Saturday, April 7, 2012

Why do utopian communities fail?


We're still discussing Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. One question I've asked my wife, G, who knows a lot about utopian issues, is why some, or indeed most utopian communities fail.


She didn't know of any systematic study. But Haidt points to one explanation when he discusses the role of religion in society.

Haidt has little time for the "new atheists" such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens who see no useful role for religion at all. It is not a story of rational enlightenment beating back the forces of mysticism and prejudice, he says, or a "parasitic meme" encouraging war and intolerance. Instead, religions help groups stick together.

There is now a great deal of evidence that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.

And some of the evidence comes from looking at which utopian communities survive.

The clearest evidence comes from the anthropologist Richard Sosis, who examined the history of two hundred communes founded in the United States in the nineteenth century.. . .For many nineteenth-century communes, the principles were religious; for others they were secular, mostly socialist. Which kind of commune survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.

Much of the difference was religious communities appeared better able to solve collective action problems and prevent free-riding, according to Sosis' research. Demands for sacrifice of self-interest could serve as a signal of trustworthiness and commitment.

For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.

Why might this be?

.. when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis, and many refuse to do things that don’t make logical sense. In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

Religion helps to solve the collective action problem of getting people to work together, trust each other and prevent free-riding.

Incidentally, this reminds me of studies which find that the Protestant denominations which require more commitment and sacrifice are far outpacing the liberal mainline churches. (see this David Brooks column, for instance.)

People are more likely to trust and co-operate with co-religionists, or indeed those who profess a simiar strong ethical code. Religions help sustain those foundations of authority, sanctity and legitimacy that bind a community together, but which liberals find hard to see as anything other than retrograde.

Without such bonds, though, societies might fray and disappear, says (secular jewish) Haidt:

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

I'm not intensely religiously committed myself - I will be in church tomorrow on Easter Sunday, but that is one of the few times G and I will be in a church this year. What I'd draw from this is it is much harder to get societies to stick together or change for the good than most liberals believe. Religion is a social technology, to use the language of some earlier posts.

Our economic problem is one of our most important social technologies - labor exchanged for money - is reaching some limits, as productivity soars and the goods that we want are increasingly non-monetary and non-material. Money can't buy you love, as the song goes.

The challenge is to evolve better social technologies to deal with that underlying reality. And to do that we need to understand the existing social technologies that sustain functional societies, so we do not inadvertently undermine them. There are serious collective action problems in moving to any kind of new economy. That deeper structural reality matters more than the short-run fiscal outlook or Friday's payroll numbers.


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