The Weak State Myth

Dunbar’s Number is 150. That’s the number of people anthropologist Robin Dunbar claims we humans can maintain social relationships with based on our cognitive limits. Dunbar calculated that number from the ratio of the size of the human neocortex—the part of the brain responsible for higher thought function in mammals—to the size of the rest of our brain. That ratio predicts the size of lesser primate troops accurately. And as Malcolm Gladwell points out in the The Tipping Point, it does for us as well. 150 is about the size, give or take, of an average infantry company. It’s also about the size of any strategy team that I work with on any single strategy in the tech world. We can stretch that number with things like technology or social media, but 150 is a good baseline.

Dunbar’s number represents a biological component of the many mental models humans make consistently across our species. Beyond just the scale of our social interactions, you’ll find tremendous human consistency just about anywhere you find humans; the drive to learn to speak; the preference for direct family members over others; the pattern of reciprocal altruism (I treat you well if you treat me well); the need to follow rules; the craving for the recognition of status. We’ll die fighting for food before we starve. And we’ll do just about anything to avoid violent death.

Those are the human qualities that drive how we behave. The consistency across time and space tells us that our cultures, thousands of years in the making, are formed by geography, history and a nearly endless and uncertain list of factors. But they sit on top of remarkably consistent human building blocks. So it shouldn’t be surprising that some things are pretty consistent.

One of them is political development.

The development and collapse of states has a pretty consistent path. There is some ascendance of a centralized authority that consolidates power through conquest, defense, religion or economic development. That centralized authority then embarks on a long competition with population elites (nobility, the cortes, the Estates General, etc.) for control of resources and the legitimacy to defend the rule of law that the society agreed would be their basis for a defining purpose (religion, liberal humanism, communism). The unwashed masses matter, but only in as much as they can be used for one group to gain or hold power.

The innovation of democracy has added additional accountability to the mix and has proven to make it a more effective process…so far.

The eventual collapse of a state results from that productive tension degrading into the delegitimizing of the central authority, a purge of the elites or a state crippling stalemate between the two. This description is accurately vague enough to hold up to just about every major civilization in history.

Here are some things that don’t happen within the confines of the human pattern of political order:

We don’t purge the elites and live happily ever after without eventually just making new elites.

We don’t neuter the central government and live in glorious safe liberty, free from the “evils” of regulation.

We don’t crush the masses in service to either elites or government without the elite citizenry or the central authority using the plight of the common man to beat down the other.

To be fair, it’s a tremendous over simplification of complex institutions, behavior and events to describe the origins of political order and decay in 400 words. It took Fukuyama 1,600 hundred pages and two volumes. The abbreviated version isn’t wrong though. And it serves the purpose to highlight three points:

1-Man has never been free from the cumbersome meddling of government. Anyone telling you that unfettered liberty is our natural state is selling you something. Most likely themselves as worthy to participate in the government they believe is the root of all evil.

2-The government is neither good nor bad. It simply is. It is a consistent part of the human experience from the moment we upright apes needed to engage with more than 150 other upright apes.

3-Governing is a more useful word than government. Because it can be good or bad. Bad isn’t just tyranny. Bad just as often is atrophy because we’ve delegitimized everything—the state, the elite, the press and other institutions that represent the normative laws we’ve made over thousands of years of practice.

Which brings me to a troubling question. If the productive conflict of political order is a struggle for power and resources between the central authority and the elite citizenry, and the central authority is now run entirely by the elite citizenry running on a platform of further reducing central authority, have we already, in a sense, collapsed?

What would you need to see to believe otherwise?

Solving hard problems like healthcare, tax reform or wise choices on which wars to enter into?

Something more?

It doesn’t sound like it, but I’m an optimist. I have more questions than answers these days though. So I’m all ears.


5 thoughts on “The Weak State Myth

  1. Hi Candy. I think Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism is a good one. It’s short and digestable. If you’re looking for deeper Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. There’s two volumes…1600 pages in all. Colin Woodards American Character also good…but if you read American Nations by same author…a little repetitive.


  2. “The innovation of democracy …” I am led to think about its evolution in the U.S. In practical terms, have we ever been other than a plutocracy? And as the economy has morphed and expanded over time have the masses of Americans ever had the true fruits of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” Historically, there is cyclical evidence of periods when the middle class grew and prospered, only to then be faced with the consequences of decisions made by the governing elite. Those who could became elites themselves, the rest struggled to maintain, such that succeeding generations were not as secure as they should have been.

    The current iteration of the cycle is warped by the immensity of wealth controlled by the elites and a multimedia culture that itself has warped the ideals of democracy so that former goals of family/community security now must Include gold faucets to be acceptable. Anything less is considered,… well, less.

    But, there is something old, made new again, in the air. Revolution is upon us, again. Not in the violence of oppressive systems, but in small communities, like Jackson, Mississippi, where the newly elected mayor pursues programs of improvement from the lens of one who has grown in the struggle, as they say. Chokwe Antar Lumumba challenges oppressive forces, be it capitalism or the greed and fear of racism with a clear head and a fearless tongue for the betterment of the quality of life for all the people of Jackson.

    In the fact of this governing I find optimism; even as I despair at the length of the road ahead. Only time will tell, but perhaps it is in the smaller units of governing that will lead us forward, 150 people (give or take a few thousands) at a time.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow, great piece. I will need to think about this one, it is an area I have not studied much, but feel I should.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s