Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tribes and the Rise of the State

136 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes, 36 seconds until the start of the first class. The counter is set for the start of the first class session - at 2:30 PM on Monday, August 28. It is a class on environmental philosophy - just right for somebody interested in public policy.

I received an email from the school yesterday saying that my application is in order and matriculation starts next week.

In the past few days I have been listening to the podcast EconTalk. My interest is, in part, stimulated by my wanting to be of service to the Party of Reason and Progress.

Its host, Russ Roberts, is a conservative, libertarian type, but he is intellectually sophisticated and has data and argumentation on his side.

I believe that there is a mistake in his thinking. He has an affection for the types of kindness and assistance that one finds in small groups. For example, there is the case of a village getting together to build a barn for one of its members; everybody pitching in and helping as they can.

Roberts knows about tribes - that humans seem to have a disposition to form groups of about 150 members or so who we care about. Everybody else is on the outside - members of a competing tribe. Where Roberts runs into trouble, I think, is in taking what is true of a group of 150 and asserting that it can be just as true of a group of 300 million or 7.5 billion. In fact, that is not the case.

Let us take the United States, with 320 million people, and divide it up into about 2 million tribes of about 160 people per tribe. What will happen?

Well, within each tribe there will be a great deal of kindness and cooperation. However, every other tribe will be a competitor - and there will likely be no love lost between them.

One tribe will grow beyond 160 members. It will do so by forming a "tribe" among its male members, who will become dominant, with the women and children effectively excluded from the tribe in the psychological sense and becoming the effective property of the 160 full members.

Another will conquer its neighbor, kill everybody, and take their resources as its own.

Yet another will invade a neighbor and enslave its members. This is still a tribe of 160 people. However, this 160 people have, among its resources, 500 slaves created out of the conquered members of three other tribes.

Of course, there will be some combinations of these.

Tribes, seeking to defend themselves, will try to band together into larger groups. However, the basic human psychology is such that you can only form tribes of 150 or so. Anything larger, and people will start attacking each other. Thus, these larger tribes will select a leader and an aristocracy of some sort. These 150 leaders will include enforcers to prohibit violence between the tribal members. In this, you begin to see the workings of a civil government.

The community can continue to grow - but not by increasing the size of the "master" class. Only by increasing the size of the "servant" class. In this way, communities can grow into the millions. Yet, there will always be a happy handful who are the chief members of this tribe, with the rest of them being followers.

That is the state that we find ourselves in.

Russ Roberts may dream of a community with 300 million people all being as kind and loving to each other as we find in these small tribes. However, humans are not built that way. With groups this large, there will be factionalism, conflict, and violence of the worst kind. The way out is the creation of a state - an organization with the capacity to prohibit violence among the different factions.

Yet, the tension is always there, and it will not take all that much for the society to begin to tear itself apart.

This is one of my fears about China and India - they seem much too large to be properly functioning states. Somewhere, sometime, the tribalism will take control, and factions will begin fighting each other. It seems only a matter of time.

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