Bonum Commune Communitatis

At it’s core, politics is about cooperation, disparate people and groups coming together to try and advance agenda of mutual interest. For this reason cooperation in often touted as the highest virtue in politics, and discord the greatest failing. Failures in the political process are almost inevitably cast as a failure to cooperate – the gridlock in the US legislature is considered as being due cooperation between the two major parties, and I’m sure you heard and read any number of people complaining that politicians just need to cut out all the partisan squabbling and focus on the good of the country. Similarly, you can see this logic at work in intra-party discussions. I have encountered liberals on the Internet lament the relative lack of cohesion of the Democrats, as distinct from the Republicans who seem to be better able to advance their ideological agenda with more focus and purpose. Conversely, failures in the political system are generally cast as either due to a lack of coherent vision for the future, or corruption. Note that both of these are failures of excessive individualism – the political principals are too concerned about their own good to worry about the greater good.

I don’t dispute the general idea that a political process can end up failing due to a lack of cooperation. In economics, these are normally called Collective Action Problems. But this is not the only reason political processes fail. In fact some times the problem is too much cooperation, not too little. Every mode of thinking has at least one failure mode – a way in which it can go wrong. I may be an ardent individualist, but I still acknowledge that a desire for individual autonomy has its own failure modes, one of them is a naive contrarianism, some people find an idea attractive simply because it contradicts what most people believe, which is why there is a correlation between libertarianism and conspiracy theories (though of course there are still many libertarians who are not conspiracy theorists).

Similarly, a desire for cooperation has its own failure mode. Conor Friedersdorf recently noted an unusually clear example of this failure mode . While I can well believe that Rush Limbaugh’s transparently partisan reasoning lies behind the way many people think about politics, it’s almost perversely impressive the way Limbaugh is so conscious of his tribalism. You see, Limbaugh doesn’t care whether an accusation is true or not, he only cares whether it helps or hurts his side. How much more loyal can a person be? This is the cooperativeness and cohesion of the Republican party (at least as it stands today) taken to its fullest, pathological, extreme.

The problem with Limbaugh’s though process here is that while standing by your allies no matter what sounds like a good idea, the sort of trait that stories assign to heroes and not villains, it comes at a heavy cost. If total loyalty to your group is the highest virtue, and any argument against your group is to be rejected per se, then you have obligated yourself to reject any constructive criticism you receive. If you do not allow yourself to think the thought “maybe we’re wrong” then you cannot recognize when you or your allies have actually made a mistake. And a group that adopts this norm has left themselves unable to correct after making a mistake. This results in a death-spiral whereby anyone who expresses reservations about the party, not just over core values but priorities or tactics as well, gets dismissed or driven out as a “RINO”. This leaves the remaining core even more dedicated and wary or defectors. The result could very well be a tiny core of die-hards whose ideological purity is matched only by their unthinking fanaticism.

So just bear in mind that when you lament the lack of cooperation in American politics, that there are some parts of the system that could do with less cooperation.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

36 thoughts on “Bonum Commune Communitatis

  1. Nice point. This kind of behavior also lends itself to hypocrisy and mentally tangling yourself in knots to justify positions you were opposed to prior to an election, ie Obama supporters on Gitmo, torture, war crimes, etc., and is one of the issues that led me to reject any partisan politics. If you’ve gotten yourself into a dilemma, and don’t have the integrity to change you position, why should I give you the time of day?

    Report

  2. I don’t dispute the general idea that a political process can end up failing due to a lack of cooperation.

    Often, if not more often, the problem is too much cooperation. Pork barrel politics is a good example: Politicians cooperate so that they can each deliver a spending project to their constituents to help with reelection, but the aggregate result is that a bunch of money gets wasted on spending projects that aren’t really needed.

    In the 90s, discord between Clinton and the Republican Congress gave us controlled spending. Cooperation between Bush and the Republican Congress gave us out-of-control spending. Cooperation gave us Obamacare; discord gave us the sequester.

    Representative democracy solves the collective action problem too well, more often than not.

    Report

      • Republicans didn’t have to cooperate. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency, so they just had to cooperate with each other.

        Report

    • Often, if not more often, the problem is too much cooperation.

      I would argue that an overabundance of cooperation leads to one set of exception scenarios, and the underabundance of cooperation leads to another.

      They are different both in kind and in degree. And, honestly, they’re substantively different enough that attempting to correct for them using a uniform approach is contraindicated.

      You don’t want gridlock for the sake of reducing the exception scenarios that come about from overabundance of cooperation, because gridlock dramatically increases the severity and frequency of exception scenarios that come about from an underabundance of cooperation.

      Report

      • Not exactly.

        You look at what an overabundance of cooperation could lead to. You can take some steps to correct for some of that. Some of these steps can be taken outside of the cooperative body. We do this now; the President has a veto, that’s supposed to be there to help correct for an overabundance of cooperation. So is SCOTUS review, for that matter.

        Same thing with an underabundance of cooperation… but the sorts of controls you put in place to prevent an overabundance of cooperation shouldn’t encourage an underabundance of it, either.

        One of the problems with the Congress is that they have the power of the purse and the power of spending. That’s a bad combo.

        They should have the power of the purse (approving a budget) but not necessarily the level of discretion that they have now (picking and choosing what, specifically, the want to spend money on). There’s no real oversight on the second because they’re stuck in an iterated inverted prisoner’s dilemma, where – on individual pork – it’s always in their best interests to cooperate rather than defect.

        Indeed the incentives are opposite: it’s in their best interests not to cooperate on an overall budget, and to cooperate on giving each other pork.

        The two of those things combined lead to the problem.

        A possible correction is to introduce penalties for failing to pass the general budget.

        Report

  3. It is interesting to note that two of our more strident libertarians seem to like the current state of affairs and prefer too little cooperation over too much cooperation.

    As a kind of pragmatist, I think that pork-barrel spending helps get things done. It can be horribly abused but I am starting to wonder whether people need a bit of “corruption”. Corruption is being used for a lack of a better word but I don’t see what is so horrible about win-win situations of you support my project, I support your project.

    I think the current US problems is because our parties are becoming more ideologically far-part but our political system is not designed to handle this. If we were parliamentary that would be funkadelic and have its own problems but the start differences between the Republicans and Democratic parties would not matter. The Congressional system seems to depend on both parties being very big-tent and having liberal and conservative wings based on geography instead of party-affiliation.

    Report

    • I think it’s probably more that corruption was a patch that made inter-party cooperation easier, because your system requires more of it than you have naturally. And you’re right that parliamentary systems don’t require that kind of coordination.

      Report

    • As a political scientist, I could argue that pork barrel spending is not corruption at all, but representatives representing the constituents within their district. I’m not–on a personal level–a big fan of it, but it inarguably does meet district needs (in general, even though some, of course, is pure waste), and it’s such a miniscule part of the budget it’s not at all the appropriate target for anyone upset about the overall level of federal spending.

      And, as Pierre notes, it does help grease the wheels of legislation. The idea that representatives ought to vote for “what’s right,” assumes there can be real agreement on what’s right. In the real world, making bills amenable to diverse interests is crucial, and pork barreling is a legitimate means of garnering support.

      Of course we could minimize it dramatically by ending district-based representation. Whether that price is worth paying is a matter of individual values, of course.

      Report

      • In which the gates of hell freeze shut, and I second Hanley’s position.

        “Pork Barrel” is of course just a synonym for “Stuff whats not important to me”. And of course, the biggest pork barrel in existance is the Pentagon, root to twig.

        As to cooperation, I think its a bit to easy to just see it as a single dimension slide, ranging from None to Total, lumping in together every sort of cooperation that exists.
        As if a party purging itself of insufficiently pure believers is the same as opposing parties cooperating on ideas they agree on, like raising the debt limit.

        Who is Rush Limbaugh cooperating with? His tightly knit tribe may operate like a hive mind, but that is the lowest possible level of cooperation, that of agreeing with those with whom you could not possibly find any disagreement anyway.

        The stated premise- that even laudatory words like cooperation can find error in excess- is pretty sound, but to assert that the trouble with our politics is too much cooperation seems almost Slatian in its determination to avoid the obvious, which is that Tea Party Republicans have declared total war upon every other political entity, including their own party.

        Report

      • There is a ton of pork in military spending, but the Pentagon itself really isn’t pork. It’s geographically situated where it makes the most sense to put it* (it is where it is due to proximity to DC, not because of the power of the Virginia delegation), serving a purpose almost nobody believes shouldn’t be served in one capacity or another. The pork is in the bases, weapons contracts, etc.

        * – Although, maybe after moving the capital to Nebraska, we can move the Pentagon to Wyoming. I could think of some tactical advantages of that.

        Report

      • Of course we could minimize it dramatically by ending district-based representation. Whether that price is worth paying is a matter of individual values, of course.

        Far be it for me to disagree with the professor, but I am not sure that would actually minimize it all that much. Pork isn’t specifically a House phenomenon, is it? Everybody would be fighting to bring federal funds to their state, even if they didn’t have a district inside of it.

        Report

      • Will,

        To be clear, the Senate has district-based representation, too. We just call those districts states (just as Representative Don Young’s district is all of Alaska). I was comparing to an un-mentioned hypothetical pure party-list system, where we would vote not for individual representatives but for a party, and the aggregate national vote would determine how many seats each party got, with the party selecting that number of representatives from their party list. In that situation, individual representatives would not be accountable to a discrete set of voters, but to their party leaders.

        That wouldn’t eliminate all pork–I doubt anything can–but it would eliminate or at least minimize the phenomenon of “I won’t vote for bill X unless it includes funding to repair the swimming pool in Podunksville, Michigan.”

        Any misunderstanding about that is my fault for not being clearer.

        Report

      • As to cooperation, I think its a bit to easy to just see it as a single dimension slide, ranging from None to Total, lumping in together every sort of cooperation that exists.
        As if a party purging itself of insufficiently pure believers is the same as opposing parties cooperating on ideas they agree on, like raising the debt limit.

        I agree, the problem with the US government is too little interparty cooperation. The problem with the Republican party is too much intraparty cooperation.

        Report

      • We used to have more interparty cooperation, when the Democrats had a conservative southern wing and the Republicans had a liberal northern wing. That was an old artefact dating from the origins of the Democrats in the south in the early 1800s and the southern antagonism toward the GOP post-Civil War. The great structural cause of the current lack of interparty cooperation is the erosion of that old structure, begun in the Civil Rights era–as conservative southern Dems and liberal northern Dems fought over civil rights–and completed in the 1990s, as the last conservative southern Dems, who had resisted changing parties because a) they tended to be old (the south, as a more traditionalistic political culture and a place that had less inter-party electoral competition, tended to re-elect incumbents until they died) and had comparatively meaningful memories of the Civil War (grandpa may have fought in it) and b) longevity meant good committee chairships, finally switched. Those, that is, who had not already been replaced by conservative Republicans in the new south.

        Ultimately, what we gained was parties that are more ideologically coherent (folks may not think of Tea Partiers as coherent, but the term as used really means internally consistent, not containing multiple conflicting views), but at the cost of cooperation. And since we don’t vote for parties, but individuals, the value gained from more coherent parties is limited (at least so far as I can see; there may be folks who see it differently).

        Report

      • The idea that representatives ought to vote for “what’s right,” assumes there can be real agreement on what’s right. In the real world, making bills amenable to diverse interests is crucial, and pork barreling is a legitimate means of garnering support.

        Look at it from a game-theoretic perspective. How much of pork-barrel spending persuades legislators to vote for things they wouldn’t otherwise vote for, and how much is just legislators withholding votes on things they would have voted for anyway because they know that doing so will allow them to get something they want?

        Report

      • Brandon,
        Depends on the bill. (of course).
        Big bills like the military?
        You’d have to be insane to not vote yes on.
        (lump the mad little lawn gnome in with the teapartiers).

        But there are a ton of “controversial” bills. Gun Control
        should it ever pass, will have tons of pork for the “fringe” areas.
        And that’ll be far more reasonable.

        Report

    • As a kind of pragmatist, I think that pork-barrel spending helps get things done.

      And when you think about it, wasting a little bit of money is a small price to pay for a chance to waste a whole lot more money.

      Report

    • In general, I believe that when both sides of the political aisle cooperate that means I’m going to get screwed harder than I might normally be, so I’m a big fan of divided gov’t. The less that gets “done” the greater the changes I’m not paying more.

      But my point was more about politicians, and those who rabidly support one side or the other, and to a less extent, everyone else, who are willing to condem one side for doing x, but when it turns out that they guy they supported is doing it also, won’t disavow them.

      Report

      • I really think you’re failing to do he cost-benefit analysis of the results of divided government.

        the shutdown, for instance, was a huge drag on the economy.

        I’d be interested to see a chart of economic performance and the divided-government crises of late. Because I think they’ve cost us a lot, including market dips and slow-downs in hiring.

        Report

      • Zic,

        I suspect Brandon could likewise say you’re failing to consider the costs he would identify with unified government that actively promulgates new policies.

        Keep in mind that some of what you would count as a benefit he would count as a cost, and vice versa.

        Report

      • , I suppose he could say that.

        But I was responding to Damon; who said, I believe that when both sides of the political aisle cooperate that means I’m going to get screwed harder than I might normally be, so I’m a big fan of divided gov’t. The less that gets “done” the greater the changes I’m not paying more.

        By law, the cost of doing something is supposed to be calculated by the CBO (talking Federal). Every freakin’ comment that comes forward during the rule-making process is supposed to be subject to a cost-benefit analysis, something the financial folk are using to great effect in slowing down actual implementation of new rules.

        So he could say that; but I would disagree; at least to the budget impacts. There are, I totally agree, other costs that are not measured by the CBO. And amongst those costs are the societal pressures that made the matter subject to legislation. So there’s already some sort of cost going on that’s deemed too expensive by some segment of the population.

        Report

      • …Roosevelt or Johnson, or even Bush or Obama. When the different branches of government cooperate, we get huge, expensive new programs that last forever. When they’re opposed, we get low spending growth, sometimes even reductions. If your motto when it comes to spending is “more, more, more!” then you’ll like unified government. If you think less is more, not so much.

        Report

      • It’s not the “cost to the nation” or whatever, it’s the cost to ME that I care about. I’m one of those people who pay taxes (1 of 2 types of groups that fund the gov’t-the other being the fed printing money) and I’m tired of seeing my net income shrink every year and the buying power of my wage shrink along side that.

        And lets be clear, the stats that the gov’t puts out about how much some program or not is going to cost is, generally, a WAG. There are either so many assumptions in the calcs that they don’t mean anything in a real world scenario, they don’t factor in unintended consecquences, or the modeling is not sophisticated enough to do the forecast real justice-or it’s a political lowball.

        Report

  4. Talking about talk radio’s particular type of manicheanism as a failure mode, I feel misconstrues the talk radio ecosystem. It’s not like ‘politics’* in the manner defined in the opening sentence – i.e. electoral politics in a small l liberal representative governance regime.

    The feedback mechanism is completely different; the only thing that matters is ratings and ad revenue. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone, that can be unmoored from ‘real world’ – real decisions that affect real people – indefinitely.

    Friedersdorf’s piece does illustrate an essential attribute of the talk radio ecosystem – the ability to apply a very selective history to frame your argument. Souter was every bit the unknown that Thomas was, and (per wikipedia) also had his nomination opposed by the NAACP and NOW. (and by Ted Kennedy and John Kerry)

    But of course, Souter’s tenure on SCOTUS was significantly different than Thomas’s. So any support (and opposition)? Flushed down to memory hole.

    *to borrow a phrase, far be it from me to disagree with the professor, but I have a quibble with the assertion “at it’s core, politics is about cooperation.” At it’s core, politics is about *power*. That’s actually what distinguishes the real electoral process from the fantasy one expressed these days on talk radio, who imagine there’s RINOs charging everywhere and “true conservatives” can’t catch a break.

    Report

      • If politics is about who gets what when and how, then politics is about conflicts. That is political problems arise when people disagree about who gets what when and how and political solutions (or at least the just versions of them) are about how both can find a mutually acceptable resolution to such conflict.

        Report

      • Murali,

        Partly about conflict, but also about coordination and cooperation. Sometimes we want the same things, but need to work together to get it. That’s never as easy as it sounds. I may not have thought of that thing, or thought of it as a possibility, or have known others want it. It may take a large number of us working together (have you ever organized a large group?). The effort may involve a collective action problem. Once we manage to successfully initiate cooperation, how do we maintain it? How do we transfer the cooperation to new wants?

        Bargaining–exchange of value for value–is also within that definition.

        Certainly politics is about conflict, but in “who gets what, when, and how,” what cannot be limited only to indivisible gains, and “how” cannot be limited to conflictual means.

        Report

  5. Talking about talk radio’s particular type of manicheanism as a failure mode,

    is like saying that the problem with alcohol is that it makes you drunk,

    Report

  6. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Friedersdorf misunderstands Limbaugh. What Limbaugh was describing was Bayesianism, not partisanship. His show is an ongoing critique of the media and political narratives. Based on narratives, he judged the likelihood of a false positive on an accusation against a conservative like Thomas to be very high, whereas the likelihood of a false positive on a perceived more moderate like Christie to be sufficiently low that people couldn’t jump to his defense.

    Report

Comments are closed.