Political system refers broadly to the process by which laws are made and public resources allocated in a society, and to the relationships among those involved in making these decisions. The term, however, has acquired not only a descriptive meaning but also a methodological one. In the first case, “political system” describes how the institutions of a government function together to translate the desires, or “preferences,” of a society’s citizens into laws governing that society. Descriptions of the political system of the United States, for example, focus on how the Congress (House and Senate), the executive (the president and the bureaucracy), and the judiciary (the Supreme Court and lower courts) collectively make, implement, and enforce public policy. They also tend to describe how citizens make their preferences known to members of these institutions through voting and interest-group advocacy and how citizens respond to the policies actually produced. Though undergraduate textbooks often claim to use a political systems approach in their organization, in practice they tend to describe the structure and behavior of citizens and institutions in relative isolation from each other. By contrast, a true systems approach would emphasize process, or how these institutions function together and how their relationships and the policies they produce change (or fail to change) as the preferences of citizens change.
Political systems, however, need not conform to the American descriptive model. Other systems may receive citizen input in different manners or process it into policies through different institutions and relationships. The British political system, for example, is perhaps a simpler system because it does not possess separate legislative and executive institutions (the prime minister is also the majority party leader in Parliament). Political systems in other nations may listen only to the preferences of a few privileged citizens. Perhaps the most degenerate political system is the dictatorship, where preferences and lawmaking authority are vested in only a single individual.
Political system as a methodological concept grew out of efforts to scientifically study politics and predict political behavior using the “systems approach,” an intellectual movement arising late in the first half of the twentieth century advocating the application of physical and biological systems models to the study of human behavior (Hammond 2003). In the wake of Talcott Parsons’s (1951) argument that society is best understood as layers of systems, several leaders of the Behavioral Revolution, most notably David Easton (1965, 1981), advocated a systems approach to studying the processes of lawmaking and the function of institutions. Broadly speaking, the approach required researchers to differentiate the system from its larger social environment, identify its key components (institutions) and the relationships binding them together, learn how citizen preferences were communicated to them, and identify the “homeostatic” mechanisms that kept the resulting policy outputs stable and the system in equilibrium when these inputs remained constant. More importantly, systems analysts were concerned with whether and how policy outputs would change as different social groups mobilized and articulated new demands on government and how great the difference between these inputs and policy outputs, the feedback loops, would have to be to stimulate resistance and even revolution. Classifying states by different systems was even promoted by Gabriel Almond (1956) as the key to comparative political research.
Political systems theory was largely abandoned as an overarching methodology for a couple of reasons. On one hand, opponents of empiricism in political science criticized it for its focus on steady-state equilibria and search for generalizable behavior over the study of the unique, as well as its emphasis on quantification and hypothesis testing (Wilson 1961). On the other hand, proponents of empirical analysis also found its use as a unifying methodology to be cumbersome and overreaching. Difficulties in identifying the system’s boundaries, testing the functions of individual institutions and their interaction with each other as hypotheses, and measuring concepts such as feedback loops with the linear analysis methods commonly employed proved too intractable. Instead, political science has adopted a more reductionist approach by studying the political system’s pieces, meaning various institutions, interest groups, and voters, in relative isolation. Although the last decade has seen some renewed interest in linking these pieces, political science is still a long way from returning to the political system as a unified theory.
SEE ALSO Autocracy; Democracy; Dictatorship; Easton, David; Government; Law; Nation-State; Parsons, Talcott; Pluralism; Political Science; Political Theory; Politics; State, The
Almond, Gabriel A. 1956. Comparative Political Systems. Journal of Politics 18 (3): 391–409.
Easton, David. 1965. A Framework for Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Easton, David. 1981. The Political System Besieged by the State. Political Theory 9 (3): 303–325.
Hammond, Debora. 2003. The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Wilson, Richard B. 1961. System and Process: Polar Concepts for Political Research. Western Political Quarterly 14 (3): 748–763.
Thomas T. Holyoke
As space is the heritage of all people, so the political systems of Earth are our heritage for governance in outer space. There are many questions that remain to be answered when it comes to maintaining law and order in space's vast territory. Which of Earth's political systems will be molded to fit into the unique requirements of space law? Will controversy over governance cause international disputes on Earth? Which system will prevail?
Currently, we can only speculate about how a political system in space would operate. These theoretical systems are informed by Earth's various political models as well as modern international space treaties, which are indicative of what the international community has or has not been able to agree upon regarding the space infrastructure.
Types of Political Systems
The purpose of political systems is to address any conflicts that may arise in a relatively peaceful manner. One type of governmental system that may be adopted for space governance would be one that is organized with a constitution that establishes a legislature, a court system, and police powers charged with protecting us. The following are some political systems that are derivable from the experiences of humankind that could pertain to space society.
There exist two different kinds of democracies. One is government by the people, whereby the people retain supreme power and directly exercise it. The other type is government by popular representation, whereby the people retain supreme power but indirectly exercise it by delegating their power to delegates who represent the people. This second type of governmental system would most likely be the one adopted for governance of the entirety, but self-governance could be more appropriate to space settlements that are small and isolated.
Many developed countries have a "quasi-socialist" system. Consequently, some socialist ideals are likely to be a part of any space system of government. Socialism is a political system wherein the methods of production, distribution, and exchange are mainly state-owned. The state distributes the wealth among all members of society. The influence of socialism is evident in some of the United Nations' space treaties, particularly the Moon Treaty of 1979. The United States and Russia have not signed the Moon Treaty because of the issue of space being the "common heritage of mankind" and what that means for the development of lunar resources that all people are to benefit from.
Central to American government is the philosophy of freedom. The libertarian viewpoint emphasizes the concept of liberty, particularly freedom from any unnecessary restraints that a government might impose on it. A problem with libertarianism is the absence of police powers and how to address crime. A small society in space could possibly adopt a libertarian approach. This system could be appealing to individualistic types of people who would likely be interested in space exploration, settlement, and development.
Any further advances in the realm of space governance will most likely continue to be under the auspices of the United Nations' Office of Outer Space Affairs, as well as its Committee on Peaceful Use of Outer Space.
see also Governance (volume 4); Legislative Environment (volume 1); Living in Space (volume 3); Living on Other Worlds (volume 4).
Nadine M. Jacobson
Fawcett, James E. S. Outer Space: New Challenges to Law and Policy. Oxford, UK:Clarendon Press, 1984.
O'Donnell, Declan J. "Metaspace: A Design for Governance in Outer Space."Space Governance 1, no. 1 (1994):8-15.