Category Archives: Essays


In my previous post about coordination, I wrote that pure coordination problems are ones where no teamwork is needed to solve the problem. Pure coordination problems are typically caused by disorderly personal objectives. These objectives have to be organized, either spontaneously or by authoritative command, to solve the problem. The solution of the problem may require that all participants agree to realign their personal objectives in an organized manner, but it does not require that they actively help each other to achieve their personal objectives.

Many other social problems do require cooperation in order to be solved. It might even be said that the reason why group objectives exist is that they cannot be achieved without cooperation. But only in special situations are group objectives a direct aggregate of personal objectives. One situation where this might be the case is if a bus carrying 20 passengers gets stuck in the snow, and all of them have the personal objective to get the bus moving again. The passengers can then and there spontaneously form a group with the shared group objective to get the bus unstuck by pushing it. Although a minimal amount of coordination may be required to ensure that all passengers push on the bus simultaneously, the passengers can in general contribute to the completion of the group task without knowing very much about what the others are doing. Each passenger can push the bus to the extent that her strength, grip and ground support allow, and the combined effort will either suffice to move the bus or not. This is a simple, pure cooperation problem which can be solved by teamwork and elementary group organization because the passengers can easily recognize the group objective.

But groups with more complex group objectives, especially ones where a multitude of different personal objectives are linked to the group objective, can typically not be formed by spontaneous recognition of a shared concern. Instead, an Instigator gathers a group around a group objective which the Instigator has conceived, either by offering others an opportunity to fulfill their personal objectives within the framework of that group objective or by authoritative or charismatic persuasion. Once the new group has been formed it starts a group tradition, and this tradition can later have a persuasive effect of its own if it becomes widely known.

For example, an entrepreneur (the Instigator) forms a new business venture with the objective of producing a product or service which he or she envisions will be in high demand. Other people who possess suitable experience or education for furthering this objective can then join the company and espouse its group objective. Their motive for joining is usually that it meets their personal objective of earning a living, and maybe also the personal objective of advancement within a group hierarchy. In the best of cases, appropriating the group objective might also meet their personal objective of spending their time on an interesting and worthwhile cause.

The Instigator could also be a politician who forms a new political movement with the objective of changing something in society, or just with the objective of gaining power. Other people who feel inspired or impressed by the speeches or writings of the Instigator can come to espouse the same group objective if they find it persuasive. This might be because the change that the Instigator advocates is aligned with some of their personal objectives, or just because they find this group objective more meaningful than the objectives proposed by other political movements.

If the business venture or political movement meets at least moderate success, then its tradition and public reputation can help in the recruitment of new members. The greater the success, the greater the group objective grows, and the greater the number of people who align their personal objectives with those of the group. Even after a little bit of growth, the Instigator has to construct an administrative system for meeting the most important personal objectives of group participants (for example by paying salaries, or by organizing political rallies).

This administrative system also has to coordinate the actions of the participants because complex group objectives never form pure cooperation problems. In a pure cooperation problem, the primary motivation for spontaneous group formation is typically that all participants in the group understand that their shared group objective can be more easily attained through cooperation than through individual actions, and they also spontaneously know how they should cooperate to reach the group objective (getting the bus moving again).

In contrast, group objectives which require coordination and cooperation can only be met if the individuals distribute their tasks in a sensible manner and help each other toward the common group objective. Their chances of succeeding in their group objective are reduced to zero if they cannot divide the group task into a suitable number of complementary individual tasks.

This requires an administrative system, and very often also hierarchical organization. A leading group or individual oversees and guides the work of the individual participants. Free-riding is a fundamental administrative problem in large cooperative groups. Some participants in the group may not contribute at all towards the completion of the group task if they can just collect a reward without any effort or risk of being caught. In our pure cooperation problem, some of our bus passengers may also be inclined to free ride – they might just pretend to push the bus and hope that other people’s efforts will be enough to get it moving. However, in that case the personal objective is so clearly aligned with the group objective that even the free-rider will decide to make an effort if the others first fail without him. In a large cooperation setting, the free-rider may not have any motivation to make a contribution even as the cooperative venture flounders.

The administrative system which organizes the work of a large group can utilize a great variety of tools to meet the group objective: incentives, systematic planning and organization, information collection, hierarchical commands. As the group ages, the traditions of the group might become more important than formal administration: new group members may adopt the habits and practices of this tradition in order to fit into the group. This adoption might occur more or less automatically, but it may also be the result of a formalized training program.

In any case, it is the goal of any administrative system to foster cooperation and coordination. But interesting differences often arise in their relation towards competition: some administrative systems are constructed to also foster competition between the members of the group, while others stifle it. Competition can in some cases promote the group objective, but harm it in other cases.



Personal and public objectives

Most individuals have personal objectives which they plan to reach in different stages of their life. Many personal objectives are completely private. They may relate to activities which the individual pursues for his own amusement and enjoyment, such as hobbies or voluntary charity. Or they may relate to serving his own needs or the needs of family members who require care. The success or lack of success that a given person meets in such leisurely pursuits is not of much interest to anyone else, except perhaps his closest circle of friends and family who share their private life with that person. People outside of this intimate circle will be not be affected by the pursuit of private personal objectives.

Other personal objectives have a broader social context and the outcome of such pursuits may affect other people. These personal objectives include, for example, social achievements such as passing tests, obtaining qualifications or winning victories. Social achievements usually involve an element of competition because the purpose of a test or a qualification is typically to rank or group people. Those who pass the test gain permission to drive a car, while those who fail the test do not. Those who gain the qualification of medical doctor become legally entitled to practice medicine, while those who fail to gain the qualification do not.

Other socially conditioned personal objectives involve a more indirect competitive element. These include the pursuit of wealth and other resources, such as social influence and power. One person’s pursuit of valuable resources does not always hinder others from pursuing the same resource. But if the resource in question is valuable due to its scarcity, the pursuit will have an exclusive character.

Although the pursuit of personal objectives with social and competitive elements sometimes involves ramifications for those who participate in the same competitive setting, the group of people affected by the pursuit is usually very small. It does not matter much to me which pupils gain the qualification to practice medicine and which do not, or which people gain wealth and power and which do not – at least until that power touches areas where I have personal interests at stake.

Group objectives

If an individual shares some personal objectives with other individuals, they can together form groups where these shared personal objectives are adapted as group objectives. The members of the group may agree upon group tasks which they should jointly accomplish to bring them closer to the group objective. Small groups can form spontaneously, without any authorities who coordinate group activities and actively inform prospective members about what is to be done. The group objective is usually quite simple in such spontaneous groups. Groups can for example form spontaneously to push a bus up a hill so the journey can be continued, or to work for their mutual protection in a state of emergency.

Groups which aim to achieve more complex group objectives require agents who actively organize the group. Many such groups have a history and a tradition, and new group members may voluntarily want to become a part of that tradition. One reason for wanting to join a successful group tradition may be the personal pursuit of wealth or other resources. Business corporations are traditional groups where people work together to reach common group objectives. Corporate success leads to individual rewards.

Sometimes group formation may occur through authoritative persuasion. The authority which persuades other people to join needs to have some degree of legitimacy to be persuasive. That legitimacy may stem from superior knowledge, experience, a selection process, or just personal charisma. When an individual is persuaded by an authority figure to espouse a group objective, that group objective may not initially be aligned with any specific personal objective which the individual harbours. But the individual may eventually identify with the group objective so strongly that it diffuses into his personal objectives as well.

The pursuit of group objectives typically has much wider social ramifications for outsiders than the pursuit of personal objectives because a group objective can have a much larger scope and more momentum. Groups may compete with each other for wealth, influence and power just like individuals, and a much broader circle of people will typically be affected by group competition than by personal competition.

Each individual knows her own personal objectives intimately, as well as her own interpretation of the group objectives which she espouses. She may be less certain about how other members of the group interpret its objectives, or how strongly various factions within the group disagree about the group objective. Even so, in case the prevailing group objectives gradually change to something which the individual cannot espouse, she can usually be reasonably certain that she would notice this change just by continuing to be a participant in the group. People receive information about group objectives from the leaders of the group and other member and can usually check the veracity of this information by direct observation or participation. They can understand both group objectives and personal objectives, and based on that understanding they can freely decide whether to espouse them or not.

Public objectives

But there are some objectives which can be attributed to every individual even if everyone may not understand them or know anything about them. These objectives may be called public objectives. A typical example of a public objective is the provision of public services, such as security, streets, and schools, funded from a common tax pool. Most public objectives fall into two categories: (1) the provision of public services which no individual or group would have an incentive to provide on their own and (2) the prevention of deleterious consequences that follow from the pursuit of some personal and group objectives.

Public objectives are not spontaneously adopted by one individual, and then another, and then another, like a group objective with increasing popularity might be. Individuals can rarely discover public objectives through their own personal objectives, nor can they find self-regarding reasons for espousing a public objective. Instead, they only come to understand and espouse public objectives through theoretical reflection or instruction in societal affairs. The perspective in a public objective is, if not altruistic, at least egalitarian. The objective is to achieve something which is good for everyone, and an individual must think philosophically to be able to adopt this perspective.

However, the philosophical nature of public objectives does not necessarily mean that it would be very complicated or difficult to understand public objectives. It doesn’t take much reflection to reach the conclusion that better security will be provided by a public organization for everyone than by competing organizations for selected individuals or by each individual for himself. But it does require a fundamental shift to an egalitarian perspective where everyone’s interests are taken into account equally.

Egalitarian thinking does not come naturally to most people, so public objectives would be of little importance if they weren’t mandated by law. They are brought into being in laws enacted by a state. The tasks required for pursuing a public objective are undertaken by state functionaries, not by private individuals or groups. The benefits gained by individuals and groups from the successful pursuit of public objectives can easily be taken for granted until they are lost, because they don’t require the active involvement of all members of society.


Empty causes: the enterprise agenda

Democratic decision-making is difficult for many procedural reasons. It proceeds by slow debate, compromises and logrolling. Additional difficulties stem from deficient knowledge. Social-scientific data is often vague, open to varying interpretations and vulnerable to sceptical objections. Data gathering is far too slow for political challenges which demand swift responses. And the long-term consequences of many decisions can only be guessed.

But specific political agendas also face their own typical knowledge-related challenges. In this essay I will discuss the epistemological challenge of the enterprise agenda, which promotes the virtues of competitive markets. The backbone of the enterprise agenda is its defence of free economic enterprise as the primary source of societal well-being. The agenda promotes individualism and low levels of economic redistribution because well-motivated actors pursuing their own interests will, with limited state guidance, form patterns of economic co-operation which are beneficient to all. The enterprise agenda welcomes all entrants to a global competition where successful effort and ingenuity are rewarded while poorly executed attempts are deservedly eliminated. This agenda aims to expand market exchange in society.

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Thoughts on the science, theory and philosophy of politics, Part III

In two earlier essays I’ve speculated on divisions in the study of politics. First the division within social studies between topics that are political and those that are not. I labeled the latter topics apolitical for easier reference. Secondly the division within political studies between scientific and theoretical methods. In this final essay I will discuss philosophy, but this time I will only examine the differences between political theory and political philosophy. A comparison between political philosophy and “apolitical philosophy” would not be meaningful. There is no branch of philosophy dedicated specifically to apolitical phenomena, although many such phenomena are of course occasionally touched upon in philosophy.

In this essay I will discuss Raymond Geuss’ short book Philosophy and Real Politics, where he seeks to define political philosophy as something other than applied ethics. I agree with the basic premise. As useful as theories of justice may be in guiding political debates about right and wrong, there are other philosophical questions in politics which are not ethical. I will not discuss “ethics-first” political philosophy at all in this essay because it lies so far away from political science and political theory. Political philosophy as applied ethics is not of any use when the workings of political systems are to be understood.

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Thoughts on the science, theory and philosophy of politics, Part II

In the first part of this series I distinguished between political and apolitical domains of social inquiry, separated by whether or not power is taken into consideration. I then discussed the contrast between political science and apolitical science, followed by the relationship between political science and political theory. I indicated that the task of political theory is to formulate concepts and hypothetical relationships that political science can test empirically. In this second part I will discuss the difference between political and apolitical theory. Following the introduction to the previous essay, “apolitical theory” can be read as “social theory which disregards power”.

In the book A Measure for Measures Ray Pawson stipulates five rules for empirically verifiable social theory (Pawson 1989 p.324-325). They are

  1. sociological theory takes the form of comparison of the probabilities of certain types of action in certain social groupings
  2. empirical hypotheses must pay attention to regularities, mechanisms and contexts
  3. empirical testing is most powerful in those disciplines employing formal networks of co-ordinated explanation
  4. empirical evidence is adjudicatory rather than verificatory
  5. data construction is irretrievably social

These rules indicate the rationale of meaningful social science. Although exact measurements are impossible, relative comparisons can be performed. Good theoretical hypotheses explain why one state of affairs is more probable than another. Continue reading

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