Strategic thinking has been long been part of political analysis. From Thucydides to contemporary military and social science, people have deployed frameworks to understand and build models of prediction since time immemorial.
Take the following: “If the dawn of democracy in a given country finds the decision makers divided into two parties, they may wish to choose the plurality rule so as to block entry of new competitors.” This is not a quotation from Porter/Gehl’s Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America. Instead, it comes from Rein Taagepera’s Electoral Systems article in The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics (ed. Boix and Stokes, 2009). This publication, like the thousands of peer-reviewed articles every year, demonstrates that ideas and methodology between economics and political science is now so widespread that, when I think of the Porter/Gehl article: it’s hard to see what’s new.
But as Schumpeter argued in his History of Economic Analysis, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations had no original economic ideas. “But no matter what he actually learned or failed to learn from predecessors, the fact is that the Wealth of Nations does not contain a single analytic idea, principle, or method that was entirely new in 1776.” What mattered was the codification.
Let’s be clear. No one would care about this article had it not been co-authored by Michael Porter. And that might be enough to end this here. But the convening power he can deploy through his celebrity and research resources available makes him heard by political and business elites, and so it’s worthwhile thinking about what he has to say.
It is highly unfortunate that this publication comes after the election of a U.S. President in 2016 who seems to be tearing up many of the established rules of governing. The counterexample is so dangerous to the central thesis offered that it has garnered its own special blue box. Trump is seen as a hybrid, running within and without the system: “Running as an ‘outsider’ within a party may emerge as a strategy others may imitate. However, the Trump success is likely to be more an anomaly due to his unique personal circumstances.”
But in any case, the authors posit that the President’s election and presidency reinforce their view of dysfunction and misalignment between governance and the national interest. Of these things, they may be competent judges. But when it comes to judging a rules-based system, one should not only be concerned with outcomes. Procedural justice, agnostic to the outcomes where the means justify the ends, is another important plane which I feel is neglected. If procedural justice is exalted, then we don’t just complain about politics because our personal values are not currently writ large.
My hope is that the direction for this strand of research within the U.S. Competitiveness Project at Harvard Business School is to double down on looking at individual states, and balances between federal and non-federal authority. The report identifies that understanding states’ unique electoral rules and rights in forming federal outcomes is key if wanting to change them. I would hope that value-creating competition could come not only from but between the states.
This strand is a staple of those interested in constitutional originalism, a hint of which may be derived from the Porter/Gehl’s following: “Our founders sought a political process that could incorporate the interests of many groups, not just cater to the dominant interests and ideological perspectives of the day. Today’s political competition violates this fundamental principle.” Now, think of what the founders would think of contemporary taxation, or, indeed, almost every aspect of government today…
John Hintze (HBS ’18) is an EC from Old Section G. Prior to HBS, John was a visiting student at Harvard GSAS, and worked in finance and political campaigning.