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Questions about Governance: A Primer

Earlier on, I collected some key questions about economic growth. This page is my attempt to gather the key questions about governance.

As before, I found this exercise especially useful. I will also be using the descriptive/normative division to organize the questions.

A brief note before I get to the questions: as David Levi-Faur points out in the Oxford Handbook of Governance, ‘governance’ has been introduced only very recently. Nonetheless, I am using the term ‘governance’ to refer to thought that concerns the rules that groups make that specify the set of actions a set of individuals can take.



For further reading, I recommend both the Oxford Governance textbook, and Leo Strauss’ History of Political Philosophy.

1. There is a tradition of attempting to classify various forms of the state stretching back to Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle, both of whom attempted to answer the following questions like ‘What are the different forms of government regimes? Which are good and which are bad?’. Evidently, the normative and descriptive lenses are intertwined from the beginning. After Aristotle, however, most of the focus seems to have shifted to the normative questions.

The respective historians of their eras, whether Plutarch or Saint Bede, focused mostly on the details of their particular state.

2. As best as I can tell, there was somewhat of a revival of interest in more descriptive analyses of governance in the 1940s. Social/political anthropologists like E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes used case studies of the Nuer people in Ethiopia to build general theories of society (and its governance).

3. Much more recently, thinkers like Vincent and Elinor Ostrom have refined and specified the descriptive questions, placing emphasis on the institution as the base unit of governance. Elinor Ostrom in particular is unusual among economists and political scientists for placing large emphasis on descriptive fieldwork. In the last decade, her descriptive analyses have also been extended into digital spaces, notably in studying the open source software ecosystem.

4. As mentioned in footnote 1, the Greeks are among the first on record to have considered the ideal state. However, it is worth noting a parallel trend within the east. The Guanzi (管子), an epic tome that covered topics ranging from soil topography to state savings, also prescribed how a state should be ruled. It included principles such as “success in government lies in following the hearts of the people” and “make clear the road to certain death” for those who go astray.

5. Sometime after the Greeks, much thought about governance became highly entangled with religion. The most noted intellectuals from the Medieval period (~300-1500 C.E.), for instance, were scholars like St. Augustine, Alfarabi, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

6. No, according to Aquinas.

7. During and after the European enlightenment (>17th century), debates between people like Hobbes, Locke, Rosseau, Burke, and later, Marx, shifted the normative focus of governance from being so tightly entangled with the church. Out of the storm of these debates rose the four broad political philosophies of liberalism, communism, conservatism, and anarchism. The distinctions are roughly as follows:

8. I would be remiss not to include mention of ethics, which encompasses discussions of how resources should be distributed among populations. Egalitarians value equality directly. Utilitarians care about total wellbeing (however defined). Prioritarians are a mixture between the two.

9. This is the inquiry of population ethics. For a dense and highly thought provoking read, see Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (part 4 specifically is dedicated to future generations).