The Tragedy of the Community
Just as people can level terrain and build canals, so people can alter the incentive landscape in order to build better institutions.
— Scott Alexander
I recently had the pleasure to read an amazing blog post called Meditations on Moloch. If all you get out of this post is to read that one, that is enough.
One of the issues in that post is the idea that human welfare can be undermined by a race to the bottom. Briefly, we have some things that we value, but we have to sacrifice them in order to remain competitive. This can be managed through various forms of coordination, but the emergence of new technology can actually enable new forms of defection.
One example of a coordination problem is known as the Tragedy of the Commons. The basic idea is that there is some common good that everyone shares, but people has an individual incentive to overuse it. In the end, the good thing goes away. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is another similar example. When people choose to pursue their individual interest instead of coordinating for the common good it is sometimes called “defecting.”
Ok, so consider the following proposal:
Community itself is a common good that people sacrifice in order to be individually successful.
Framing the concept of community in this way raises a few questions.
What kind of good is it?
The first problem is to clarify what kind of a good is community. I have previously identified several layers of identity/community: fitness/family, competence/company, virtue/church, and status/nation. People want to be viewed as fit (attractive), competent, virtuous, and high-status.
But there is this complicated interplay between how we view ourselves, and how we think we are viewed by others. A culture includes an agreement about what these things mean. For example, people who share a culture might agree on the kinds of things that make a woman or man physically attractive. People might agree on what makes a person intelligent, or what are useful skills people should have (or what symbols indicate that someone has useful skills). People might agree on what kind of actions count as virtuous, and what kinds of possessions or attitudes indicate high status.
Since this general agreement exists, we can generally tell how people are going to view us. Then we take this knowledge and enforce it against ourselves. So, if we don’t live up to societies standards for what is good looking, we are probably our own worst critic. Same thing if we don’t have the right degree, if we don’t conform to behavioral expectations, or have the right kind house or car, etc. We know how these things will be perceived by others, so we punish ourselves when we aren’t right.
Thus, perhaps the highest good of all is to be in alignment with our own concept of fitness/competence/virtue/status (let’s call these things “Good”).
Sometimes people will act like we can look inside ourselves to find our true identity, and be happy with who we are, by ourself, as an individual. I think this is bullshit. Our idea of who we ought to be is dependent on our culture. Period.
So the good of community, the power of a community, is the ability to bestow upon people a sense of well-being by providing them a conceptual role, an achievable version of themselves that conforms to a socially authorized version of Good.
But it is not enough for people to conform to an abstract standard. People also need to be constantly reminded by others that they are Good. Actually being recognized for our value every once in a while is essential to feeling confident that we are Good. So the good of community requires paying attention to other people. It requires maintenance.
Why does this good require coordination?
Everyone contributes to the common good in two ways: 1) our thoughts, beliefs, words, actions (and social media posts, etc.) contribute to the ever-changing definition of what counts as Good, and 2) we pay attention to others to make them feel that they meet the definition of Good. Note that with respect to #1, the process of creating the concept of Good is a creative/entrepreneurial one. That is, it is possible to find new ways for ourselves and those around us to be Good.
These two forms of contribution are distinct, but closely related. Culture is not a static thing, and we are never fully 100% confident about whether we are Good. When people provide feedback one way or another, it not only makes us feel good/bad about ourselves, that feedback is one of the main things that contributes to our concept of Good. In other words, in doing #2, we are also doing #1.
Thus, community can fail in several ways. First, people can arrive at definitions of Good that aren’t consistent with the people that actually exist (e.g., unrealistic body image expectations). Second, people can fail to give each other the attention they need to reinforce their sense of Good.
In other words, people can defect. We can try to make ourselves feel better by establishing standards of Good that others don’t meet. We can also simply fail to pay our dues by recognizing when other people are Good.
So far this all seems sort of touchy-feely. The whole point of society is to make each other feel good, so why son’t we just go ahead and give everyone a medal, right?
One objection to this concept of community is that it doesn’t feel like it is grounded in anything real. Let me make an analogy to money. Economists distinguish between the real economy and the nominal economy. If a country prints too much money, it doesn’t make everyone rich. It just causes inflation. The real issue with money isn’t how much of there is, it’s how it is distributed. In other words, it’s kind of a zero sum game.
So is there such a thing as inflation of the Good, too? Is making each other feel good a zero-sum game? In some sense, yes. We can praise people all we want, but in doing so we can water down the value of it. This article argues that we should avoid praising children with phrases like “Good Job!”, calling that sort of thing “lazy praise” that doesn’t do any good. In their view, praise should be used to recognize and encourage good behavior.
One of the interesting things I came away with from reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is that our consciousness of self developed as a more effective method of social control. When people developed a sense of identity and a sense of right and wrong to moderate their behavior, it enabled more complex societies. The more complex society becomes, the more complex our sense of self has to become to accommodate the different kinds of social arrangements we experience.
Self-enforcement of a cultural concept of Good is the means by which nature gets us to behave in a way consistent with the existence of a complex society. So pro-social behavior is like the real economy, and praise (or other forms of social recognition) is like the nominal economy. Just multiplying praise isn’t going to make anyone better off in the end, and it might obscure the signals necessary to get people to behave properly.
Furthermore, praising others isn’t free. Truly recognizing the good in others, and creating a space for them to be Good, takes significant time and effort. So there is also a time and effort trade-off between the recognition of Good and actual pro-social behavior. You know, nothing is free.
Ok, so let’s recap where we are. What we really want is to feel good about ourselves, and that depends on 1) sharing ideas about what is good with other people, and 2) other people spending time to recognize that we are good. We can “defect” by playing status games that put other people down, or by not spending the time and effort it takes to recognize others. We can also defect by trying to achieve recognition without actually engaging in pro-social behavior.
So proper community coordination ensures that people adopt a common definition of Good that maximizes both how people feel and how people behave, and also ensure that people give each other the proper level recognition for meeting this definition of Good. This is complicated.
One of the reasons I advocate focusing on smaller communities is that coordination games with a large number of people are complicated. However, institutions do exist to distribute recognition on a large scale. The most obvious one is the free market economy. We give people money for pro-social behavior, and that money can be exchanged for all sorts of status goods. Plus, simply accumulating money comes with a lot of status.
The free market has a lot of advantages. In fact, it has so many advantages that one might wonder whether we really need any other system for coordinating pro-social behavior. Should we just lean in to using money as the great and final arbiter of Good?
I think the answer is no. One of the most transformative things that ever happened to me was to become a father. And part of that transformation came as the result of having a daughter who is very generous with expressing her adoration. When she comes home from school she bursts in and comes looking to play with me. She verbally reminds me that I am the best dad ever. She provides me with constant validation on a whole ‘nother level, in a way that adults are typically too embarrassed to do. And I attempt to do the same with her.
This all makes a big difference for me psychologically. My daughter hardly has any status herself, yet somehow she is able to raise mine (at least in my own mind). I question whether such a thing could ever be truly replicated in a relationship based on money. Of course, there is money involved… raising a child is not cheap. In fact, part of her trust in me is contingent on my ability to provide things that require money.
And raising a child takes more than just money. My relationship with my daughter has really reinforced the lesson that positive relationships really do take time and emotional effort. I have to be dedicated and creative in my approach to recognizing her, and she does the same for me.
People simply don’t have the time or ability to have these kinds of meaningful relationships with a large number of people. There probably isn’t a precise limit that applies to everyone, but the number might be as low as 5. For friends, the limit is probably around 150 (i.e., Dunbar’s number).
We are simply not equipped to solve this coordination problem for large groups. Our brains have evolved to solve the problem of coordinating what is Good, and to recognize the Good in others for small groups. Modern concepts like the free market can enable unprecedented cooperation between strangers. In fact, the modern world actually undermines cooperation when it comes to recognizing the Good among those in our small groups. Modern markets and technology provide new ways for people to defect.
But we live in a modern society with modern technology, and while some communities have tried to create a walled garden high enough to keep the world at bay, I am not convinced this is a stable solution. Instead, I simply believe that we need to be aware of the value we derive from our community, accept that the modern world provides ample opportunities to defect, and build our conscious communities in a way takes these challenges into account by design.