I have a theory (no. 2): The Pendulum theory

Pendulum swing

In an earlier post, I expounded one of my theories and invited readers to rate the theory.  In this post I will expound another theory that I call The Pendulum Theory.  The system for rating the theory is as follows:

  1. Theory? You have settled the science!
  2. Plausible but needs to be more fully developed.
  3. Meh. I am not so sure.
  4. Darryl Kerrigan – tell him he’s dreamin.


I need to confess from the start that the Pendulum Theory is not mine alone. The theory was conceived by myself and my late father in law over beers on a sunny balcony overlooking Burleigh Heads beach on the Gold Coast. A great environment for getting the philosophical juices flowing. Actually, I am convinced that I and my philosophical buddies have on numerous occasions found solutions for most of the world’s problems while sampling fine scotch whiskeys late into the night. Unfortunately, by morning for some reason, we struggle to remember the details of the solutions. Hmmm.

A word of warning if you sit hard on either end of the political spectrum this theory will make you uncomfortable. What do I mean?  Well if you are a hard out socialist who sees socialism on its own as the answer to the world’s ills or you are conservative or libertarian and have no room for socialism then the Pendulum Theory will not sit well with you. Having said that the Pendulum Theory does not promote a particular political landscape. Rather, the theory attempts to explain how the political landscape has developed in the past and will or may develop in the future. Despite where you sit on the political spectrum you can still agree with the Pendulum Theory and cry over the possible outcome.

A pendulum

A pendulum is a weight hung from a fixed point so that it can swing freely.  The weight, if moved to one extreme and released, will oscillate left and right between one extreme and another. In perfect conditions (no friction) the weight would oscillate back to the point at which it was released and oscillate back to the same point at the other extreme. In a natural environment with friction, the amplitude (angle of the pendulum away from the vertical position) decreases as it swings. However, with small amplitudes, the time period for each swing remains about the same despite the reducing amplitude. Add a mechanism of weights and gears and the timing of the pendulum can be made highly accurate; think grandfather clock. Weights and gears could also be used to manipulate a pendulum in the extreme including preventing its movement from one extreme (although there seems to be no practical use in the material world for that).

Unpacking the theory

The Pendulum theory works in a liberal democracy, in the sense of acting like a pendulum would be expected to behave. The pendulum theory can also be applied to explain other forms of government and action such as revolutions, a communist government or a dictatorship. The features of a liberal democracy are full franchise for voters, freedom of speech, democratic government and the rule of law. These elements are critical and can be seen as the friction, weight and gears that keep the pendulum swinging. Friction, resistance from both sides of politics putting pressure on implemented government policy or exposing gaps in policy puts pressure on the swing of the pendulum to both extremes of the political spectrum. The weights and gears are the mechanisms of government that keep the pendulum moving left or right depending on who is in government and the weight that that government are applying and the types of gears and levers they are utilising.  Movement to the left when left-wing policy is in ascendance and to the right when right wing policy is in ascendance.  I am not talking about each term of government.  I am referring to the more watershed moments in politics. The First Labour government and the establishment of the welfare state can be seen as a swing of the pendulum to its left extreme whereas the period of Rogernomics that came with the Fourth Labour Government is a swing of the pendulum to the right extreme.  By extreme, I don’t mean extreme policy but the extreme point of the particular pendulum swing (amplitude) in New Zealand. The amplitude of the pendulum swing in New Zealand in 1935, for example, would be much smaller than the pendulum swing in say 1917 Russia.

The application of friction, weight and gears, and the force each of these has, affects the swing of the pendulum. The pendulum also has its own inherent weight that gravity influences to pull it back to the equilibrium (resting position). Some examples. If the franchise and democracy is limited there is less friction as less people have a voice and the weight and gears of government will make the swing of the pendulum swing to extremes.  When the franchise was limited to land-owning men in western countries the pendulum swung to the extreme right with laissez faire market economics. When communism took hold in Russia the weight (an effective opposition) and friction (freedom of speech and media) were removed and the gearing of the pendulum swung and locked to its left extreme under one-party control.

What is the New Zealand Pendulum doing?

From 1840 New Zealand effectively became a westernised country. New Zealand inherited democracy, the franchise of voters (as it was then), freedom of speech, democratic government and the rule of law.  Liberal economics was in play with limited Government and very little in the way of State support for unemployment, retirees etc. The pendulum was sitting to the right and the amplitude (angle) was out to the extreme right. Arguably, the pendulum sat in this position because of the limited franchise, limited to land-owning men and later on just men, that produced an out of balance weight in government that kept the pendulum to the right. Friction from media and agitation from the public was limited and so the gears of government effortlessly held the weight of the pendulum to the right. That was to change.

The franchise was extended to all adults. This in itself had an effect on the friction. Now women and workers had a voice and could agitate for change. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the rise of unions added to that friction.  New weights and gears were being developed in the form of the Labour party who if they were to make it to government would use those weights and gears to shift the pendulum. In 1935 that occurred and the Welfare state was established, a shift of the pendulum to the near extreme left, but not as extreme as the communist revolutions. Why not? There was still friction, weight and gears in New Zealand that impeded the swing to the left.

Fast forward to 1984 and the fourth Labour government.  Neo-Liberalism has been in the ascendancy for some time creating a new friction.  Once again, the weights and gears have been prepared by an unlikely source, the right wing of the Labour Party. The pendulum swung once again to the right but not as far to the right as it had been before. Roger Douglas lamented the unfinished business but in realit, the Labour party had managed to swing the pendulum quite far in a short period of time as a lot of the friction to impede the pendulum was not there as it possibly should have been in what was now a well-developed democracy. Muldoon had so polarised the nation, Bob Jones’ New Zealand party was splitting the right vote and Labour was able to take a landslide victory without expounding much in the way of policy to provide a mandate. In addition, National was an ineffective opposition who secretly probably supported the changes. Labour effectively had free reign to do what they wanted … for a time.

By 1993 with successive governments keeping pressure on keeping the pendulum to the right intense friction was developing in the form of calls for more accountability from government. A raft of changes were made with the centrepiece being MMP which came in after a referendum. Note that this was not a swing of the pendulum as the weights and gears in place remained largely in place. It was the friction largely from outside of government, public, media and academic, that brought this on. However, the pendulum will always have its own inherent weight that puts pressure against whatever end of the spectrum the weights and gears are holding it, and the friction will invariably slow the swing and pull the pendulum back.

Where will the pendulum go?

Here is the crux of The Pendulum theory. The pendulum is always looking for the equilibrium (the resting point) and it will, if left to its own devices end up there, stationary. The theory is that society as a whole is also trying to get to the equilibrium but with the balance of the working of friction, weight and gears we swing past the equilibrium but in ever smaller and smaller amplitudes. The ongoing development of our liberal democracy over time, with things such as MMP, the information age that allows blogs such as Whaleoil, The Standard and others to exist, as well as policy development and refinement, affect the swing of the pendulum by decreasing it. MMP is probably the biggest factor that has limited the weight and gears that can be applied as it limits power and waters down policy. Friction is now more balanced. The left has always been good at mobilising and agitating (friction) for change. However, the right has also become much more effective at applying its own friction through blogs such as Whaleoil and outspoken right-wing commentators who now bypass traditional media to get their message out.

To support this theory you just need to look at the “neos”. We started with Liberals and then got a watered down version of Marxism called Keynesianism or the welfare state.  We then get neo-liberalism coming along with neo-Marxism. We are swinging from one political theory to another and back again. The term neo-Keynesianism has also re-emerged but probably got absorbed by the more user-friendly Blairism called “The Third Way.” Let’s look at The Third Way. The Third Way described the UK’s Blair government’s policy. The term was also used in describing the Clark Labour government in New Zealand. The left heralded it as neo-Keynesianism. It wasn’t. Most of the neo-liberal reforms remained intact with no desire to get rid of them. What changed was addressing some of the perceived social welfare issues. The Third Way was a swing of the pendulum from right to left but on a smaller angle (amplitude).

My theory is that if the status quo remains: MMP retained, elections that result in a range of parties with no one party taking a majority on its own and relative social and economic stability then the pendulum will continue to swing in ever shorter and shorter amplitude getting closer to the equilibrium. The only things I could see causing an extreme swing, beyond the natural inclination for the pendulum with balanced friction, weights and gears to seek out the equilibrium, is a revolution/coup or an extreme event with an election of a one-party government (possible but difficult to achieve) coming in on the back of it and implementing drastic changes in response.

Some of my thoughts

I have tried to expound The Pendulum theory to this point without expressing any favour or opposition to the outcomes it will produce if the assumptions are correct. I am a pluralist who generally tends towards conservative right-wing views. For me, pure Socialism is a wonderful theory but in practicality, it does not work as human nature and behaviour do not align with it. You get Animal Farm outcomes where some are more equal than others (corruption)  and it requires compulsion that in itself destroys socialism because of human nature and behaviour. Just look at Venezuela. I also think pure Libertarianism is a wonderful theory.  No tax, the free market runs everything, and you can pretty well do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm others. Again, in my view in practicality, it won’t work. As a pluralist, while I have my views on things I accept that compromise that takes account of all interests is a political outcome that is good for all members of society. It just has to be good policy and we should continue to work on improving policy. As such the Pendulum theory should appeal to me. If it is correct and there are no upsets (revolution, economic meltdown) then we should move closer and closer to the equilibrium in ever decreasing swings.

However, I have a problem with the Pendulum theory as it plays out in a liberal democracy. The world changes, socially and economically and what we do today is unlikely to be effective in the future.  For example, the welfare state when it was introduced, by all accounts, was an incredible success in raising most New Zealanders into a middle-class lifestyle and cradle to grave security. However, over time the cracks appeared and the negative incentives inherent in Socialism began to play out – intergenerational welfare dependency, inefficient industry, tax and spend spiral, ever increasing controls. It took a bold fourth Labour government to break ranks with its core support base and make changes that were unpalatable but needed in an economic climate that demanded they change or die.  The ingredients for that type of change if required are no longer there (one party with a majority of seats with no clear mandate).

We sit here now with fairly balanced weights and gears, your choice of Labour-Lite or National-Lite for a government with not much change and no real power to effect real change. When the world changes to the degree that extensive reform is required we may be hamstrung, particularly by an MMP system. If one party cannot seize power in these circumstances and make bold changes against public pressure (friction) what is the alternative?  Revolution?  I don’t like MMP it is a form of government that was designed to prevent dictatorships rising. Call me old school but I like a system of trust and conventions.  A First Past the Post system where parties put out policy and by convention have a mandate to implement that policy if they win power has more appeal for me. I would accept that at times that power in government would have to make some tough calls, but in an FPP environment, they could. That would give the pendulum a bit more swing but not too extreme. Being locked at or near the equilibrium with no ability to get the pendulum to swing could be our downfall.

And that is my theory.  Where do you rate it on the 1 to 4 scale?


by The Undertaker

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A guest post submitted to Whaleoil and edited by Whaleoil staff.

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