the parents (especially the maternal grandmother).

When it’s an extended family, or a village, it’s also easy to answer. It’s when the group size starts to exceed Dunbar’s Number that problems start to arise. Dunbar’s Number is an ethological rule of thumb that posits the breakdown of social structure once the size of the group exceeds about 150. This number is an estimation of the number of meaningful social connections a person can maintain.

Once you have a group that exceeds this, like a town, city-state or kingdom, then it becomes impossible for individuals to remember enough social connections for them to recognise every person they meet. This means that individuals start to encounter strangers. This is an everyday concept for us, but only because we are civilised – in the biological past, encounters between strangers frequently resulted in violence.

To circumvent this violence, lines were drawn to clearly delineate who was part of the ingroup and who was not. Another way to ask the first of the two fundamental political questions is, therefore: “Who counts as ‘us’, and who counts as ‘them’?”. As will be shown, this question is interdependent with the second.

The second fundamental political question is: “What does it mean to be ‘us’ and ‘them’?” Once you have a group, it then becomes a matter of what the members of the group are willing to do for each other. Are they willing to die for each other, or do they merely extend a slight favouritism sometimes?

Viewed another way, the second fundamental political question is one of solidarity. How much solidarity do members of this group have for one another? If they have high levels of solidarity, the group could be a fearsome political or military force in their region, or upon the world stage. If they have low levels of solidarity, then the name of the group might be something of a joke.

From looking at the consequences of the various ways of answering these two questions, two laws of group psychology become evident.

The first is: the larger the ingroup, the weaker the bonds of solidarity. As mentioned above, the strongest bonds are between mother and child, followed by the wider family bonds. Tribal bonds are also very strong, but once the group becomes larger than 150, bonds begin to weaken appreciably. When the group becomes too big, ingroup members start being treated as strangers. Then, new ingroups form.

The second law is: the more diversity within the ingroup, the weaker the bonds of solidarity. At one extreme is the example of a family. Such a group will co-operate so closely that individuals are happy to make extreme sacrifices for each other. At the other extreme would be a group that was comprised of one half Nazis and the other half Communists. Such a group will tear itself apart in short order.

The inverse relationship between diversity and wealth within a nation is established: the more diverse a nation, the poorer it tends to be. The reason why is clear if one considers that the most important factor in national wealth is the human capital of the workers. It costs money to make an investment in the human capital of the young, and people are less willing to pay to make that investment the less they have in common with those young people.

A loss of solidarity with increasing diversity can also be observed by comparing the nature of society in Scandinavia or Japan with society in America or Brazil. In the former countries, people are generally happy to pay taxes because they believe those taxes will help people like them. Their answer to the second fundamental political question is that there ought to be strong bonds of solidarity within a nation, like an extended family, and their answer to the first is that who constitutes ‘us’ needs to be tightly controlled.

The two fundamental political questions are therefore interrelated. The first question determines the answers the second question, and vice-versa. It is impossible to decide how much solidarity one should have for other group members until you know who is in the group, and it’s impossible to decide who should be in the group until you decide how much solidarity is expected of each member.

But until those questions are answered, it’s impossible to decide any other question. A person’s position on issues such as how much tax to pay, what social services should be covered, immigration, defence and more, are all functions of their positions on these two fundamental political questions. Until you know who counts as ‘us’ and what that entails, it’s impossible to decide anything else.

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