As a species, humans made their very first political decision when they decided to live in communities with other people. What made us political was that we tried to organize our societies in such a way that we can enjoy the benefits of living communally, while also solving the conflicts that inevitably arise. So, how should we organize society?
“Biggest Mistake in Human History”
The earliest humans were probably hunter-gatherers, moving from place to place, finding the resources they needed to live, and then moving on again—with little in the way of physical belongings other than what you could carry with you or wear. The groupings were small and familiar: The people in a group generally knew each other and were probably related to one another. Thus, the earliest human societies didn’t need formal government—at least not in the sense that we think about it today.
But then, about 10,000 years ago, humankind made another momentous decision—what the anthropologist Jared Diamond calls the “biggest mistake in human history”: We traded away the life of nomadic hunter-gatherers in favor of settled agriculture.
This agricultural revolution ultimately allowed a relatively small number of people to produce enough food for everyone else. And this enabled societies to become bigger, more sophisticated, more acquisitive—which means we could acquire more things because we didn’t have to relocate every few weeks.
Gap in Individual and Collective Interests
But life in the big city came with a trade-off: If we were going to live with hundreds or even thousands of other people, rather than with a couple dozen of our closest relatives, we were going to need to centralize and regularize the way that we made group decisions. As human societies got bigger and more complex, trust, familiarity, and ad hoc decisions were no longer going to cut it.
Anonymity and diversity also gave rise to a persistent gap between individual and collective interests. In an extended family or even a small village, what benefits the group and what benefits the individual are, more often than not, the same thing. And if someone does act selfishly, they can be deterred and punished because the rest of us know who they are.
In a settled society, politics was going to have to be conducted by institutions that specialized in group decision-making. We call those institutions the government. And people have been arguing about the proper role of government ever since.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The American Political System
The founders of the American political system were the authors of a revolutionary social experiment: They wanted to know if representative democracy could work on the scale of a modern state.
The early success of their experiment—the fact that American democracy survived—meant that they had a lot of influence on how other countries set up their institutions: either copying the merits of the American system or trying to avoid its pitfalls. That’s why comparisons to the United States are so helpful in analyzing world politics, whether it’s the politics of the world’s very different democracies or even of non-democracies and failed states.
In that sense, the uniqueness of American democracy—and the unique problems of American democracy—have stood us in good stead. We’ve seen that the US marks one side of a political spectrum—not the spectrum of left versus right or conservative versus liberal, but a spectrum of what we’ve sometimes called efficiency versus protections for individual rights.
It’s that trade-off between giving government enough power to govern while also limiting its power so that it can’t oppress its citizens.
Protecting the Minority
When we talk about the fear that the US founders had of government oppression, we should note that their primary fear wasn’t that the system would collapse or be taken over by an individual tyrant. Instead, it was the fear that if you empower the majority to rule, the minority will be left with no protections whatsoever. Democracy created a risk that majority tyranny and government tyranny would become indistinguishable.
That’s why the founders staked out such a radical position on the individual-protections side of the spectrum. They were willing to put up with a decision-making process that was cumbersome and inefficient, so long as the institutions that made government inefficient had the effect of protecting minority interests.
They did this by dividing government against itself, with minority-empowering institutions such as the US Senate, which amplifies representation of small states, or federalism, which introduces a vertical check on the central government’s power. These checks and balances empower people to resist the will of a tyrannical government, while also empowering minorities to resist a tyrannical majority.
Gridlock and Dysfunction
But the minority-protecting institutions of the US government sometimes work a little bit too well. When one empowers a minority to resist the will of the majority, they also make the system ripe for gridlock and dysfunction.
And today, maybe more than at any time since the US Civil War, that seems to be the situation we’re in. The thing to remember is that the US system was designed this way intentionally. More than almost any other political system in the world, US government favors minority protections at the expense of government efficiency.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the US system prizes inefficiency, on the logic that a government can’t do anything oppressive if it can’t do anything at all! But there are obvious limits to this. There’s only so much paralysis people will put up with. In reality, if democratic decision-making becomes impossible, people might resort to nondemocratic ways of getting things done. And sadly, that’s the direction that we seem to be going today—not just in the United States, but in the rest of the world.
Common Questions about Organizing Society
What the anthropologist Jared Diamond calls the “biggest mistake in human history” was that we traded away the life of nomadic hunter-gatherers in favor of settled agriculture.
The fact that American democracy survived meant that they had a lot of influence on how other countries set up their institutions: either copying the merits of the American system or trying to avoid its pitfalls.
When one empowers a minority to resist the will of the majority, they also make the system ripe for gridlock and dysfunction.