Reversion to the Political Mean, Part 1 – Tribalism and Feudalism 

            In finance, reversion to the mean refers to metrics (e.g. Dow Jones average, currency exchange rates, interest rates) that tend to return to their historical averages or long term trendlines. In statistics, the related concept of regression to the mean is similar. One way or the other, the implication is that extreme states of a stable dynamic system can’t last as long as non-extreme states. 

           As an example of the intuitive concept, we are land-based creatures. We can’t stay under water or up in the air as long as we can stay on the surface. We can find a way to stay in either for a while (think airplanes and SCUBA gear), but it’s not natural to us. We always return to the surface and spend most of our lives there. 

            What does this mean for the political organization of human society? What is historically natural to us politically? Is there an historical mean that our societies return to on the scale of a few centuries of time? 

            This is a book length subject, which I’m not attempting, so there is a lot of important stuff I’m skipping over. If you find yourself saying regularly, “Yes, but what about...”, believe me, I’m with you there. For that reason, I considered not publishing this series. Finally, I decided to. I hope it spurs thoughts rather than just being ineffectual. I think the subject is important. 

            First, all government depends on power. 

            There is a hope in many of us that humanity will someday reach a level of development in which the large majority of people will get along with each other despite our differences and just take care of each other. Maybe in that case a formal government at large scales wouldn’t be necessary, and issues of power become moot. We are a long way from that. 

           In our current state of development, something must exist that enforces rules that direct the behavior of the population in some way. The intent is that the outcome of the directed behavior is accepted by enough citizens to prevent revolution and is in the interest of society as a whole (whatever that means—another discussion!). The nature of the power is usually military and/or constabulary, though it can be social pressure. It’s hierarchical, the number of levels depending on the size of the society being governed. None of this alters a discussion of its origin. 

            It seems to me that there have been three origins of governing power in human societies. They are religious/charismatic, economic, and rational. A fourth origin, ethical, is often invoked to justify an instance of any one of these. Ethical power means that the people go along with the governing power because they believe it’s in the best interests of society as a whole. In my opinion, this has never existed. I will return to it. 

            Religious or charismatic power invests leaders with authority beyond that of ordinary humans. If a leader is a god (like the Egyptian Pharaohs or Roman emperors) or a person with godlike charisma (like Alexander the Great or Joan of Arc), people follow them out of awe/respect. 

           If the leader controls more economic resources that others (usually land and/or money), that leader can rule by rewarding and withholding favors, as in a feudal system. 

           If the power originates rationally in a democratic populace through a constitution, the leaders decide who rules by competing for votes (as Joseph Schumpeter observed). The person or party with the most votes rules for a set term within a body of laws that applies to all. 

            These are ideal categories of the origin of power. None of them is ever manifested perfectly or in isolation from the others. The Roman Empire had feudal elements, acquired and used a lot of economic power, and had to “appease the mob”. Feudal kings routinely claimed “divine right”, and the more powerful ones eventually had to deal with populist issues also. Democracies are always influenced to some extent by personality cults (sometimes religious) or wealthy citizens/companies with their own agendas. 

            I think feudalism is the natural mean that we revert to. A feudal society merges primitive tribalism into a national entity as the population density increases. 

            Tribal societies are stable if the population densities are low enough for different tribes to stay mostly separate. They may have intercourse with each other, trade and even wars, but they don’t have to take each other’s territories. This seems to have been the state of the North American plains tribes in the 18th century. 

           If tribes grow and begin to overlap territories, territorial conflicts occur. If there is enough space, the weaker tribe may move away. Once there is no reasonable place to move, the weaker tribe, if not destroyed, will become a vassal tribe to the stronger. This increases the strength of the stronger, and as population growth continues, that tribe absorbs other weaker tribes until it comes up against an equally strong tribe, which has grown the same way. By this time, both may be nations and may define boundaries according to geological divisions such as seas, straits, mountains, deserts, etc. 

            Tribes are commonly powered by religious/charismatic leadership. Feudal nations may be also but have appended a large political component that negotiates and balances the needs and ambitions of various internal stakeholders. None of this has much of a true legal basis. It’s all negotiated hierarchical sharing of power. Though there are usually rules/laws for the subjects, there is not much controlling the workings of the ruling government, even if the trappings for such control exist. Modern American society is familiar with feudal style systems through the many fictional treatments of large criminal organizations, and any modern dictatorship has feudal elements. 

            At various times in human history, rational democratic societies have emerged. These base themselves on the rule of law originating, in Rousseau’s term, in a social contract. Under implicit agreement the citizen gives up some individual liberties in order to secure certain securities provided by the government. Part of the contractual understanding is that citizens and government alike will be subservient to a body of law to which both subscribe, and for both of which there are consequences for breaching backed by the legal power originating in the democratic process. 

            These democracies often emerge from popular revolutions against failing feudal governments. The revolutionaries typically claim validity based on ethical power. They will succeed because the citizens will generally recognize the just nature of the government and will follow its rules naturally. 

            So, how is that working out? I’ll discuss in Part 2. 

Hugh Moffatt 
Watertown, Massachusetts 
February 4, 2020