Rah Local Politics

Long ago our primate ancestors learned to be “political.” That is, instead of just acting independently, we learned to join into coalitions for mutual advantage, and to switch coalitions for private advantage. Our human ancestors added social norms, i.e., rules enforced by feelings of outrage in broad coalitions. Foragers used norms and coalitions to manage bands of roughly thirty members, and farmers applied similar behaviors to village communities of roughly a thousand.

In ancient politics, people learned to attract allies, to judge who else was reliable as an ally, to gossip about who was allied with who, and to help allies and hurt rivals. In particular we learned to say good things about allies and bad things about rivals, such as accusing rivals of violating key social norms, and praising allies for upholding them.

Today many people consider themselves to be very “political”, and they treat this aspect of themselves as central to their identity. They spend lots of time talking about related views, associating with those who share them, and criticizing those who disagree. They often feel especially proud of how boldly and freely they do these things, relative to their ancestors and those in “backward” cultures.

Trouble is, such folks are mostly “political” about national or international politics. Their interest fades as the norms and coalitions at stake focus on smaller scales, such as regions, cities, or neighborhoods. The politics of firms, clubs, and families hardly engage them at all. Of course such people are members of local coalitions, and do sometimes voice support for enforcing related norms. So they are political there to some extent. But they are much less bold, self-righteous, and uncompromising about local politics, and don’t consider related views to be central to their identity. Such folks are eager to associate with those who sacrifice to improve world politics, but are only mildly interested in associating with those who sacrifice to improve local politics.

This focus on politics at the largest scale is both relatively safe, and relatively useless. On the one hand, your efforts to take sides and support norm enforcement at very local levels are far more likely to benefit you personally via better local outcomes. On the other hand, such efforts are far more likely to bother opposing coalitions, leaving you vulnerable to retaliation. Given these risks, and the greater praise given to for those who push politics at the largest scales, it is understandable if people tend to focus on safe-scale politics, unlikely to cause them personal troubles.

Near-far theory predicts that we’d tend to focus our ideals and moral outrage and praise more on the largest social scales. But a net result of this tendency is that we seem far less effective today than were our ancestors at enforcing very-local-level social norms, and at discouraging related harms from local coalitions. We chafe at the idea of letting our nation be dominated by a king, but we easily and quietly submit to local kings in firms, clubs, and families.

Our political instincts and efforts are largely wasted, because we just are much less able to coordinate to identify and right wrongs on the largest scales. Now to some extent this is healthy. There was a lot of destructive waste when most political efforts were directed at very local politics. But many wrongs were also detected and righted. The human political instinct does serve some positive functions. After all, human bands were much larger than other primate bands, suggesting that human politics was less destructive than other primate politics.

I’ve suggested that organizations use decision markets to help advise key decisions. And to illustrate the idea, I’ve discussed the example of how it could apply to national politics. I’ve done this because people seem far more interested in reforming national politics, relative to reforming local small organizations. But honestly, I see a much bigger gains overall from smaller scale applications. And small scale application is where the idea needs to start, to work out the kinks. And such trials are feasible now. If only I could get some small orgs to try. Sigh.

I posted back in ’07 on a hero of local politics:

A colleague of my wife was a nurse at a local hospital, and was assigned to see if doctors were washing their hands enough. She identified and reported the worst offender, whose patients were suffering as a result. That doctor had her fired; he still works there not washing his hands. (more)

I’d admire you much more if you acted like this, relative to your marching on Washington, soliciting door-to-door for a presidential candidate, or posting ever so many political rants on Facebook. Shouldn’t you admire such folks far more as well?

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  • jpt4

    I am the de facto leader of a small recreational organization that, although managing several thousand USD worth of equipment for the benefit of its members, does not have revenue or distributable assets per se. How might a decision market be applied in the absence of a basic stream of divisible rewards? The psychological attraction of experimenting with a heterodox decision tool might hold sway for a while, but would most likely lose legitimacy and import over time or in moments of perturbation.

    Small org decision markets would seem to operate like low market capitalization stocks, moving piece-wise instead of roughly continuously. The intermittent and/or sharply correcting positive/negative signals in such a regime would be unlikely to justify their overhead cognitive and administrative expense in comparison to the mundane and low-friction coalition politics that small organizations experience.

    • You mainly need a measure of the main outcome of interest, some relatively discrete choices to compare, and reasons to believe people aren’t telling you relevant things they know.

    • Auroch

      Give the winners of the predictions priority when allocating who gets to use the equipment.

  • Auroch

    How small of an organization is too small to try prediction markets? 100? 50? 20? 10? 5?

    • I’ve run lab experiments that worked find with three people, only one of which knew anything. The issue is having a question you want the answer to, and people who might know the answer.

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  • I’d admire you much more if you acted like this
    > I’d admire you much more if you acted like this…

    I don’t think you’re credible here: you singled out Edward Snowden (who acted on an international scale) for praise as a hero.

    The heroine of this piece (who goes unnamed–less acclaimed), having been unsuccessful, doesn’t help your case for localism. Most problems can’t be solved at the local level, as even the problem with doctors washing their hands proved unsolvable at that level.

  • Philip Goetz

    Wow. You’re probably right that most people would have more impact focusing on local issues. Yet I don’t care. The idea of going door-to-door campaigning for, I don’t know, bicycle paths in Fairfax county, repels me. I don’t want to admit that my life is so small and insignificant that that might be a good use of my time.

    Perhaps engaging in national politics is like playing the lottery. It’s a tiny chance to have a big impact. Or perhaps it’s a very large chance of having an outcome which I can mentally claim an outsized portion of responsibility for.

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