Government, Civil Society, and the Utility of Cooperativeness

Here is a point that I’m sure I’ve made before but I want to make again. There is a kind of higher-order public good you can call “trust,” “cooperativeness,” or something else. The idea is that some communities are able to overcome certain kinds of challenges involved in coordinating group behavior. The capacity successfully to solve collective action problems at a large scale, with a large population, is the Holy Grail of human society. If you can do this, you can do anything… which is a point I don’t think ideologues have really been able to get their heads around.

Suppose you have a super-cooperative, high-trust society. This is the kind of society where the need for coercion to solve collective action problems is least necessary. Voluntary civil society associations will thrive. But if you’ve got the super-cooperative, high trust conditions for a thriving voluntary civil society, you’ve also got the conditions for a really effective government in which corruption will be minimal and power will tend not to be abused. If there are limits to non-coercive social coordination even in super-cooperative, high-trust societies, states in those kinds of societies will tend to do a pretty good job in deploying coercion responsibly to secure the otherwise foregone gains from successful collective action.

So: The world in which there is little need for state coercion, states will tend to be pretty effective and non-abusive. And worlds in which states work pretty well are worlds where states don’t need to do all that much. Reduce the level of cooperativeness and trust, and the quality of government gets worse. But then civil society gets worse, too. So whatever you want, whether it be good government or a flourishing voluntary civil society, you want the conditions for the other thing.

The trick is that in large modern states jurisdictional boundaries cover many communities with highly variable levels of cooperativeness. So here’s a question. Will the quality of the government of widest scope tend to average out unequal levels of cooperativeness, such that high-cooperativeness communities will tend to get worse governance than they could provide alone (maybe even worse than they could do without a state) and low cooperativeness communities will tend to get better governance than they could provide alone? It seems that the answer has to be “yes,” but what does this imply?

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18 thoughts on “Government, Civil Society, and the Utility of Cooperativeness

  1. Here's something to wrap your brain around, Will:One of the crucial things that separate humans from other primates is the fact that we do not need to see our leader to maintain tribal cohesion. Baboons for instance, will become disoriented if they are in groups of more than twenty, because they lose the ability to distinguish the leader of the pack, and all hierarchy dissolves, thus lower primates tend to remain bound to smaller tribal units than man. Humans, on the other hand, have the ability to abstract hierarchies and tribal structures, and incorporate those abstractions in order to form more complex social groups and communities. This, however, is a double-edged (perhaps a many-edged) sword. In removing the immediate coercion of a leader in the traditional pack sense, one must have a code of law commonly shared by the group at best, at worst, proxies for a pack leader to enforce social conformity (shire reeves and the like). From this we also have the notions of nationalism and organized religion – symbols that organize social groups towards greater cooperation.I think ultimately this comes down to how much further we will evolve. Many people who believe in evolution, ironically think man ceased to continue evolving somewhere around the Neolithic Period. I happen to disagree. Trends suggest that the more we continue to evolve in the sense of how we behave socially, the greater our autonomy will be in forming communities that cooperate without the need for any form of coercion, whether that be the Baboon Poobah of the Sahara Twenty or the Constitution itself (yeah, that’s right … I went there). Then again, that’s just me, and I’m a bit of an optimist.

  2. Sweden & Denmark seem to be good examples of this, at least in the common understanding of their politics, but it doesn't bode well for the EU in general. And is a reasonably satisfying explanation for the demise of the USSR, the British Empire, etc…

  3. I'd have to think about this one a bit more, but the first thing that struck me is that there is an assumption here that there is just this one kind of cooperativeness, and you've either got more or less of it from one society to another. But of course what seems more likely is that some societies are cooperative in some areas, and other societies are cooperative in other ways. Or, that societies A and B are more or less equally cooperative but the linguistic and cultural folkways are such that the two societies under comparison actually ARE in fact more or less equally cooperative, but the ways in which one creates, builds and sustains a cooperative relationship differ in ways such that people in society A and B come to misunderstandings with regards to the Other's willingness to create and engage in cooperation. “Those people in group B suck- it's amazing that they get anything over there done at all!” Maybe they do suck. Or maybe you just don't understand yet how they go about building those cooperative relationships. And if this is indeed the case that two societies are in fact more or less equally cooperative but they just manifest it in different ways, then I could easily imagine a state governing societies A and B in fact delivering worse governance than either could provide for itself if left to its own devices in BOTH cases. My sense is that this is a question that needs to be reframed. The actual, real-life experience of real live societies has been that societies create states, and vice-versa. The question posed here seems too abstract to provide any answers to actually existing societies.

  4. The whole point of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the right wing blogosphere, etc. seems to be to lower the trust and cooperativeness of their target audience.For example, the clowns who turned on every power switch they could find in response to Earth Hour.

  5. Limbaugh et. al. wanted you to trust Bush more and wants you to trust Obama less. DailyKos and The Nation want you to trust Obama more and wanted you to trust Bush less. Putting these things together makes me trust all concerned less.

  6. Listening to the same radio programs (Limbaugh) and reading the same columnists (Coulter, Malkin) increases the trust and cooperativeness of conservatives. Turning on every power switch is a great example of altruistic cooperation. It's more costly than turning them off so that makes it even more cooperative than Earth Hour.Just look at all the mainstream conservative websites, blogs and radio shows. They are all in almost perfect lockstep with each other. If that's not cohesion, I don't know what is.

  7. I think ultimately this comes down to how much further we will evolve. Many people who believe in evolution, ironically think man ceased to continue evolving somewhere around the Neolithic Period. I happen to disagree.

    Certainly evolution never stops, but I don't see the sort of change in social behavior of comparative magnitude to the difference between modern humans and baboons with regard to the relationship to authority that you mentioned as coming for quite some time and when it comes it's hard to know exactly how it will be practiced.

  8. I'm sorry, I've got to say something here. I see just as much locksteppery among the mainstream left equivalents of what you mention – MSNBC, Kos, Huff Po, etc. How can you watch Olbermann shrieking on and Jon Stewart kvetching about a cable finance network as though it's the Whore of Babylon, and not see that these are the doppelgangers of the right wing echo chamber?And by the way, if Earth Hour was supposed to be so important and such a symbol of collective sacrifice for the common good, then why was it at night on a Saturday, when most people would be using little power at home anyway? Why not call for oh, say … 10:00AM on a Wednesday? Probably because that would in fact be a sacrifice, and those who called for “Earth Hour” would be forced to reconcile their infantile pastoral fantasies with the actual implications of mass, diminished productivity. Even if one hour of lost work might not cripple the globe economically (or maybe it would, I don't know), it's telling that the green coalition shied from this at the get-go, realizing that the majority of human-kind would rather work and be prosperous than sit in idle contemplation of what their well-being is potentially destroying.

  9. Pingback: Cooperation and the Scope of the Polity « Brad Taylor’s Blog

  10. I was celebrating human achievement hour. Screw your “we want more force used against people” hour.

  11. Will the quality of the government of widest scope tend to average out unequal levels of cooperativeness, such that high-cooperativeness communities will tend to get worse governance than they could provide alone (maybe even worse than they could do without a state) and low cooperativeness communities will tend to get better governance than they could provide alone? It seems that the answer has to be “yes,” but what does this imply?So…let's have more federalism? It implies that bureaucracy, for all its inefficiency, is highly efficient at one thing – allowing the sample to seek it's mean. It's the overwhelming mathematical rationale for a larger nation-state. If preventing social disorder is more important that optimizing social order (or “cooperativeness,” in your post), the larger state makes even more logical sense. I guess this is where your distinctions lie. The liberaltarian project is one of optimization, not of minimization. In some cases these two principles are synonomous, but not in the case of governance and cooperativeness.

  12. But if you’ve got the super-cooperative, high trust conditions for a thriving voluntary civil society, you’ve also got the conditions for a really effective government in which corruption will be minimal and power will tend not to be abused. This doesn't seem obvious at all to me.Why won't government attract the outliers who covet power and are prone to corruption, while those outside government are likely to give them too much benefit of doubt, and cheer as their power grows?I just don't see what the cooperativeness of the community has to do with limiting government growth beyond what's useful. I think that has more to do with other things, like general understanding of the dangers, and vigilence at limiting government institutionally.

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