Monday, January 23, 2012

Is impersonal society the endpoint of history?

Ever since reading Steven Pinker's book a few weeks ago I've been thinking about one of his arguments. Societies are steadily developing away from community and authority norms, he says, and towards impersonal market exchange norms (and hence towards more purely liberal values):
What exogenous causes are shifting the allocation of moral intuitions away from community, authority, and purity and toward fairness, autonomy, and rationality? .. the micro-geography of liberalism suggests that the moral trend away from community, authority, and purity is indeed an effect of mobility and cosmopolitanism.
I realized this is very much what Douglass North was saying about the development of modernity, which I covered in an earlier post. North says:
The contrast between the institutions and beliefs geared to confronting the uncertainties of the physical environment and those constructed to confront the human environment is the key to understanding the process of change.The shift from personal to impersonal exchange has produced just such a stumbling block both historically and in the contemporary world. Personal exchange relies on reciprocity, repeat dealings, and the kind of informal norms that tend to evolve from strong reciprocity relationships. Impersonal exchange requires the development of economic and political institutions that alter the pay-offs in exchange to reward cooperative behavior.
So here's the thing. The argument is that the transition to modernity necessarily breaking some of those older communitarian ties and social structures.

And that must be true.

Helping out extended family gets redefined in modern societies as nepotism. Local ties get weaker. Family and religious houses no longer provide welfare, but a dispassionate state doles out welfare based on abstract criteria. People move around and aren't defined as much by social hierarchy or where they came from or class divide or ethnicity.  Urban values prevail over rural ties to the land. And that's all to the good.

But is a purely transactional, libertarian society either desirable or tenable? Daniel Bell and others have suggested that there are cultural contradictions to capitalism, that we still need some of those older virtues and sources of social capital to make the more atomistic impersonal economy work.

I just wonder if there is not a stage which lies beyond impersonal exchange, a kind of personal exchange plus. It needs a new name. Markets still do their job of allocating scarce resources, in that situation. But those resources which are not scarce, or can't easily be defined by property rights and traded, play much more of a role.

Maybe we are seeing a similar stumbling block in a shift from impersonal exchange to post-exchange flourishing.

Impersonal exchange will maxiimize efficiency. And we need much efficiency. But at some point we have enough. If the economy becomes so efficient that goods and services for exchange can be produced by a small proportion of the population - as happened to agriculture, as has steadily happened to manufacturing - then we may need to alter the payoffs again, to reward different kinds of  cooperative and productive behavior.

It is another stumbling block for society. We need to change the incentive framework again, to adapt institutions again. Because impersonal exchange  is not the end of history. Impersonal exchange can only carry us so far. We need more of a sense of personal development and virtue and purpose.

This brings us right back to one of the initial starting points of this blog - Keynes' essay on Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren:

If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose. Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.To use the language of to-day-must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown”? 

 We need another phase transition in society.

No comments:

Post a Comment