Not too long ago, human beings were mostly ape-like creatures who lived in tribes or villages and stayed alive through a combination of gathering food, growing crops and raising animals.
The picture you will find above is wrong on a few levels:
1. Such houses (with windows) did not exist in the time when humanity was at the tribes and villages stage.
2. The pig does not look like a pig. (The pains of Microsoft Paint.) I wrote pig on it to tell you that it is a pig. I am also not sure that humans brought up pigs at the tribes and villages stage. It was more likely cattle, or sheep.
3. I do not know how to draw rice stalks. Anyway, the mass of black lines is supposed to represent crops. It could be rice, maize, or a whole range of other stuff that humans grew once they discovered agriculture about 12,000 years ago.
Politics back then was much simpler. The leader of the tribe or village was a chieftain, who was often a burly, rather old and scarred guy (depending on the kind of tribe you’re in, this guy could be a medicine man, a voodoo priest, the strongest warrior, etc). He had the utmost say over just about everything. If he thought you sorta looked more handsome than him, you just might get your head chopped off.
How did we get from there, to modern society, where we have governments and presidents and prime ministers and political parties?
This is a difficult question to answer. Ever since this time, mankind has undergone developments after developments at an increasingly fast pace – and in fact, this entire page will be devoted to explaining the progress of politics since then. So let’s first take a step back.
Let me introduce you to Bob, a member of the tribe. He was always a little different compared to the rest, and couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong about the tribe. One day, as he watched the chieftain go around giving orders and being chieftainly, he asked himself a question:
“What is the role of a leader in a society?”
This sounds like a simple question. Yet it is also a question that people have been grappling with for centuries, and it is the question we must first answer in order to understand what politics is.
What is the role of a leader in society?
Let’s take a time machine to about 18th century France. About this time, France was a rather messy soup of rich people, religious people, and people who wanted to revolt (in fact the French Revolution happened around then). And amongst this mess, around the early 18th century, was a man named Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wrote a book and brought to the world the idea of the social contract. (Partially causing people to want to revolt.)
Essentially, the social contract goes like this: people give up some of their rights to a leader (or their leaders, or government), and in exchange, these leaders make decisions that protect the people and their rights.
Let’s take this back to the example of the tribe and the chieftain. Bob (see picture above) is a member of the tribe. He swears allegiance to the chieftain, and now the chieftain has the right to force him to join the hunting wing of the tribe, or the military arm. But in return, Bob has the benefits of being provided with food by the tribe, or being protected by the tribe’s spearmen – and his life is preserved. If he doesn’t contribute, he will probably be punishable by tribal law – maybe they’ll whip him or throw him out into the forests.
Of course things are very different nowadays. Tribes were perhaps a hundred-strong – now countries have millions of people. With so many people the system is slightly different, but the concept in itself has remained. Bob is now a citizen of a country, such as perhaps the United States of America. As he is a citizen, the government has the right to force him to pay taxes (give up his money!!), or in other countries, to join the military and be conscripted for a couple of years. In return the government runs numerous essential services – for example, healthcare, education, a police force, the army – using the money from taxes to ensure national security, and that people can maintain their lifestyles. If he refuses to pay taxes, the law can punish him by fining him, or even jailing him.
Tax is not the only thing that people have to give up, although it is one of the major ones. People also have to abide by laws set by their government – and by choosing to do so, by agreeing that everyone should follow a common rule of not murdering/stealing from anyone else, by giving up a little bit of their own individual freedoms – they create a better, civilised society.
So in essence, the people agree to do what the government wants, and in return they are given their rights to life, choice and property through public services – services that aim to help everyone – as well as the decisions that the government makes. And what the government decides to do with their power has thus been called policy, and is where the idea of politics has come from. This is essentially the role that leaders play in society. By agreeing to do what the leader wants, people – and society – empower him to make stronger decisions and take stronger action, leading to a common, greater good for everyone.
Okay, says Bob.
Bob looks at the chieftain. This chieftain is not a very nice guy. He got those scar on his face from systematically killing all the other vaguely intelligent, physically strong young men since the tender age of 15. Bob now wonders, who in the world gave this guy the position of chieftain? Why in the world is this ruthless asshole making decisions for everyone? How does he have the right to do this?
Who should be the leader?
Now, Bob, first of all the chieftain has something called sovereignty. In a nutshell, sovereignty is the right of someone to rule – that’s why a ruler is called a sovereign. Because the tribe believes in the chieftain, and the chieftain’s orders are followed, the chieftain has sovereignty. This concept of sovereignty is very important as it gives rulers – and in the present day, governments – the justification for their place as leaders of society.
Yet, Bob is asking a very important question. Who should have sovereignty? Or perhaps, more significantly, how does society decide who should have sovereignty?
In a tribal society like Bob’s, the chieftain got his position perhaps only because he was physically stronger than all the other contenders for power. Or perhaps he was the most clever – some tribes have old, wise men as their chieftain. Or maybe he was the most valuable, like how the medicine man is also sometimes in charge. But most importantly, the chieftain is the only one who calls all the shots.
This is called autocracy. Autocracy comes from the Greek root words “autos” (meaning self) and “kratos” (meaning power/strength). As you can probably guess, it means a political system where power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual – and this individual can basically do whatever he wants. Although you can also probably guess how this can go horribly wrong, human beings love autocracy. After the tribal chieftains, there have been kings, emperors, dictators and all sorts of rulers who fall into the category of the autocrat – and there are still autocracies in today’s world. It’s sort of a habit that human beings don’t seem to be able to break.
What does this have to do with sovereignty? The problem comes when people like Bob begin to ask questions about the legitimacy of a particular autocrat – in other words, challenging his right to rule and his sovereignty. And in human history, there have been many people like Bob. Sometimes, they say, the strongest warrior or the cleverest voodoo priest aren’t necessarily the best leaders. Or how about monarchies? Kings and queens have sovereignty because of their divine right to rule – the notion that God chose them to be the leaders of society. As kings and queens go wrong and make bad decisions, people begin to lose faith in that system, and they start thinking about different and better ways to choose their leaders.
And here is where we have to look to the other end of the spectrum, away from autocracy – the notion of democracy.
Fast forward hundreds of years and you get the boisterous Roman and Greek empires, which lasted from 800 BC to approximately 400 AD. During the tribal stage people were too busy spearing each other or hunting animals that there wasn’t really much time to sit down and think about life. In the Greco-Roman empires, people were a little better off (or as they say, civilized), and clever old men were beginning to write poetry and long essays about philosophy and science. And that’s about when they carefully thought about it and decided that autocracy was fishy idea.
As opposed to autocracy, “demos” means people in Greek, and the word refers to a system of government based on people’s choice – where people as a collective whole decide who their leaders should be and what kind of policies should be implemented. Hopefully, they thought, this would be better than autocracy, where the single individual holding power might be some crazy paranoid guy who decides to start killing everyone who looks like a threat to his power (which has happened numerous times throughout history). As such, the Romans had the system of consuls and the Senate, where the 2 top officials of the country (essentially the President or Prime Minister in modern times) were elected by the people, and advised by the Senate, a group of respected and intelligent citizens. The idea of votes and elections and people being able to speak out about policy is a very democratic thing, and is still the way by which people choose their leaders in the modern world.
It was not a perfect system. Ancient Rome also had its own share of nasty conflicts and civil wars, and there’s the whole story of a guy named Julius Caesar, who tried to take over as the sole ruler of Rome (and thus an autocrat), succeeded for a while, and was dramatically assassinated by another man named Brutus. As a result he became very famous and had a play written about him – you can read up about all these if you want to.
The point is, much of history is about the conflict between autocracy and democracy, two very different political systems. But if autocracy is such a bad thing, why is it that human beings always seem to return to it?
It’s important to note that autocracy, as an idea, is not an inherently bad thing. It’s only bad because of how bad human beings can be. In fact there are probably some clear advantages to autocracy as well, given that the autocrat is a genuinely nice person. One of these advantages is speed and efficiency in decision-making. In a democracy, leaders have to waste time on all sorts of things like asking people whether they’re doing the right thing and organising elections and referendums. An autocrat can just make decisions without asking anyone anything at all. Maybe autocracy in a country isn’t the best of ideas, but the political system exists in other situations – a company, for example. Or the military.
CEOs and military commanders don’t stop to ask the people under them about what they think should be the right decision for their organisation to make. And that’s probably a good thing. In a company, things can keep moving in a fast-paced economy. In an army, it doesn’t really make sense for soldiers to vote on where they should next attack. Similarly, in a country which might be in the rare situation of having a dire need for decisive leadership and is lucky enough to have a benevolent autocrat, autocracy might be quite a good move. There are other benefits too. What if, in a democracy, one government starts a long term economic plan, but is voted out? The next government might just come in and throw everything away – and that’s bad for the country too. An autocrat would have no such problem.
Of course, these ideal circumstances are not the case most of the time. The problems of autocracy is the obvious problem of abusive, power-hungry rulers who seek to consolidate power, and lead to terrible, nightmarish societies (think Hitler, Stalin, so on). Or even if they’re not abusive or power-hungry, they’re basically just individuals – and individuals don’t always make the best political decisions. Having the views of the masses weighing in, governments become less likely to exploit their people and become more likely to make good policies, and that’s good for everyone. For most countries in the world right now, this seems to be the ideal path, and democracy is generally accepted to be a more reasonable system compared to autocracy.
Up to this point we’ve covered two different things – what the role of a leader is, and who the leader should be. Now let’s take a look at another question – How far must the government go to fulfill its duty? Or – how much should the government do?
How much should the government do?
When a society gets big enough, past the tribal/village stage, something called the economy happens. That’s when people invent the idea of currency, using little paper bits to represent value, and begin to provide things for each other.
For example, Bob may decide to start a car company. The people working for him handle everything from buying iron from another country to building the actual car in a factory they set up. His company, Bob Inc, provides cars to people in America – they provide a service, or a product. And people, who want these cars, give Bob Inc. little paper bits called money in exchange for these cars. And the workers of Bob Inc. use this money to buy food and housing.
Bob Inc. provides a service, just like the public services of healthcare, a police force – but not on the same level, since people don’t need cars to survive.
But this raises a question – why can’t the public services be part of the economy as well? Why does it have to be run by the government? Why can’t Bob privately own a healthcare company as well, one which sets up hospitals and hires doctors? People can pay him money in exchange for Bob Healthcare’s services.
Because it’s owned privately by individuals, these companies such as Bob Inc. has traditionally been called part of the private sector in the economy – a slice of the pie that belongs to business owners like Bob. The other big slice of pie is the public sector, including the public services, because it belongs to the government – and by extension, everyone.
Now the problem is this – Bob Healthcare and Bob Inc., like most companies, are motivated by money. Bob has to spend money too on car factories and hospitals. And in order to pay his workers, he has to charge the car drivers and sick patients a little more than what he spent, so that the extra money he gets – called profit – can be given to his workers.
This means that hospital fees under Bob Healthcare is probably going to be pretty expensive. And that’s bad for poor people – what if a man, the breadwinner of a really poor family, gets into a car accident? And he can’t pay the hospital fees of Bob Healthcare, which runs the entire country’s healthcare service? Or he does, and his family starves. That’s unfair, surely. Surely it’s better for the government to take money from everyone in society (tax), and use that money to run hospitals which provide free or low-cost healthcare, or run schools that offer free primary school education.
“I work hard,” says Bob. “Why should I pay taxes for the government to spend my money on other people?” (In most countries, richer people are taxed more because of their higher income.)
“But these people are poor,” you say. “Isn’t it right for richer people like you to help them out?”
“They’re poor because they don’t work hard like me,” Bob insists. “Anyway, private businesses can do basically everything. There’ll be some companies which will provide cheap healthcare for the poor, albeit at a lower quality. Businesses are more efficient and productive than the bulky state-run systems – privatising healthcare will be good.”
“The poor are poor maybe because they were unlucky and didn’t have the same opportunities as richer people,” you protest.
There is now an awkward silence.
Welcome to the world of left-right politics.
So what is left-right politics? You definitely have heard the terms left-wing and right-wing, perhaps on the radio or in a newspaper. What do they refer to in politics and economics?
Essentially, the left-right political spectrum represents the different answers people have come up with in answer to the question: how much involvement should the government have in the economy?
On the right-wing side, you have people like Bob. “The government shouldn’t touch the economy,” Bob grumbles. Even the traditional public services such as healthcare and education should be privatised – let businesses run them, it’s better that way. Then governments can lower taxes, since they no longer have the burden of running the public services. That’s good for everyone.
The right supports the idea of Capitalism – people should get what they deserve . For example, if an individual works hard and contributes significantly to society, others will pay him for his services; if he works more, he earns more; if he works less, he earns less. And that’s fair. The public sector should shrink as much as possible and stop interfering.
On the left-wing side you have people who believe that things don’t always work out so nicely in reality. The ones holding true power in capitalism are rich business owners like Bob, they argue – because he owns the factories and the hospitals (the means of production). People underneath him like the poor workers will never be able to move up to his rank. They’ll forever be workers, and over time, become exploited once people like Bob realise how much power they have. Businesses are not all bad, they say, but they shouldn’t be trusted – governments should take over important services. In fact, governments should raise taxes – especially for the rich – and redistribute that money to the poor through providing things like free healthcare, free education and good social welfare policies. The public sector should be considerably big.
Most people are somewhat left, somewhat right or somewhat in between, moderate as they call it. But many in the past were seized with creating a political system that goes to the extreme left or right. On the far-left, for example, you find the idea of Communism. Conventionally, government tax takes away a portion of your income (or it could be based on property or whatever). In leftist countries like Sweden that could be up to 40%. Communists say it should be a 100%. Everything that you own should belong to the entire country – there isn’t even a government as an intermediary. And everything that the entire country owns will be redistributed according to the principle – people should get what they need.