Looking elsewhere we see that there can be a vast range in the size of the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition. Some places, like North Korea, have a mass nominal selectorate in which everyone gets to voteâit's a joke, of courseâa tiny real selectorate who actually pick their leader, and a winning coalition that surely is no more than maybe a couple of hundred people (if that) and without whom even North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung, could have been reduced to ashes. Other nations, like Saudi Arabia, have a tiny
nominal and real selectorate, made up of the royal family and a few crucial merchants and religious leaders. The Saudi winning coalition is perhaps even smaller than North Korea's.
How does Bell, California, measure up? We saw that in 2009, the interchangeables in Bell consisted of 9,395 registered voters; the influentials, the 2,235 who actually voted; and the essentials, not more than the 473 voters whose support was
to win a seat on the city council. Bell definitely looks better than North Korea or Saudi Arabiaâwe'd hope so. It looks alarmingly close, however, to the setup of a regime with mostly phony elections, such as prerevolutionary Egypt, Venezuela, Cambodia, and maybe Russia. Most publicly traded corporations have this structure as well. They have millions of shareholders who are the interchangeables. They have big institutional shareholders and some others who are the influentials. And the essentials are pretty much those who get to pick actual board members and senior management. Bell doesn't look much like Madison's or Montesquieu's idealization of democracy and neither do corporations, regardless of how many shareholders cast proxy ballots.
Think about the company you work for. Who is your leader? Who are the essentials whose support he or she
have? What individuals, though not essential to your CEO's power, are nonetheless influential in the governance of the company? And then, of course, who is there every day at the officeâworking hard (or not), just hoping for the breakthrough or the break that will catapult them into a bigger role?
These three groups provide the foundation of all that's to come in the rest of this book, and, more importantly, the foundation behind the working of politics in all organizations, big and small. Variations in the sizes of these three groups give politics a three-dimensional structure that clarifies the complexity of political life. By working out how these dimensions intersectâthat is, each organization's mix in the size of its interchangeable, influential, and essential groupsâwe can come to grips with the puzzles of politics. Differences in the size of these groups across states, businesses, and any other organization, as you will see, decide almostVirtues of 3 - D Politics
that happens in politicsâwhat leaders can do, what they can and can't get away with, to whom they answer, and the relative qualities of life that everyone under them enjoys (or, too often, doesn't enjoy).
You may find it hard to believe that just these three dimensions govern all of the varied systems of leadership in the world. After all, our experience tends to confirm that on one end of the political spectrum we have autocrats and tyrantsâhorrible, selfish thugs who occasionally stray into psychopathology. On the other end, we have democratsâelected representatives, presidents, and prime ministers who are the benevolent guardians of freedom. Leaders from these two worlds, we assure ourselves, must be worlds apart!
It's a convenient fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. Governments do not differ in kind. They differ along the dimensions of their selectorates and winning coalitions. These dimensions limit or liberate what leaders can and should do to keep their jobs. How limited or liberated a leader is depends on how selectorates and winning coalitions interact.
No question, it is tough to break the habit of talking about democracies and dictatorships as if either of these terms is sufficient to convey the differences across regimes, even though no two “democracies” are alike and neither are any two “dictatorships.” In fact, it is so hard to break that habit that we will continue to use these terms much of the time throughout this bookâbut it is important to emphasize that the term “dictatorship” really means a government based on a particularly small number of essentials drawn from a very large group of interchangeables and, usually, a relatively small batch of influentials. On the other hand, if we talk about democracy, we really mean a government founded on a very large number of essentials and a very large number of interchangeables, with the influential group being almost as big as the interchangeable group. When we mention monarchy or military junta, we have in mind that the number of interchangeables, influentials, and essentials is small.
The beauty of talking about organizations in terms of essentials, influentials, and interchangeables is that these categories permit us to refrain from arbitrarily drawing a line between forms of governance, pronouncing one “democratic” and another “autocratic,” or one a large republic and another small, or any of the other mostly
one-dimensional views of politics expressed by some of history's leading political philosophers.
The truth is, no two governments or organizations are exactly alike. No two democracies are alike. Indeed, they can be radically different one from the other and still qualify perfectly well as democracies. The more significant and observable differences in the behavior of governments and organizations are dependent on the absolute and relative size of the interchangeable, influential, and essential groups. The seemingly subtle differences between, say, France's government and Britain's, or Canada's and the United States's are not inconsequential. However, the variations in their policies are the product of the incentives leaders face as they contend with their particular mix of interchangeable, influential, and essential groups.
There is incredible variety among political systems, mainly because people are amazingly inventive in manipulating politics to work to their advantage. Leaders make rules to give all citizens the voteâcreating lots of new interchangeablesâbut then impose electoral boundaries, stacking the deck of essential voters to ensure that their preferred candidates win. Democratic elites may decide to require a plurality to win a particular race, giving themselves a way to impose what a majority may otherwise reject. Or they might favor having runoff elections to create a majority, even though it may end up being a majority of the interchangables' second-place choices. Alternately democratic leaders might represent political views in proportion to how many votes each view got, forging governments out of coalitions of minorities. Each of these and countless other rules easily can fall within our belief in democracy, yet each canâand doesâproduce radically different results.
We must remember that labels likeChange the Size of Dimensions and Change the World
are a convenienceâbut only a convenience.
Changing the relative size of interchangeables, influentials, and essentials can make a real difference in basic political outcomes. As an example, we
can look to the seemingly prosaic election of members of San Francisco's board of supervisors.
San Francisco used to elect its board of supervisors in citywide elections. That meant that the selectorate consisted of the city's voters, and the essentials were the minimum number needed to elect a member to the board. In 1977 the method changed, and at-large, citywide elections were replaced by district voting. Under the old rules, members of the board of supervisors were elected by and represented the whole city as if it were one large constituency. Under the new rules, they were elected by and represented their district; that is, their neighborhood, so each supervisor was chosen by a much smaller constituency. The policy and candidate preferences of San Francisco residents as a whole were little different between 1975 and 1977ânevertheless in 1975 a candidate named Harvey Milk failed in his bid to be elected to the board, but went on to be elected in 1977 (and tragically assassinated not long after). AsTime
magazine reported later, Harvey Milk was “the first openly gay man elected to any substantial political office in the history of the planet.”2
What changed in Harvey Milk's favor between 1975 and 1977 was simple enough. In 1975, he needed broad-based support among San Francisco's influentials to get elected. He got 52,996 votes. This meant he finished seventh in the election of supervisors, with the top five being elected. Milk did not have enough support, and so he lost. In 1977 he only needed support within the neighborhood from which he ran, the Castro, a dominantly gay area. He was, as he well knew, popular within his district. He received 5,925 votes, giving him a plurality of support with 29.42 percent of the vote in district 5, which placed him first in the 5th Supervisory District contest and so he was elected.
Strange as it may seem, the same ideas and subtle differences that held true in San Francisco can be applied to illiberal governments like Zimbabwe, China, and Cuba, and even to the more ambiguous sorts of governments like current-day Russia or Venezuela or Singapore. Each is easily and uniquely placed on the three organizational dimensions: interchangeables, influentials, and essentials.
Once we learn to think along these three dimensions, we can begin to unravel some of politics' most enduring puzzles. Our starting pointRules Ruling Rulers
is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end
the act, art, and science of governing.
Money, it is said, is the root of all evil. That can be true, but in some cases, money can serve as the root of all that is good about governance. It depends on what leaders do with the money they generate. They may use it to benefit everyone, as is largely true for expenditures directed toward protecting the personal well-being of all citizens and their property. Much public policy can be thought of as an effort to invest in the welfare of the people. But government revenue can also be spent on buying the loyalty of a few key cronies at the expense of general welfare. It can also be used to promote corruption, black marketeering, and a host of even less pleasant policies.
The first step in understanding how politics really works is to ask what kinds of policies leaders spend money on. Do they spend it on
that benefit everyone? Or do they spend mostly on
that benefit only a few? The answer, for any savvy politician, depends on how many people the leader needs to keep loyalâthat is, the number of essentials in the coalition.
In a democracy, or any other system where a leader's critical coalition is excessively large, it becomes too costly to buy loyalty through private rewards. The money has to be spread too thinly. So more democratic types of governments, dependent as they are on large coalitions, tend to emphasize spending to create effective public policies that improve general welfare pretty much as suggested by James Madison.
By contrast, dictators, monarchs, military junta leaders, and most CEOs all rely on a smaller set of essentials. As intimated by Machiavelli, it is more efficient for them to govern by spending a chunk of revenue to buy the loyalty of their coalition through private benefits, even though these benefits come at the expense of the larger taxpaying public orTaxing
millions of small shareholders. Thus small coalitions encourage stable, corrupt, private-goods-oriented regimes. The choice between enhancing social welfare or enriching a privileged few is not a question of how benevolent a leader is. Honorable motives might seem important, but they are overwhelmed by the need to keep supporters happy, and the means of keeping them happy depends on how many need rewarding.
To keep backers happy a leader needs money. Anyone aspiring to rule must first ask how much can he extract from his constituentsâwhether they are citizens of a nation or shareholders in a corporation. This extraction can take many formsâpersonal income taxes, property taxes, duties on imports, licenses, and government feesâbut we will refer to it generically as taxation to keep the discussion from wandering too far afield. As we've already seen, those who rule based on a large coalition cannot efficiently sustain themselves in power by focusing on private benefits. Their bloc of essential supporters is too large for that. Since they must sustain themselves by emphasizing public goods more than private rewards, they must also keep tax rates low, relatively speaking. People prefer to keep their money for themselves, except when that money can be pooled to provide something they value that they cannot afford to buy on their own.
For example, we all want to be sure that a reliable fire department will put out a fire that threatens our home. We could conceivably hire a personal firefighter to protect our house alone. However, not only is that expensive, we would also have to worry about whether our neighbor's house is itself well enough protected that it won't catch fire and threaten our home. Furthermore, our neighbor, realizing that we won't want his house to burn if in doing so it threatens ours, may attempt to free ride on the fact that we hired a personal firefighter who will have to step in to protect the neighbor's house as well. In no time we are in the position of paying for neighborhoodwide fire protection single-handedly, a very costly proposition. The easiest way to get neighbors to share the burden of fire protection is to let government
leaders take the responsibility for fire protection. To provide such protection we happily pay taxes.
Though we may willingly pay taxes for programs that provide tangible benefits to us, for instance protection from fire, felons, and foreign foes, we would not be so willing to see our tax money used to pay a tremendous salary to our president or prime ministerâor, in the case of Bell, California, to our local government officials. As a result, heads of governments reliant on a large coalition tend not to be among the world's best paid executives.