Political System Change Is Weird

Why do we have the political systems that we do? Back in the farming era, regimes competed militarily. Winners had more militarily effective total systems on average, and part their total system was their political system, which was therefore plausibly militarily effective.

Over the last seventy years, however, the selection power of military competition has been very weak. And it was somewhat weak for a while before then. If we ignore external conquest, political systems might be explained as the conscious choice of rulers: the systems are those that rulers (including voters) choose. But political systems have changed only modestly, even when there has been a lot of change in who runs them or what policies they implement, and lots of change in the rest of society.

You might say that our political systems are so stable because they are near perfect – rulers can’t imagine any better systems. But then why do systems vary so much around the world. And given the vast space of possible political systems, it isn’t plausible that we’ve explored more than a tiny corner of that space.

You might say that each local system is perfectly adapted to its local circumstances. But situations don’t seem that different. You might say that change in political systems is very expensive, so expensive that change is almost never worth the cost. But then why did systems ever change in the past? It is hard to see change being less expensive then.

It seems to me that the main reason political systems change so little these days is that it just seems weird to seriously suggest such changes. And not a good kind of weird. You can’t plausibly pose yoursel as a revolutionary martyr; people won’t actively stop you; they’ll just yawn and think you boring. And proposing to change the system isn’t a good way to show loyalty to existing political teams; even if your change clearly favors a team, it still seems needlessly round-about, relative to winning the usual way.

It isn’t clear to me exactly what processes make proposing changes to the political system seems so weird and boring to most folks today. But what does seem clearer to me is that variations in such processes are probably the main cause of variations today in political system change.

That is, while political systems vary in the outcomes they produce for people, and people vary in their opinions about such outcomes, such variations usually seem a pretty weak force today. A much stronger force seems to be whatever makes people look bad by even discussing the topic. It seems that political systems are stable more because they push folks to avoid discussing change than because they make people like the outcomes that such systems produce.

Until we return to an era when there is strong military competition, or until some big cultural change somehow makes discussing political system change cool, the political systems that we will have will mostly be the ones that somehow make folks look or feel bad to discuss changes, instead of the systems that most make people happy via their outcomes. Today, we are mostly selecting for political systems that tend to make discussing them seem weird.

Added 9p: What changes we have seen in political systems in the last seventy years have mainly been convergent – one place switching to the system of another place. There has been almost no exploring of the large space of possibilities.

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  • If you look at the question broadly, there seem to exist adaptive peaks in the political regime landscape. We don’t know, but suspect, that this should be true also on finer levels. You just can’t make any type of political system:
    More elaborated:

    • Alexander Gabriel

      Basically what you’re saying is that after 1900, diffusion has been important. On the other hand, Geddes says the evidence has been “interesting” especially after the 1980s but doesn’t seem so sure. (I would also recommend this chapter to folks here for background.)


      Still, it does seem a good way to explain saltational “waves” of transitions.

  • oldoddjobs

    The political story of the 20th century is enough to make anybody sick at the thought of radical change – left or right.

    Maybe it’s just affluence, though. People in Europe and the U.S generally have enough to get by, and rocking the boat seems pointless. A lot of political disputes these days just look like the flaunting of “right-on” attitudes by politically intoxicated bores. Lifestyle politics! As disconcerting as that stuff is, I’m really glad no-one takes Marxists seriously anymore.

    • Most of that radical change was in economic systems and economic regulation; very little was in political systems.

      • IMASBA

        They go hand in hand really, and in the cases of communism, fascism the political changes were huge. European social democracy is also a significant change (in attitude) and China has been experimenting with its political system in the last 70 years as well. In any case, I don’t believe the last 70 years were significantly more quiet politically than most 70-year timespans before it (what really changed in Rome between 50 AD and 120 AD?)

    • Cambias

      I was going to make the same point: when changes in political systems have seven- or eight-digit butcher’s bills, I think it is only good sense for people to be reluctant.

      There’s another reason, which the history of the 20th century also demonstrates: the system is only as good as the people in it. A country can have a positively Utopian political system in place, but if it’s run by crooks and psychopaths it will still be hellish in practice. And a country can have a system which looks on paper like a recipe for oppression, but works out fine because of informal constraints and social norms among the rulers.

      And finally there’s the observed fact that most people who want to make large-scale changes to political systems have motives incompatible with peace and prosperity.


    1) There seems to be significant “history compression bias” going on here, in other words Hanson wonders why political systems haven’t changed much lately while they changed so much in history, but he forgets that lately is ~50 years while history spans thousands of years: it’s not like there was a new political system every 50 years in ancient Egypt (farming age civilizations weren’t that diverse politically), in fact the 20th century probably saw more political experimentation than any other century before it.

    2.1) If political change is slowing down compared to recent history it could very well be that the price of change has become higher relative to the gains (important changes, for example the inclusion of all classes and women into the voting process) have already taken place, these changes are permanent milestones no matter how different future political systems may be

    2.2) Always remember that societies around the world have been aging for the past 50 years: there aren’t as many young people as there used to be and there are more elderly people, also the inclusion of women into politics may have a calming effect

    2.3) Representative democracy with egalitarian ideals (which aren’t always practiced, but them being ideals matters) at multiple levels (municipal, state/province/national, etc…) is actually quite close to the political system of hunter-gatherers, as far as they had one, much closer than having, a (military) dictatorship a nobility, or a one-party state. So, people may be hardwired to be objectively much more satisfied with flavors of representative democracy than with older systems.

    • Damien S.

      Not sure it’s that close; AIUI, such tribes tend to be closer to direct democracy with a consensus spin. The leader or elders proposes, people talk it over, something emerges.

      • IMASBA

        Representatives negotiated with representatives of other tribes and when decisions had to be taken quickly the chosen elders made the decision alone. Even so, representative democracy is a lot closer to direct democracy than the dominant farmer political systems (feudalism, centralized kingship).

        Really though, I think my first point is the most important: why does Hanson believe there to be a slowdown when less stuff has happened in the last 70 years than in the 5000 years before that?

      • This may be a bit idyllic, at least if you believe the evolutionary psychologists Robin takes his cue from. Struggles between coalitions lie beneath.

        Consider the role of status in Robin’s theorizing. It derives from signals that show one would be a “powerful ally.” If this is correct, there had to be primordial power differentials.

  • I think the time scale of the thinking behind this post is too narrow. Consider the radical changes in political systems over the last 300 years as compared to the 300 years before that.

  • How about this: choice of political system has been shown to be trivial just because the varieties already explored haven’t shown any definite superiority over others. Compare the salient dimensions in the advanced countries: 1) U.S. checks and balances versus parliamentary supremacy; or 2) English common law versus European civil law. Should anyone really care? If not, why think new variations would be better?

    In any event, I gather you’re dismayed at the improbable prospects for Futarchy in the absence of compelling military need. It’s enough to make one a war monger!

    • VV

      Let’s have a conditional prediction market over the benefits of going to war.

      I wonder what the shareholders of Boeing and Lockheed Martin are going to bet…

    • IMASBA

      Hanson’s claim that military might shows which political systems are superior in collective abilities is a bit tenuous. Population size, natural borders, natural resources, chance alliances, location and the degree of professionalism in the military are probably much more important to military success than the political system is, just look at how militarily powerful short-lived, unstable empires such as the Soviet Union, the Mongol Empire and Alexander’s Empire.

      • I don’t know about the second and third, but the Soviet Union is an example where the political system might have made a difference, the Soviet system being a sclerotic, one-party dictatorship in which opposition factions weren’t even tolerated within the party. (The political system tends to be overlooked in procapitalists’ eagerness to blame socialism.)

      • Alexander Gabriel

        This might or might not be true, but what I’m wondering is, what is the relationship between state capacity and happiness of inhabitants or some non-utilitarian standard of goodness? I mean clearly state capacity has on the whole been good in the past. I’m just pointing out that well-functioning states need not a priori be good; in principle they could be hells.

      • IMASBA


        More state power doesn’t mean better lives for the people in general, though sometimes it does. A good example would be the British Empire vs. Austria-Hungary. Britain was far better organized and military powerful, Austria-Hungary didn’t even have a single colony and had only a weak central government, but life in Vienna was probably the same, perhaps even better than life in London. But Hanson specifically linked the efficiency of a political system to military accomplishments, he left the question of quality of life of the population out of it.


        The point was that the Soviet Union was very powerful militarily (1st or 2nd in the world), even though it was a mess politically. In a war-torn world it could have conquered many other countries and that goes against Hanson’s claim that competing political systems were weeded out through warfare. On the opposite end fascism was probably more stable and efficient yet it got defeated militarily because of unfavorable alliances, population size and natural resource distributions. Survivorship bias comes into play here.

      • it was a mess politically. In a war-torn world it could have conquered many other countries and that goes against Hanson’s claim that competing political systems were weeded out through warfare.

        It goes to favor his claim that competing political systems were weeded out through warfare if you count the collapse of the Soviet Union as being the weeding-out process. Immediate military success doesn’t defeat Hanson’s claim because the political system is tested in war by its ability to mobilize the citizens and induce sacrifices.

        The Soviet political system was unable to mobilize popular support for the war in Afghanistan. Many commentators regard Afghanistan as an important link in the events leading to the collapse.

      • IMASBA

        The Soviet Union was not defeated through warfare, it collapsed because of internal instabilities. To say that the Soviet Union collapsed because there was not much popular support for the war in Afghanistan is quite a stretch (it’s not like the Soviet high command needed popular support to conduct a war as best as they could, just like NATO command doesn’t need popular support for the current war in Afghanistan, the soldiers aren’t ordered by popular opinion).

      • I’m glad you’re so confident about why the Soviet Union collapsed when the experts aren’t and no one predicted it. (Why wasn’t this “instability” widely perceived?) And yes, this “stretch” is widely believed to be part of the answer. Defeat in war has always been a major cause of revolution–and this has particular truth for Russia.

      • IMASBA

        The Soviet war in Afghanistan cost the Soviet Union less (relative to GDP) than the current war in Afghanistan is costing the US. It may have been the final straw, but that’s not really a fair way of looking at it. Soviet defense and foreign aid spending was huge (combined it was about 20%) and contributed to the Soviet Union’s weakening over many years. Why no one predicted it? Actually some people did, but most importantly we have hindsight and access to information Westerners in the 70s and 80s did not have, plus the actual fall was a spontaneous moment with the precise timing impossible to predict.

      • With all the new information, it’s still not understood. It isn’t that the Soviet Union was on the verge of economic collapse. It was, on one interpretation, largely the result of the demoralization of the elite and population. The ruling elite more or less decided they had enough of “communism” and wanted to enrich themselves. The discovery of oil was probably a major factor in their greed. But notably, there was no popular resistance to changes that impoverished masses of people. Soviet workers didn’t want to go to capitalism–but they lacked sufficient confidence in the existing system to put up any resistance.

        Wherever demoralization is a major factor, look to loss at war as a major contributing cause.

      • VV

        I think the usual theory is that in order to keep up the arms race with the US, the USSR increased their military expenditures way beyond what their economy could substain, leading to a collapse.

  • The notion that military pressures toward competent governance has lessened is part of Luttwak’s “Give War a Chance”.

    “What changes we have seen in political systems in the last seventy years have mainly been convergent – one place switching to the system of another place. There has been almost no exploring of the large space of possibilities.”
    That would fit a model of rational but risk averse change. Exploring new possibilities is a public good an carries high risk.

    When copy-pasting that quote, it got mucked up and had a “See more at [link]” text appended. That’s annoying and only seems to make sense for a site reliant on page-views for ad-revenue.

  • adrianratnapala

    You might say that our political systems are so stable because they are near perfect – rulers can’t imagine any better systems. But then why do systems vary so much around the world.

    RH mentions “convergence”, which basically means that dictatorships around the world have been turning into representative democracies (or else are in flux, trying to establish such a democracy, as in Egypt). The remaining dictatorships have been around for 70 years and thus we are left with the (seemly?) stable ones.

    So really it is only representative democracy that has been particularly stable over the past 70 years, and it is now practiced in most countries, whether well or poorly. A simple interpretation of that is that representative democracies are “so stable because they are near perfect…” (although this applies most to the ones that practice it well).

    • Damien S.

      Swiss representative-direct democracy has also been very stable. US states had an early 1900s wave of adopting some direct democratic mechanisms but none went as far as Switzerland with multiple referenda a year, let alone having a weekly vote like going to church.

      It’s actually kind of odd. There’s been a big switch or adoption of proportional representation in various forms, but almost none to direct democracy. Even having a referendum on EU constitution treaties seemed to be considered exotic and kind of hostile.

      Of course, it’s easy to imagine that representative elites have no interest in more direct democracy, and the advantages or examples aren’t obvious or salient enough to force change.

      (Some US localities also tried PR, but the two major parties were able to roll almost all of them back.)

  • Chris Hibbert

    The hope for more flexibility these days comes with the idea of new
    ways to live. If SeaSteading happens at all, there will be room for
    experimentation there. If groups of more than a handful ever move
    off-planet, they’ll be able to try new things. Local polities will be
    able to try new forms of organization (viz privately-run cities), though they’ll mostly be constrained to fit within existing countries and states.

    • oldoddjobs

      Here’s hoping, Chris!

    • Alexander Gabriel

      How about we run experiments on islands like in Brave New World?

    • IMASBA

      Experimentation where the participants don’t really believe in their system would obviously be unethical towards the children living in those societies and a society without children is useless for experiments…

      • Chris Hibbert

        The people who move there would likely believe in the system. We’ve seldom prevented people from moving to new societies with their children. (viz. migrating to North America, setting up communes, moving to Celebration, FL.) Why do you think this would be different?

      • IMASBA

        The experiment would be biased if there were only believers (a real society has to function with a significant number of dissenters and apolitical people), plus there would not be much freedom to experiment if only systems with large numbers of supporters could be tested.

    • VV

      If sea steading was possible, why didn’t it happen already? Why regular states don’t extend their territory over the sea?

      What is the difference between a privately-run city and a city-state with a proper government?

      • Damien S.

        I’m not a big believer in seasteading but your argument isn’t very sound. Possible counters are “no one thought of it” and “new technology, it wasn’t possible or economical before”.

        If anyone does really try it I suspect it might be the Dutch or Japanese, who combine high starting wealth with a shortage of land.

      • Chris Hibbert

        Damien responded to the questions in your first paragraph.

        Google “privately run cities” to find out more about what I’m talking about. These would be “proper governments” as I understand the term, but being created in the 21st century, would be able to choose new rules, rather than having laws and ordinances left over from earlier times.

  • VV

    Over the last seventy years, however, the selection power of military competition has been very weak.

    That must be why the US and Russia spend 4.4% of their GDP in military expenditures. Compare that with the expenditures of any preindustrial farming society.

    It seems to me that the main reason political systems change so little these days is that it just seems weird to seriously suggest such changes.

    Ah, it’s status signalling. And of course if there was lots of pressure for political change you could also say that being a revolutionary was high status.

    An hypothesis which explans everything explains nothing. Status signalling is certainly part of human behavor, but it doesn’t explain why certain behaviors signal high status in certain contexts and low status in other context.

  • Salem

    Over the past 70 years there has been a big move to transnational political systems, most notably in the EU. This is definitely a big change in political systems, and it’s largely an unexplored space. Nor is there any shortage of discussion about it.
    What do you make of this counter-example?

    • Alexander Gabriel

      What you’re saying is valid for the EU, clearly. But anywhere else? Seemingly true, at least, is that voluntary or peaceful intergovernmental cooperation has risen. NAFTA, for example.

      • Damien S.

        They’re much newer and haven’t done much yet, but there’s an African Union and South American Union with similar aspirations. Plus looser groups like ASEAN and OPEC and such.

    • Are these introducing any new mechanisms, or just familiar mechanisms for the unit of Europe? That is, if we just think of Europe as the “nation” and places like Spain as internal regions, comparable to the US and its states, are there new ways that the states relate to the nation here?

      • Damien S.

        You’re blurring a very useful distinction between “no one has done this before” innovation and tinkering to improve one’s system. The former is rare largely out of risk-averse conservatism, plus it may seem like major ideas have been thought of and minor ideas aren’t worth tinkering it. The latter is more important IMO, since we do have a space of options that have been tried, and still not much change. No US state ever opted for a parliamentary system, and overall it feels like we’ve become even more ossified — even changing the number of House representatives seems exotic now. OTOH some other countries revise a lot more, either internally or via those transnnational organizations.

        One big innovation: proportional representation legislatures. The idea itself is older, but basically implemented in the last 70 years.

      • Salem

        Well, in that case the EU is a nation with a truly remarkable political system. The nation has no police, no army, and in fact no enforcement powers whatsoever, and hopes for voluntary compliance from the regions. There is a national parliament, but it is essentially powerless, and all real power is held by the regional leaders. Has there ever been a country like that? Some might say the HRE, but historians have rarely referred to that as a nation. Moreover, unlike the HRE, the EU has a national bureaucracy – in fact, it has two, one run by appointees of the regional leaders and the other run by the regional leaders themselves, which rival each other and possess what national power does exist. And moreover, despite the seeming centrifugal tendencies in such a system (and which did eventually tear the HRE apart) this nation appears to grow ever more regularised.
        If this is a national political system, is is clearly a novel and remarkable one, which has arisen (and others aspire to copy) in exactly the period in which you claim no such political system changes are being proposed. I do not think this is a promising line for you to take.
        I think the only way to rescue your original point is to take the opposite tack, and say there’s no political system at all there, it’s all just treaties. But that is also problematic.

    • Nothing new per se in transnational systems. Confederations and federations are old hat. The Soviet Union had a transnational government.

  • I think IMASBA makes good points, there’s also the issue of the world getting less violent. Violent revolution is costly so we have good reasons for avoiding it, but in some ways it’s the easiest way to change a political system.

    Short of violent revolution, what can we do? I don’t know other countries’ politics well, so I’ll limit myself to the US as an example. Violent revolution in the US just isn’t going to happen anytime soon, so if you want a big change in the US political system, there are two things you can do as far as I can see:

    1) Do it legally, i.e. a constitutional amendment. This is by design really hard to do, and doesn’t happen that often. When it does, the size of change ranges from moderate to trivial (e.g. Congressional pay raises).
    2) Get elites to somehow coordinate on something quasi legal. This arguably happens on a small scale fairly often, but it would be hard to make it work for really big changes.

  • And given the vast space of possible political systems, it isn’t plausible that we’ve explored more than a tiny corner of that space.

    Who says there’s a vast space of possible political systems? That’s what you need to prove rather than assume. Yet, you provide not a single example. The absence of examples is evidence that the space isn’t so big: if the space were that big, you probably would have found it easy to provide examples.

    Fiske’s relationship-regulation theory ( http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/fiske/relmodov.htm ) would seem to imply that there are at most four basic forms of government, based on the four basic norms for human relationships:

    Communal sharing: Consensus

    Authority/Ranking: Dictatorship, aristocracy, plutocracy

    Equality matching: Representative democracy (as with some other examples, representative democracy is compound: authority/ranking is used in the service of equality matching); direct democracy

    Market pricing: anarcho-capitalism; futocracy

    “Trying new political systems” translates as trying to implement market pricing as a system of government. There is no big space of possibilities, and the reason market pricing has never been “tried” may be because of its inherent unsuitablity: the emotional valence of the norm of regulation is systematically weaker as you go down the list.

  • If I accept your generalizations and observations, there seems an obvious explanation for why proposing political change has become obsolete in the last 70 years: the atomic bomb made total war obsolete in 1945.

    And if you want to extend before the last 70 years, recall that the first world war was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

  • Lunkwill

    Big systems of all kinds (not just governments) get change-averse as they get older and bigger. They stay in power until they get absorbed by some other big entity or a smaller, more agile entity disrupts their business model, competing not head-on, but in new ways they can’t comprehend or adapt to quickly.

  • komponisto

    “Weird” (which ultimately connotes an element of threat) isn’t really compatible with “boring”, so this post seems somewhat incoherent.

  • stevesailer

    “Over the last seventy years, however, the selection power of military competition has been very weak.”

    The Cold War was an economic and cultural competition to produce the most imposting military, so I’d extend the period of military competition up through 1991, the year of the American victory lap in Iraq and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

  • Philon

    “But then why did systems ever change in the past? It is hard to see change being less expensive then.”
    Not so hard! We are much richer now than people were in the past, especially in the distant past, and our economic systems are more complex and, therefore, fragile. A political change that cost a certain percentage of GNP would be more expensive in absolute terms for us than for our forebears, and because of the greater complexity of our economies a disruption of a certain degree of severity (in political terms) would cost us a greater percentage of GNP than our forebears.

    • IMASBA

      We don’t feel richer (because we have no memories of life in the past and because we also take into account immaterial forms of wealth that are not counted in the GNP), so we don’t care about a greater absolute cost if the percentage of GNP change is the same. It’s possible the change would be larger as a percentage but then again the recovery may also be quicker, that we don’t know and I doubt we have strong intuitions about it either so it doesn’t factor into our feelings. It’s probably more important that the price of not having a revolution was greater in the past because there were no safety nets and rulers were more cruel.

  • Iamthep

    It is pretty easy to see why the cost of changing systems is so expensive today. Think of it as protein folding. Start out with a completely unfolded protein. There are tons of lower energy conformations that the protein (system) can take. But when you are in a stable conformation it is difficult to change states. You have to add a lot of energy to the system.

    And how do you add energy to the system? Disease, hunger, even boredom. If you expect your life to be full of hunger and pain you will be a lot more willing to force change, even if it means death.

    But guess what? Life is comfortable. Even for the poor in the country, it is relatively good. And the rest of the world is rapidly following suit.

    Or you could look to evolutionary theory. Most changes occur not when you are in a competitive environment, but when you are in an environment with relatively little competition.

    My prediction is that we won’t see many massive political changes unless there is a disruption of the system through resource depletion or perhaps environmental catastrophe (Both of which are highly unlikely) or space opens up for massive expansion (slightly more likely than the former).

    • IMASBA

      “My prediction is that we won’t see many massive political changes unless there is a disruption of the system through resource depletion or perhaps environmental catastrophe (Both of which are highly unlikely) or space opens up for massive expansion (slightly more likely than the former).”

      There will have to be massive political changes to adjust to the realities of the future. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean (violent) revolution, it could just go one high court ruling or amendment at a time.

  • Christian Kleineidam

    I don’t think the US political system didn’t change much in the last 100 years. It still has congress the senate and a president.

    However you know have congressman spending most of there days raising campaign funds to pay for TV spots to be relected.
    That’s a systematic change.

    In the past congress used to declare wars. Now the president acts like he has the authority. He also acts like he has other power that he didn’t have in the past.

    Federal Income taxation.

    Blacks are now allowed to vote.

    Political systems change frequently.

  • Kenny

    Given “political systems have changed only modestly …” and “… systems vary so much around the world”, the answer would seem to most likely be history (‘path dependency’).

    I found this post to be a little too abstract to properly consider. Could you provide some examples of radically different political systems “around the world”? Would you consider the political systems of the USA and Saudi Arabia to be (almost) maximally different? I would imagine that regardless of how leaders are chosen, both systems are largely similar in how they operate at the level of bureaucracy, i.e. the actual people and organizations that perform the concrete functions of the system.