By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
Politics is the way we reconcile individual interests with collective action. It seeks to make group decisions when the people in a group want different things. So, how do we make collective decisions when people have diverse and competing interests? Read on to find out.
Group Decision-making; A Central Part of Politics
The idea that politics involves group decision-making has been a central part of the definition since people started using the word. Aristotle, too, believed that humans are political animals. He doesn’t use the word ‘social’ to describe us. It’s not just that we cohabit with other people. We’re political. We live in decision-making communities, where decisions are made on behalf of the entire group, whether one has influence over those decisions or not.
Understandably, politics starts with a sacrifice. We give up autonomy—freedom—over ourselves, our property, our preferred way of life. We also let others make decisions that put limits on what we do, and most of us have little or no say over what those decisions are. And yet, we do this because we hope that the benefits of living communally will outweigh the enormous costs. The fact that they do, says something about how significant those benefits really are.
That trade-off is what politics entails: the delicate balance between individual and collective benefits, and the dangerous situations we find ourselves in when they’re in conflict.
Power to Oppress
Politics, it turns out, is our attempt to maximize the benefits—and minimize the dangers—of living communally. Unfortunately, politics creates dangers of its own, namely, that, there’s no way to give government enough power to govern effectively without also giving it the power to oppress us.
We can design collective decision-making in such a way that it protects individual liberty, but only by weakening government to such a degree that it’s unable to effectively govern. We can build institutions with the power to make collective decisions—but only by putting individual freedom and individual livelihood at risk.
Over the centuries, people have tried countless ways to succeed at achieving both. But the sad truth is that it’s a true trade-off: The more we secure one, the more vulnerable is the other. The benefits and the costs of political community come together, as a package.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Process of Making Group Decisions
Politics, to a great degree does focus on the process of making group decisions especially when people in the group want different things. In order to understand what that look like in practice, let’s take an example of roommates.
There are a lot of advantages to having roommates. Alone, an apartment might cost me $1,000 per month. But if a few friends together split the cost, one might be able to find a five-bedroom apartment for $2,000—spending just $400 each. That’s a lot more affordable.
But of course, there are disadvantages as well.
When one lives with roommates, everything becomes the subject of a complex decision-making process, starting with the rent itself. Remember, it’s $400 per person—or is it? Maybe the people with bigger rooms should pay more? Should there be a TV for the common area? What kind of TV? And what if one person never watches TV? Should he have to pay, too? What if one roommate wants to watch the TV at night, but another roommate wants to sleep?
Potential Conflict or Dispute
Hence, the point of potential conflict or dispute can be many. As is in case of our political life. Political process seeks to resolve disputes like these, through voting, negotiating, or by simply, fighting it out.
At an individual level, this seems easy to understand and resolve. However, when we see not just ourselves as an individual but our country as a political identity, the stakes are a lot higher. It is worth remembering that the spark that lit the French Revolution was a proposal that wealthy landowners—that is, the roommates with the bigger apartments—should pay higher taxes.
Even simple objections seem relevant in the political arena, such as, not wanting to pay taxes to pay for schools, when one doesn’t have school-aged children. It might seem akin to the roommate who doesn’t watch TV. And as for the apartment rules, those can be life or death. Should we require vaccinations? Should we regulate firearms? Should we send explorers to Mars?
One commonality among all of these things—the apartment, the mission to Mars, even the law itself—is that all of them involve the provision of something we call a public good. A public good is a good or service that’s provided to everyone in a group. Everyone—and this is key—even those people who didn’t want the public good in the first place!
This can make the provision of public goods controversial. And yet, though they can be very controversial, they’re also unavoidable. Unless one is a hermit, one is constantly living with—and that means benefiting from and suffering from—the consequences of a political process.
Cannot Be Paid for Individually
Public goods are also often subject to intense debate, even when they’re primarily about something we all agree on. Another interesting point to make in this regard is that public goods are not really things that can be paid for individually. Take fire protection: Firefighters can’t arrive at one’s house in the middle of an emergency and ask them to show proof that they paid their fire-protection bill this month. If a community pays for fire protection, the firefighters are going to come to everybody’s rescue, if only because a fire in anyone’s house is otherwise likely to spread to the whole neighborhood!
Fire protection doesn’t work unless it’s provided for everyone, which is why the commitment has to be made collectively, even if there are individuals who don’t want it.
Common Questions about Politics and Group Decision-making
The idea that politics involves group decision-making has been a central part of the definition since people started using the word.
Politics creates dangers of its own, namely, that, there’s no way to give the government enough power to govern effectively without also giving it the power to oppress us.
A public good is a good or service that’s provided to everyone in a group. Everyone—and this is key—even those people who didn’t want the public good in the first place!