Changing the Paradigm of Being, Part 3: Cooperation and human nature

Did you miss previous parts?

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The power of cooperation

Let’s have a close look at how a new layer of cooperation can change the existing system, even though the underlying rules of the game are not eliminated or changed in any way. This doesn’t mean that this is always an option, but it sure does open a new way of looking at the world.

In the United States, the president is elected indirectly via the Electoral College, whose members are chosen by a unique set of rules. Each state is allocated a number of electors that is equal to the joint number of its senators and representatives in the Congress. The District of Columbia is given a number of electors equal to the number held by the smallest state.

The U.S. Constitution establishes that the way of choosing electors is determined within each state by its legislature. Nowadays, each state conducts popular elections to help choose their slate of electors. Most states use a winner-takes-all system, in which the candidate with the most votes in that state receives all of the state’s electoral votes (Maine and Nebraska allow their votes to be split).

Because of this system of indirect vote, presidential candidate can sometimes fail to get the most votes in the nationwide popular vote and still win that election. According to another criticism, the present system encourages political campaigners to focus on a few “swing states” (states in which the outcome of vote is uncertain or close) while ignoring the rest of the country. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the idea of a popular vote for president, and a number of constitutional amendments have been submitted in order to replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote, but none has been successful so far.

Amending the U.S. Constitution is a difficult task: a proposed amendment must be passed by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress (or by a convention called by two-thirds of the states), and then ratified in three-fourths of the states.

Due to lack of consensus for amending the constitution, several states took a different approach: The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is an agreement among several states that seeks to replace their current rules for allotting presidential electors with rules that would guarantee the election of the presidential candidate who won the national popular vote. The agreement will go into effect only when the participating states together have an absolute majority in the Electoral College. The participating states would give all of their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, who would therefore win the presidency by winning more than half of electoral votes.

Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact. Together they have 132 electoral votes, out of 270 electoral votes needed to have a majority in the Electoral College (538 electors). So, NPVIC is almost halfway to being implemented. If and when enough states join the compact, the rules of the presidential race will change – by the virtue of added cooperation between the participating states – without changing the actual electoral process underneath (the Electoral College).

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Magna Carta MemorialThe above example should not be over-hyped. First of all, it’s still just a hypothetical arrangement that hasn’t been implemented yet. It will go into effect only when participating states hold an absolute majority in the Electoral College – realistically, that would require approximately half of the states to join the compact. Secondly, it can only work because states have a constitutional right to choose electors however they want.

Nevertheless, this example gives us a possibility for a whole new outlook on social change. Like U.S. states, which have certain states’ rights, people living in modern democracies have a whole set of constitutional rights and freedoms. They include freedom of thought, opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. Furthermore, virtually all modern democracies adhere to the principle of “everything which is not forbidden is allowed”.

Empowered with these essential rights and freedoms, a large group of ordinary citizens could theoretically alter the framework of a society, not necessarily by changing the laws of a country, but by establishing a new level of cooperation between them. In fact, implementation of my manifesto (Part 2) stands or falls by people’s ability and willingness to do so.

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Human nature and the limits of collectivism

However, for any group endeavor to be successful, it is essential to understand the psychology behind cooperation, as well as to differentiate achievable objectives from wishful thinking. If we want to avoid future disappointments, we should keep in mind that cooperation between people is not unlimited.

As Steven Pinker puts it in his book The Blank Slate:

“The idea that people are instinctively communal is an important precept of the romantic doctrine of the Noble Savage. It figured in the theory of Engels and Marx that “primitive communism” was the first social system, in the anarchism of Peter Kropotkin […] and in the writings of contemporary radical scientists such as Lewontin and Chomsky.”

He quotes Karl Marx, who wrote that a communist society would be:

“The genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and between man and man; it is the true resolution of the conflict between existence and essence, objectification and self-affirmation, freedom and necessity, individual and species. It is the riddle of history solved.”

Pinker comments on the above quote: “It doesn’t get any less tragic or more utopian than that. Marx dismissed the worry that selfishness and dominance would corrupt those carrying out the general will.” As you can probably tell, Pinker sees the world in a much darker, down-to-earth shades. According to him, “all societies – animal and human – seethe with conflicts of interest and are held together by shifting mixtures of dominance and cooperation,” which leaves us in a state of permanent tragedy. He further explains his position: “The Utopian vision that human nature might radically change in some imagined society of the remote future is, of course, literally unfalsifiable, but I think that many of the discoveries recounted in preceding chapters make it unlikely.”

Throughout the book Pinker argues against “tabula rasa” models of the social sciences (the idea that the mind of a newborn is like a “blank slate”). He believes that human mind is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations – the product of which is relatively fixed human nature. He seeks to investigate its characteristics: “Studies of altruism by behavioral economists have [… shown] that people are neither the amoral egoists of classical economic theory nor the all-for-one-and-one-for-all communalists of utopian fantasies.” Pinker exposes weaknesses and possible disadvantages of working in or as a group: “When people are part of a group, they pull less hard on a rope, clap less enthusiastically, and think up fewer ideas in a brainstorming session – unless they think their contributions to the group effort are being monitored.”

These findings speak against “sociological tradition” of social sciences, in which society is viewed as a larger superorganism and its individual citizens as mere parts. Pinker writes that “some radical scientists imagine that the only alternative is an Ayn Randian individualism in which every man is an island,” and then offers his solution to this dilemma: “The real alternative to romantic collectivism is not “right-wing libertarianism” but a recognition that social generosity comes from a complex suite of thoughts and emotions rooted in the logic of reciprocity.”

This logic can be illustrated with a quote from The Perfect Storm, a book written by Sebastian Junger. Much of the early part of this “creative non-fiction” book describes the daily lives of the commercial fishermen and their jobs:

“Sword[fish] boat captains help each other out on the high seas whenever they can; they lend engine parts, offer technical advice, donate food or fuel. The competition between a dozen boats rushing a perishable commodity to market fortunately doesn’t kill an inherent sense of concern for each other. This may seem terrifically noble, but it’s not – or at least not entirely. It’s also self-interested. Each captain knows that he may be the next one with the frozen injector or the leaking hydraulics.”

People can be generous – and sincerely so – but sooner or later most of them will ask themselves: What’s in it for me? Any social endeavor or ideology that refuses to recognize and accept this is likely to fail, eventually.

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Incentives and disincentives

Let me be clear: Pinker does acknowledge that social arrangements can change if we decide to change them, however, lasting change cannot be made without taking into account constraints of human nature. Not all human nature is bad, though: “For all its selfishness, the human mind is equipped with a moral sense, […] and for all its limitations, human cognition is an open-ended combinatorial system, which in principle can increase its mastery over human affairs, just as it has increased its mastery of the physical and living worlds.”

I pretty much agree with Pinker on this issue. I don’t think we should aim to change human nature, because this may be futile; maybe the best thing we can do is to think creatively and put in place the right incentives and disincentives that will change how people behave – because of their own self-interest.

This statement may seem contrary to the spirit of my manifesto, but it’s not. Firstly, we need to recognize that incentives are not necessarily monetary. People value different things beyond money and material wealth: we value our health, our relationships, nature, security, happiness and peace of mind. Besides, in my manifesto I clearly wrote that the purpose of the proposed societies for sustainable living and self-actualization would also be mutual support and assistance – this can have some monetary benefits for members as well.

On disincentives’ side, every social structure needs certain regulations to deal with people and groups who would want to game the system to their own advantage. Breaking the rules should never be tolerated. We can still hope that human race will eventually evolve above pure self-interest and won’t need “carrot and stick” anymore, but we should not rely on this, because we could be waiting for a very long time.

Our main focus should be on how to improve the society here and now. Theoretical debates about different visions of ideal world may be exciting, but can also be a distraction that prevents us from taking practical steps toward a better future.

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Continue to Part 4: Capitalism – A Love Story.

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Posted on February 28, 2013, in Social change and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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