Interest groups and political polarisation: outside the Bell Curve

There is a great passage in Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay (pp.481-484) that reminded me of what we’ve talked about here before: the exaggerated nature of political debate.

To summarise our thoughts (in the context of public services):

  • People’s experiences of public services follow a Normal Distribution
  • Although most people’s experiences are average or thereabouts, the experiences and examples we hear most about are, almost by definition, unusual
  • Politicians, organisations (from whatever sector) and the media most often talk about the very best or the very worst that public services have to offer
  • The very rare is what drives most activity in public services.

It’s this difference between the ends and the middle of the Normal Distribution that creates the problem in the space of people’s expectations of public services: The gap between what the Normal Distribution says our experience is most likely to be (95% of people will get an average service) and what we think our experience will be – the space represented by newspaper headlines and political rhetoric – leads to expectations that, in reality, can very rarely be met.

Normal Distribution - public services

Fukuyama’s example relates to interest groups within the political economy, and it is a compelling explanation of why our political debate feels so polarised (in the equivalent way to why feelings about our public services are so polarised).

By way of background, Fukuyama first notes Mancur Olson’s negative portrayal of interest groups, in which Olson feels they operate only to extract benefits for themselves. This itself would be fine, except for the fact the general public can’t organise as effectively as relatively small interest groups, resulting in a “steady diversion of energy” into activities that only benefit the interest groups.

Fukuyama then summarises de Tocqueville’s more positive take on interest groups, in which it’s argued they are “schools for democracy” and teach private individuals the skills of coming together for public purposes.

Somewhere between the two is James Madison, whose view of interest groups was that, even if you don’t agree with the ends a particular interesting group is after, the fact there are so many of them would prevent any one group from dominating. Echoing how a free market operates, this pluralist approach to interest groups means they’d all interact to produce an overall good for the public.

What, though, is the reality? Fukuyama comes to the same conclusion we do about the exaggerated nature of public policy – interest groups polarise politics.

Sharks Jets
Image via Fanpop

Fukuyama gets to this conclusion by drawing on arguments from E.E. Scattschneider and Olson as follows:

  • Political outcomes rarely follow from political preferences. Because there’s generally a low level of political awareness and participation amongst the population as a whole, decisions are actually taken by smaller groups of organised interests
  • What compounds this is that not all interest groups are equally capable of organising themselves
  • Those that are capable of organising are much more motivated to do so: they may feel more strongly or have more clearly defined positions they need to “defend” compared to weakly-held views or less well-defined positions
  • As a result, “politics is defined by well-organised activists, whether in parties or government, the media, or lobbying and interest groups” and there is an “intrinsic overrepresentation of narrow interests”
  • As a result we do not get compromise positions; instead we have polarisation and deadlocked politics.

It’s this that leads to the nonsense we see on Question Time each week, or “debates” where a presenter simply pits one viewpoint’s representative against another’s. It’s frustrating, and actually not at all representative of what the vast majority of people think.

Whilst political debate therefore operates mainly in these exaggerated positions at the margins, so it will be that people will disengage because of the seeming irrelevance of the debates to people’s everyday thoughts and beliefs.


Banker, confectioner, tile maker

In [Gujerat], a banker who was having his house re-roofed had a quarrel with a confectioner. The confectioner came to an agreement with the tile makers who refused to provide the banker with tiles.

– E.A.H. Blunt, via Francis Fukuyama in Origins of Political Order.

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama

For anyone with more than a passing interest in how political institutions are created, maintained and changed (not Russell Brand, then), there is a great roll call of names and their works to be read: Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Hume, Jefferson, Rousseau, de Tocqueville, Maine, Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Huntington and so on.

What I’ve always found fascinating is that, apart, essentially, from details, the fundamental components of what forms a successful political institution have been known for a (relatively) considerable period of time. It is seemingly more a case of implementation now.

Francis Fukuyama* notes this point as made by Alexandre Kojeve, who said that history had ended in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussian monarchy at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt. Fukuyama summarises Kojeve’s point as being:

Everything that had happened since 1806, including the sturm und drang of the twentieth century with its great wars and revolutions, was simply a matter of backfilling. That is the basic principles of modern government had been established by the time of the Battle of Jena; the task thereafter was not to find new principles and a higher political order but rather to implement them through larger and larger parts of the world.

What’s more, Fukuyama basically agrees with Kojeve’s assertion:

The three components of a modern political order – a strong and capable state, the stat’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens – had all been established in one or another part of the world by the endof the eighteenth century. China had developed a powerful state early on; the rule of law existed in India, the Middle East, and Europe; and in Britain, accountable government appeared for the first time. Political development in the years subsequent to the Battle of Jena involved the replication of these institutions across the world, but not in their being supplemented by fundamentally new ones.

The remarkable thing about Fukuyama’s book is that, by the time you reach this section (page 420 of 483), he has detailed exactly how these three components have developed and when, where, how. Furthermore, his starting point is the descent of man from primates and their exit out of Africa.

The disciplines that The Origins of Political Order brings together means it is a quite incredible book. The stuff you learn (or, at least, I learnt) about whole swathes of history and countries is remarkable. It’s a book I recommend without hesitation to anyone who has an interest in the foundations of how we’ve come to be where we currently are.

*If I may, I suggest you ignore any association between Fukuyama and the neo-cons that might linger in your mind.

On the quiet carriage

The first class Quiet Carriages

We should get rid of quiet carriages.

They build an expectation that too often cannot be met for the traveler who wants quiet.

The reasons for this are various: ignorance (deliberate or intentional), lack of enforcement (or, at least, a lack of willingness to enforce), malevolence, or a sense of personal importance (on which much more later).

There is also a very practical, though rarely asked question: “quiet” means the absence of what kind of noise?

I don’t know when quiet carriages were first introduced. A best guess is they were introduced as a means of combatting the significant increase in mobile phone usage. People on mobile phones is bad enough at the best of times, but them being on mobile phones while in enclosed spaces where the chance of removing yourself from the situation – such as on a train or bus – makes it entirely objectionable.

Mobile phone conversations are a particularly emotive source of noise because only half a conversation can be heard. The individual is essentially in the private space of their own conversation whilst the practical effect – what they’re saying – is in a public space. This would seem to explain why people reveal what can be very personal things while they’re talking on their mobile phone: their brain reassures them they are actually in a private place. Thus, people disclose issues relating to their private lives, secure information like credit card details or revealing opinions about work colleagues or business partners that would best be left in private correspondence.

As an aside, our relationship with the phone is a peculiar one anyway. There are still people who abbreviate ‘phone. This demonstrates both that phones (I’ll adopt the modern nomenclature) are a relatively recent invention and that it takes humans considerable time to adapt to new technologies. With the phone, our behavior remains very odd. In a work setting, it is just about acceptable that someone may stop what they were doing – even if it was planned – in order to pick up their phone – an act which is, by definition, at the instigation and convenience of the caller. This even happens when you are speaking with someone in your physical presence already. (My reasoning on this in a work context is 3-fold: (1) you don’t want to be doing what you are currently doing; (2) the person calling is more important than the person you are already speaking to; or (3) you want to appear important.) But I find it much harder to accept in a social setting. Let’s put to one side all of the circumstances in which it is either implicitly or explicitly acknowledged that a phone call can and probably should interrupt whatever you are doing. In a social circumstance in which time has been set aside to do something specific with someone in particular, I simply don’t understand why someone would break off from that something and someone to answer an unplanned phone call. Recognising that it is something we appear more inclined to do than not, I further don’t understand that – having answered the phone and realised it’s not a matter of life or death – people tend to continue the conversation!

Our behavior and relationships with respect to phones is one it appears we’re biologically and sociologically not yet capable of controlling.

Mobile phones, then, are a form of noise in quiet carriages to which people most often react. But they are not the only form of noise.

Here is a list of noises I have encountered in quiet carriages in trains: Conversation; music (with headphones); music (without headphones); mobile phone button noises; mobile phone haptic vibrations; mobile phone notifications; computer start-ups; computer shut-downs; typing; knitting; nail filing; eating; tourists; laughing; giggling; humming; singing; whistling; snoring; farting; kissing; extensive newspaper rustling; noises arising from jiggling; children; an acoustic guitar; dogs.

As far as I can tell there are two things that unite this list: (1) each thing creates noise; and (2) they are all avoidable. You’ll notice, for example, the list doesn’t include squeaks made by the train carriage; nor indeed does the list contain the regular announcements made by the train manager (see also: Revenue Protection Manager) or the person in the buffet in carriage F. (By the way, there are very rarely members of the British Transport Police or standard police on a train. I presume it’s the illusion of safety which means they are mentioned by the train manager at every station.)

What we’re talking about, then, is avoidable noise.

And the way we can avoid avoidable noise is by humans not making it in the first place; quiet is, after all, the absence of noise.

But there are two significant problems we encounter having reached this point.

The first is that not everyone would recognise the “quiet” of the “quiet carriage” as being the absence of all of the noises highlighted above. At best they recognise the issue of mobile phones and music being played too loudly. Signs in quiet carriages tend to explicitly recognise these sorts of noise, as do train managers when making their announcements. Beyond this, though, noise is something of a free for all: people do not have a common standard or recognition of what constitutes noise.

Of course, this lack of a common standard when it comes to what is or isn’t noise – and so the lack of which would create a comprehensive “quiet” – is easily solvable. If they wanted to, train operating companies could be far more instructive about what constitutes noise. Short of providing a list of common sources of noise on the back of each seat (which, of course, would just encourage some wag to find a noise source not mentioned on this list and exploit it fully, such as a 35-piece orchestra) they could brief – or indeed expect and instruct – their train manager to highlight in their announcements that quiet carriages are for the absence of all noises, and not just some particular kinds of noise. I don’t envisage them doing this, but it would be a start.

A further measure train operating companies could take is to begin to enforce quiet in the quiet carriage. Where a train manager is aware of someone making noise in the quiet carriage they could politely ask them to stop. In the main, train managers have the authority and standing within the environment of a train to do this, and so I think they should. At the moment, they don’t.

An alternative, which of course you see from time to time, is for passengers to ask the quiet transgressors to stop making noise. I think this approach has some merit, particularly as it draws on the peer-led, shaming approach that is generally successful in reducing unwanted (antisocial) behavior elsewhere. I’m uncomfortable, though, for the maintenance of quiet in the quiet carriage to be the sole preserve of fellow passengers. This is especially the case when train opearting companies and train managers themselves seem so reluctant to challenge noise despite having the authority and moral position to do so.

There is a point here as well about becoming the arbiter of noise in the quiet carriage. If you do happen to ask someone to be quiet – and you need to do it early – you sometimes create the problem of what to do if there is noise further away from you in the carriage. You shouldn’t be expected to wander up and down the carriage asking people to be quiet, but since this has already happened to person you’ve asked to be quiet, they could be legitimately aggrieved you haven’t consistently applied your noise admonishments. It’s another reason other passengers shouldn’t be expected or encouraged to instill quiet in the quiet carriage.

A further practical solution suggested by some is if you are bothered by the noise in the quiet carriage then you yourself can move. To this solution there are two objections: (1) I am not the one causing the issue, and so shouldn’t be expected to move; and (2) if I didn’t want the carriage I’m sitting in to be quiet, I wouldn’t have sat in the quiet carriage. There was a lot of other train I could have considered for where to sit, as there was for the person who wanted to make noise, but I chose – presumably for a reason – the quiet carriage.

The first, more practical problem of noise in the quiet carriage has, then, been fairly well deal with. The second is more fundamental: I don’t think humans are easily capable of maintaining quiet; nor are they sufficiently (self-)aware to want to do so.

I don’t mean this physiologically; I mean this socially. Without exception, it seems those making noise in the quiet carriage believe it is their right to make noise wherever they want. This especially becomes so if there are external circumstances, such as a phone call, that requires them to make noise. Even those who, when asked to be quiet say they “didn’t realise it was the quiet carriage” are, to an extent, willfully not recognising the carriage they’re in because of their own requirements.

The conclusion I draw from this is as follows: the behavior of some in the quiet carriage fundamentally reveals them, and perhaps humans more generally, to be selfish creatures.

I reach this conclusion on these bases: (1) noise in the quiet carriage is the norm, not the exception; (2) as highlighted, there are a considerable number of practical ways we could aim to prevent noise in the quiet carriage if we wish but which we don’t use; and (3) people don’t police themselves sufficiently with regard to noise to convince anyone there should be a dedicated quiet carriage. Finally, of course, the desire to make noise at the (apparent) expense of other people’s desire for quiet is itself selfish.

The public-private tensions highlighted in the discussion about mobile phones are writ large when it comes to the quiet carriage.

The crux of the lack of quiet in the quiet carriage feels to me to be the result of a libertarian streak in individuals who mistakenly assume their (to them) private behavior – making noise – doesn’t affect the collective public good – the desire for quiet – of everyone else in the quiet carriage. Even when challenged – when explicitly told their (to them) private behavior is affecting the public good – they typically maintain their behavior. What’s more, they have the option to fulfill their private need (to make noise) in parts of the train other than the quiet carriage, and yet choose not to do so. This compounds the injustice for those who have located themselves in the carriage that accommodates their preference.

(It is always dangerous to make comparisons, but – in the days they existed – what would happen to people who chose to smoke in no-smoking areas?)

As I suggested, noise in the quiet carriage reveals something more fundamental about the human condition than just a bunch of uptight people seemingly get upset by trifling, noisy disruptions.

Does it matter? Does noise of any type in the quiet carriage really require this amount of thought when there are so many other issues to be considered and dealt with? Well, yes, it does matter. The quiet carriage and the way some people treat it is indicative of wider trends in society – ones that elevate the individual above the collective and the common good. Others have described how this individualism and the consumerist form it often (though not exclusively) takes can affect the underlying fabric of society. To me, being noisy in the quiet carriage is a variant of the “broken window” thesis: if you remain unchallenged for what seems a relatively trivial case of private gain trumping public good, then other larger forms of the same become more likely.

It’s on this basis I have committed so much time and thought to the issue of noise in the quiet carriage.

Ultimately I have concluded I would rather not have the expectation which the quiet carriage represents. I would prefer it if train operating companies didn’t try to appeal to the collective side of human nature and instead recognise, accept even, that private, selfish motivations will always create noise where its absence is instead requested.

I fully recognise this to be a cop out, and one I wouldn’t and don’t accept in other, more serious facets of life. But at least this way there wouldn’t be the disappointment of recognising in such an everyday setting of trains the natural, individual instincts or private gain of so many of us above the collective instincts and public good of the rest.

Quotation of the week

Part a:

The more we excuse ourselves from our common obligations, escaping into separate identities and a self-serving culture of blame and excuses to rid ourselves of the inconvenient needs to others, the more we weaken all kinds of subtle common goods on which we all rely.

Part b:

People have been using their wealth and loosened social, economic and moral constraints to rid themselves of the potential “inconveniences of others” in all walks of life.

– From Social Capital, by David Halpern.

Should there be more charity mergers?

David Walker in the Guardian asks should there be more charity mergers?

The answer is yes.

Walker suggests the creation of an external agency, such as a “Mergers Commission” to “push, perhaps even compel, more charities into mergers”. I’m not so sure about a specific commission to do this, and not one that has a role which requires organistions to merge.

But (in line with my thoughts on mergers and reorgnasionations within government) I do think, in principle, a part of an established organisation working in the third sector could do the job.