The norms of governance

There’s a great short blog post up by James Fallows, on ‘the norms on which governing depends’. I find the idea fascinating, and think it’s extremely important. He highlights that it’s too hard to make laws for every situation; and that we rely on institutional norms to guide the functioning of those institutions in many ways. Norms in the sense of expected behaviours that everyone takes for granted, that aren’t explicitly legislated, but that are a crucial part of how the system functions.

I would argue it’s something a little more fundamental than that. Perhaps that we expect many of our governance and political systems to be in some sense adversarial; that they will in effect be a contest of ideas, of rhetoric, of political ability and organisational capacity, often.

But I think while we expect adversarial approaches within those systems, they rest on an assumption that the adversarial context will take place within the system, and that contestants won’t seek to undermine the system itself in efforts to win. If two boxers are fighting in a ring, we expect them to still play by the rules; to not be so caught up in the contest that one of them sneaks in a knife, or tries to strangle the other with the ropes. I think it’s bound up with the idea that there must still be an external other, perhaps, and a sense of identity that unites both sides of the contest. When that’s gone, then perhaps the contest becomes the entire context, and there is no reason to value norms, or preserve institutions, except in so much as they serve to further the interests of one side or the other.

This is something I think is both interesting and important, but I haven’t seen it clearly articulated many times. You might call it ‘the tragedy of this is why we can’t have nice systems of governance’.


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