An ontology of political decisions

Not all political decisions are the same. Some are easier to make but potentially less effective while others harder to make and effective yet potentially dangerous. It’s important that we understand what each decision we make is and when to make which kind.

One category is blanket decisions. These are either mandates or bans. For example, deciding to ban all CFCs (ozone depletion chemicals) or mandating 12 years of school for all new humans.

Blanket decisions are powerful because of their reach. If we decide to ban CFCs, then nobody can use them. It’s over. We want to be able to make such decisions. For example, without such a ban, ozone depletion can result in scary foreseen and unforeseen consequences.

Banning CFCs was a powerful decision that was made and its benefit has been clear. Yet, there are other difficult blanket decisions that humanity will need to make soon. For example, should we ban all hydrocarbon-based internal combustion engines? If so, when?

The time element can make blanket decisions more approachable (easier to make yet at the same time less effective). For example, we agree to ban hydrocarbon-based ICEs, say, in 2050. This gives us time to prepare, both practically but also psychologically. However, this also means we haven’t actually gone through the hard part of not having hydrocarbon-based ICEs. Maybe we get cold feet when the time comes.

Another dimension, in addition to time, is location, which can make blanket decisions easier to make (and less effective). For example, it might be easier to ban ICE cars inside a city centre and allow them outside rather than banning them from everywhere altogether.

Diametrically across blanket decisions are legalisations. For example, we make it legal for homosexual people to be able to get married. While blanket bans prohibit anyone from doing something, legalisations enable anyone to do something.

There is an important ontological difference between the two, inasmuch, that blanket decisions consist of a certain violence. There is enforcement that nobody can do something—if it’s a ban—and there is enforcement that everybody has to do something—if it’s a mandate. In contrast, legislations remove violence. They are empowering. They create options. They enable people to optionally do something—should they desire.

This brings us to a basis of a legal system (or constitution). A group of people can decide that everything not part of any law is allowed—except for the things that are explicitly not permitted. Or, a group of people can decide that nothing is permitted unless there is a regulatory framework that explains how people can do such a thing, ie. a legalisation of all things that people can do.

It’s interesting to examine plurality and diversity across these categories. By utilising blanket decisions, whether these are bans or mandates, we probably limit diversity inside a group while we may even expand it outside the group. For example, globalisation makes it easy for Londoners to eat ramen. Yet as time goes by and distances around the world become shorter (by making it easy or cheap to go around the world), diversity goes down. We become more homogenous. In contrast, if a country closes itself to the outside world both physically (no flights) and intellectually (own internet), then this country diverges. This increases diversity worldwide because things will probably evolve in different directions if people are not influenced by one another. An interesting parallelisation is the flashing synchronisation of fireflies1. It only happens when they are close and can see one another.

Another kind of decisions closely related to blanket decisions are deadline decisions. For instance, if a country wants to hold the Olympics, they can only apply 7 years before they take place. This means that they have to decide whether they want to host them at least 7 years before that.

In the dimension of responses, we have open-ended decisions, eg. what is the regulatory framework for hunting? The decision for that is a long document that outlines what happens across several cases of events. There are also closed-ended decisions, eg yes or no decisions or any other decisions which can only be of select few choices. Eg. which day of the week do we meet? This could also include decisions with an unlimited number of possible responses yet very structured ones. Eg. When should we bid for the Olympics? We can either do it in 2012, in 2016, in 2020, etc. This could be in perpetuity, yet we cannot do it in a year that’s not an Olympic year. Finally, there are decisions that can be about answering many more questions before, which are not clearly defined. For example, what is the budget for our Olympics hosting? The sum can be one value but how each part of the sum is spent is subject to discussion.

In the dimension of a decision’s gravity, we also have ideology decisions. These are decisions such as “do we have an official religion or are all religions equal before the state?”. These are decisions that can split a society in half or cause civil wars.

  1. From “As for how, work in Thailand by researchers John and Elisabeth Buck dating back to the 1960s suggests that synchronous fireflies get in sync by slightly adjusting the timing of their light cycles based on nearby flashes. And these can be altered by the presence of other fireflies, or even artificial light inputs.” Also: