Public Choice & the Polity

May 28, 2012

Official lawyer to the Twitterati David Allen Green asks us whether it was necessary that a polity – a concept of political power, such as that bound up with kingship – arose amongst our forebears, or whether a more primitive form of organisation such as that represented by silverback gorillas could have continued to hold sway.

The answer to this question is given by public choice theory and what it tells us about the role of incentives in politics. There are a range of incentives to be in charge in a primitive society, ranging from mating rights through to allocating food to favoured members of the group. These are advantages that, in evolutionary terms, would be useful to pass on to offspring. As a group grows larger, with more members, the dominance of a single individual is difficult to sustain without allies. Securing these allies involves providing incentives, including – for example – exclusive access to a female. This can result in offspring in the group that are not the descendents of the silverback. In order to maintain privileges for its offspring, the silverback will seek to incentivise allies to protect its offspring, as well as maintain its dominance. Allies whose incentives are reliant upon the silverback will, henceforth, be reliant upon maintaining the position of its offspring following its death, in case the winner of a power struggle following its death does not regard them as allies.

This is something of a just-so story, but there is an important point. In the wild, gorillas actually have multiple forms of social organisation, including groups with a single silverback, a silverback and several male descendents, and indeed all-male groups. Groups compete for resources just as much as individuals, and a group that can leverage more members as a result of a form of political organisation that permits more members to live side by side without conflict will be more effective at competing for resources.

Spreading resources round creates the incentives necessary to form larger societies, and it is through the polity that this is achieved. There is an interesting lesson here for the present day.

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