Discover more from Wyclif's Dust
We are entering a new age of collective action
Modern politicians need to be Tiger Kings
As I keep saying, the internet has made it easier than ever for a group to get together and provide something they all want, but cannot buy as individuals in the marketplace. This is a fundamental trend reshaping the world. Here are some recent examples.
Unions are back, with recent campaigns to unionize Apple stores and Amazon warehouses. I predict that bosses’ campaigns against this will ultimately fail. A large slice of monopoly rent pie is there waiting to be seized by the resurgent workers, or in the case of Apple by resurgent geniuses in black turtlenecks.
Political party memberships are more fluid and restive than ever before. In the current campaign for the UK Conservative leadership, grassroots members, once famous for their loyalty, started a movement to write in Boris Johnson. If old parties were slow-growing oaks, new parties are like mushrooms, springing up overnight based around one person’s charisma (and sometimes dying equally fast). Think of LRM in France, the Five Star movement in Italy, or Zelenskyy’s surprise success in Ukraine.
In response to rising energy prices, Don’t Pay UK is encouraging people not to pay their bills (links are not endorsements). They use a classic way to bring waverers on board: the non-payment pledge will only be binding if a million people sign. Modern technology doesn’t just let people communicate, it also solves coordination problems at scale.
Informal collective action has even entered international relations. Poles and Lithuanians have clubbed together to buy Bayraktar drones for the Ukrainian armed forces. Or you can pay to have your chosen slogan written on an artillery shell and fired at the Vatniks.
On a smaller but equally revealing scale, many local parks now have their own Facebook groups to organize volunteer activities and fundraising drives, and to gently pressure the authorities for support. Business Improvement Districts may provide street workers to help orientate tourists, or even security for public areas. And if districts, why not individual streets? One avenue for innovation which still has a long way to run is in suturing the internet more closely to real world places and spaces — think of companies like Nextdoor. That could enable this.
The traditional model for public goods is that the state’s role is to provide them. Demand is revealed by democratic voting. The new trend poses a potential alternative to this approach, and therefore a challenge. Because people can fund individual goods, and choose their level of commitment, the new model may be more responsive to demand than provision by democratic politics, where party political platforms bundle up many different public goods, and you only get to choose at election time.
Still, public goods problems are not fundamentally abolished. Obviously, volunteer support to Ukraine can be measured in millions of dollars, while government support runs into billions. The state still has the magical power to coerce, and we are not yet in Ronald Coase’s Utopia where everything is done by universal consent. Buchanan and Tullock’s 1962 book The Calculus of Consent (online here) laid out a fundamental tension between the theoretical efficiency of unanimity rule, where decisions can only be taken with everyone’s agreement, and the practical need to get things done and not keep bargaining forever, which pushes us towards majority rule. That still applies.
As well as direct provision of public goods, the new model enables political collective action to make demands of the government. This is probably the most important angle. Free governments must always be responsive to public opinion, as John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago. The pressure of a Twitter storm is public opinion in its most concentrated form — bottled lightning, in comparison to the gentle showers of the long-ago world where public opinion was mediated by journalism.
But the unmediated pressure of Twitter brings its own problems. Social media does not solve the fundamental problem of democratic politics, that citizens just don’t pay much attention. So, it can enable fads. This month everyone is angry about how much sewage is dumped by water companies in Britain’s rivers. Fair enough, except that as ever, the optimal amount of sewage in Britain’s rivers is not zero (and as ever, this simple idea is very hard to accept). So, what is the optimal amount? And pop quiz, how much is being dumped this year? A hundred tons? A thousand? ten thousand?
For the same reason, intense minorities can exert undue pressure, and unpopular minorities can be shouted down. Another of Mill’s themes, the danger of conformism, becomes relevant.
The analogy with the sixteenth century comes up again. Then as now, new communications technology made governments more responsive (that last link is an endorsement, by the way). But the ultimate result was not the unmediated rule of the people; that route led to the excesses of Münster. Instead, the long-run winners were places where existing institutions were flexible enough to integrate and incorporate the social changes unleashed by new technology. Rulers who learned to live with public opinion, and who formed a partnership with the new ideologues.
The same will be true today. Existing elites, democratic or not, are in the business of riding tigers, as Churchill once said of dictators. Trying to sedate the tiger is not a winning strategy. Nor is putting the tiger in charge. The smart politicians will be those that can ride it their way. Real statesmanship means building a tiger harness.
I see no guarantee that Western democracies will be better than this than Eurasian autocracies. But there are reasons to hope. After all, we did something like it before. We have what is sometimes called “democratic capital” — a long history of free public opinion, politicians who understand how to work with it, and liberal political ideas that can help us to think about it. Perhaps these resources will help make freedom work in the chaotic period ahead.
If you liked this, you may be interested in my book Wyclif’s Dust: Western Cultures from the Printing Press to the Present, which will tell you more about the effect of the printing press, among many other ideas. It’s available from Amazon as a paperback/hardback/ebook, and you can read more about it here.
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