Who pays, who benefits, and who decides

The universal nature of politics

by James Ennis CC BY-NC 2.0

Just what is politics? This may seem like a simple question with an obvious answer. It may seem like an impossibly complex question with a boundless terrain of nuance and details that takes a lifetime to begin to understand.

I’m sure it’s both, but what if we could summarize it in one sentence?

Who pays, who benefits, and who decides?

I was reading an article on Vox about a legislative measure in Washington state just prior to the 2016 election and buried within it was this seemingly bland sentence:

That turns out to be a complex and ill-fated story, revealing divisions among climate hawks — over who pays, who benefits, and who decides — that will not long stay confined to the West Coast.

The article itself is very good, and I recommend reading it. But that one sentence was like a flash of lightning. I’ve been an avid reader about political science and sociology since I was a teenager and I had never read a sentence that so clearly, and so simply, captured the essence of politics for me.

This sentence has been extraordinarily useful in making sense of what I’ve seen and read about, and so I want to share it with you. I’m hoping you’ll take it and apply it to situations to see if it helps you make sense of them.

There are a few things that I want to tease out of that sentence:

  1. This sentence is fundamentally about balance;
  2. There are three parties: the ones who pay, the ones who benefit, and the ones who decide which parties will pay, benefit, and decide;
  3. Those who benefit aren’t just getting money, they are getting more of what they want or getting it with less effort or time or enegy or cost, etc.;
  4. Those who pay aren’t just paying money, they are experiencing a cost (i.e. a demand) on their time, effort, energy, money, etc.;
  5. The system has obvious perverse states, for example, if those who benefit are also predominately those who decide, those who pay are going to suffer;
  6. The tensions in the relationships are irreducible. There’s no way that everyone gets everything they want. “Can’t we all just get along?” No, we cannot just get along in some idealistic sense, but we can balance the relationships;
  7. The fact there is no ideal solution to the tensions does not mean that purely zero-sum dynamics inherently govern the relationships. It’s absolutely possible that when everyone pays a little, everyone benefits a little, and everyone gets to participate in deciding that the system as a whole moves to a “better” (i.e. more of the population on average, and with lesser variation, get more of what they want) space. This is fundamentally communitarian; and
  8. The sentence not only describes what is happening, but critically, how to act within the system. Focus on balance, focus on participation in deciding, and when the system is unbalanced, focus on who benefits and who decides to understand the nature of the imbalance.

If you’re interested in “sense making” and some of the other ideas enumerated above, I highly recommend watching the following talk by Dave Snowden:

Except in rare and dysfunctional circumstances, humans are always found in groups. As soon as two humans are interacting, the dynamics of who pays, who benefits, and who decides governs the relationship.

This is politics. There is no escaping it.

And that’s the good news because it means that we have a role to play in the outcomes.