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Individuals and Relationships

August 21, 2012

“Moreover, the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism, continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended
order. Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e. of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were to always apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.”
— F. A. Hayek (The Fatal Conceit, p 18)

Society can be thought of as a web of relationships between individuals, governed by laws and norms. We can divide these relationships into various types, based on their characteristics.

Coercion vs. Voluntary – How much does the relationship rely on force?

Self interest vs. Morality/Altruistic – Does each interaction need to be mutually beneficial to happen? How much are the participants emotionally invested in the relationship?

The split between coercive and non-coercive social arrangements is perhaps the most important one to draw in social sciences, but there is a difference between exchange relationships where people seek their self interest and intimate relationships, such as those between friends and family. Humans are social creatures – our goals are often social goals. In order to achieve these social goals, we need to form emotional bonds with others. These “micro-cosmos” relationships fit our instinctual sympathies more closely than other types of relationships. People even strive to frame other relationship types as intimate when possible. Governments are reframed as a parental relationship and employee relationships are often structured around small groups in order to simulate a tribal structure. But while people are more comfortable with intimate relationships, there are some limits to what they are capable of. Sometimes a task simply requires more than 150 people working together to complete. Prices signal information faster than explicit communication ever could. As Hayek pointed out, trying to treat all relationships as intimate ones would destroy the foundation of modern civilization.

Perhaps the most misclassified relationship is the one between a government and its subjects, which some people treat as a voluntary, intimate relationship, when in fact it is mostly a self-interested, coercive relationship. As Public Choice points out, people do not lose their greed and ambition if they are hired by the government. I am less concerned if people want to lionize internet based collectives, since at least they are purely voluntary. I think that it is a natural tendency to want to be part of a group, and instead of denying this tendency, it is better to channel it in a positive direction.

Further Reading
The People’s Romance
Alan Fiske Relationship Models
Mike Munger on Euvoluntary Exchange . Podcast.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2012 7:31 am

    I recently took one of those silly politics quizzes that is supposed to tell you who you support most in the presidential election. I had to keep reminding myself what people should *be like* and what people should be *forced to do* are different things. People should *want* to treat every other human being with love, respect, and compassion. But either a “Clockwork Orange” or “Big Brother” style solution to enforce that is wrong, too.

    I consider Dunbar’s number a bug in the wetware, one of the cruelest tragedies played upon our species and the source of most conflict and strife. I wish there were a way to get rid of it without giving up freedom, which I consider the greatest treasure and source of most of the great things and understandings of life.

    Feeling wistful, I guess

    • August 22, 2012 10:40 am

      An optimistic way to look at it is to say “look how far we’ve come, given our limitations”. Simply being aware of the problem is the first step to solving it. I would guess that those who know about “Dunbar’s number” are not so quick to hate outgroups.

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