How do “Micro-motives” relate to Global Politics?

Micromotives—what individuals want out of life—affect global politics in much the same way individual behavioral choices affect global markets.

Thomas Schelling introduced his book Micro-motives and Macro-Outcomes telling a story about a presentation he once gave. In the theatre where he spoke, lighting only allowed him to see the first few rows of seats, which were completely empty, leading him to conclude no one was in attendance. When the house lights came up, he could see the room was nearly full, with everyone seated in the area that appeared dark from the stage. Schelling notes that the front seats were equally accessible to attendees, but that each for their individual reasons—perhaps shared, perhaps different—led to people sitting closer to the back than to the front of the auditorium.

Schelling’s observation is consistent with the economic world view: individual transactions aggregate to larger outcomes in the market. Macro-economics is the study of the effects of the those individual transactions on the market as a whole, whereas micro-economics is the study of those transactions within individual cases.

Micromotives also feature in political questions, but scholars rarely address micromotives when discussing issues affecting the whole world. Economic micromotives aggregate easily, such as payment of remitances, that can create important socio-political trends affecting international behavior. Less obvious, however, are individual behaviors that might be important, or even causally necessary, but for whom the individual behavior does not aggregate immediately.

Temporal proximity in economics-related causes and outcomes allows easy analysis, but often it the amount of time necessary for personal behaviors to affect political outcomes complicates our understand. A good example is demography and birth rates, where intensely personal decisions have far more influence on child bearing and rearing, and few variables are more important in politics than population size. There is every reason to believe that individual decisions made about birth and childcare will affect politics locally and globally, but so much time passes between childbirth, and effects that those effects are not obvious.

Global politics as this blog uses the term is the study of how micromotives, individual behaviors aggregate to globally significant outcomes. Of the greatest importance to me personally, but also relevant to the blog, are the internet’s political effects. The internet has some macro-motives, like national information policy, but this blog starts from the micro political level, asking: How do personal incentives change the way people behave, creating knock-on effects in national and international politics.

Global politics does not matter too much in the way politics gets covered in the news on a daily basis, but it becomes nigh all consuming for how we think about politics in the long term. In contemporary analysis of elections, wars or treaties large organizational incentives will rightly dominate, but it becomes impossible to talk about major, long-term trends in political development without considering global political issues, including communication, innovation and population movement. The inverse is also true, where international politics intrudes, sometimes uwittingly onto our day-to-day lives, and a better understanding of the supra-national trends that affect our daily lives will be interesting, at least.