Although I analyse politics for a living, I still find myself continually amazed by the endless complexity and unpredictability of it. Nevertheless, there are some recurring themes that emerge in political systems throughout the world. 

Here are ten things I’ve learned about the grand game of politics.

1. Power games

Politics is about the pursuit, acquisition, and exercise of power. We crave power for ourselves, but we also admire the powerful, particularly in times of great uncertainty. 

Usually, it’s the ruthlessly ambitious who rise to the top. Power can be used in pursuit of noble ends, but it is also highly corrosive and can corrupt those who hold it. 

2. Institutions matter

If power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely (as Lord Acton famously warned), which is why it’s important to limit power through a series of checks and balances. 

The quality of your institutions can mean the difference between poverty and prosperity, tyranny and freedom. 

Consider North and South Korea. These are two countries with basically the same culture, history (up until 1945), geography, and language, but they differ markedly in terms of their development outcomes. 

Strong, inclusive institutions ensure that everyone is held accountable under the same set of rules. Weak, extractive institutions will drain resources and power away from citizens and into the hands of elites. 

3. Ideology matters more

Although institutions certainly matter, the battle of ideas matters more. Ideology provides a way of understanding the world and serves as a blueprint for political action. 

Not all ideologies are created equal. Communism and Fascism resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of millions of people. Liberal democracies have, for the most part, produced human flourishing.

Yes, North and South Korea have different institutions, but what created those differences in the first place? Each system has totally different ideas about of the role of the state, individual rights, and the rule of law.

How a country is governed is not simply a technocratic exercise – it is the expression of the ideological orientation of those in power. Policy is downstream from ideology.

4.The tribe has spoken

People are tribalistic creatures. Our biology leads us to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, friends and foes. 

This can manifest in party political loyalty, ethnic or racial chauvinism, religious extremism, nationalism, or even blind devotion to a sports team. 

We are fundamentally herd creatures, and our politics reflects that. But we shouldn’t essentialise these differences. The best way to counter our tribalism is by asserting the primacy of the individual.  

5. It’s the economy, stupid

Economic incentives are a great driver of human behaviour and much of political contestation is about access to resources. 

Politicians can promise to unleash spending to garner public support, but they can only evade economic reality for so long. 

Economics is to politics as gravity is to jumping.

A society that guarantees economic freedom is more likely to respect civil and political liberties as well.

6. Life is not fair

Power and resources have always been unevenly distributed. 

The country where you’re born is one of life’s great lotteries. Nigerians will have totally different life prospects and opportunities to Norwegians. 

But people also have different capabilities and appetites for work. A just society should enable everyone to pursue their own ends while also caring for the most vulnerable. 

Hierarchies will always emerge, but it is far better to have hierarchies of merit than hierarchies of coercion

How do we ensure hierarchies of merit? By promoting equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes.

7. The law of unintended consequences

Whenever a new social problem arises, somebody will cry out: “the government must do something about this!” 

But “doing something can produce a raft of unintended consequences and second-order effects that can make the problem worse − or create new problems altogether. 

And governments are run by people with their own biases and special interests, who will favour short-term outcomes over long-term ones, and who are keen to preserve their own status.

So, the next time you hear somebody urging the government to act, ask them to replace the word “government” with “the politicians you know operating on a five-year election cycle.”

8. A history of violence

Man has an innate disposition towards violence. Authoritarian systems use violence to silence or eliminate opponents. This is rule by the powerful over the weak. 

In democratic societies, power is restrained and limited, but it is still there, lurking in the background. 

If you don’t pay your taxes, you will be issued a fine. If you don’t pay the fine, you will be hauled to court. If you’re found guilty by the judge, you will be thrown in jail. 

Coercive force forms the basis of law and order and underpins the rule of law.

9. Bottom-up is better than top-down

On my podcast, Solutions With David Ansara, I’ve been a strong proponent of decentralised forms of governance. 

Highly centralised systems tend to concentrate power in the hands of politicians or unelected officials who become disconnected from citizens. The more power is centralised, the less responsive political systems become to the unique needs of local communities. A policy made in Pretoria might not work so well in Pofadder.

Political devolution, by contrast, allows for more experimentation in public policy. Spreading political authority downwards and outwards empowers local constituencies and makes them more engaged in the political process.

10. The dividends of freedom 

People thrive when they are free to pursue their own ends. 

New ideas emerge when free speech is tolerated. Economies grow when businesses are free to compete. Communities thrive when individuals can voluntarily associate with others. 

Free societies also tend to be wealthier societies. It’s no coincidence that the highest-ranked countries in the Human Freedom Index are also the most prosperous.

Having a freedom bias is a good guiding principle for thinking about political and economic development. 

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author

David Ansara is the Chief Operating Officer of the Centre For Risk Analysis (CRA). In this role, David manages the CRA’s policy research and political risk advisory services. He is also responsible for the CRA’s bespoke projects division. David is a regular speaker at conferences and events, where he discusses the political economy of South Africa and future scenarios for the country. He also comments widely in the media. David holds a Master’s in Political Studies from the University of Cape Town.