The Living Thing / Notebooks :


Stable orbits in human systems


This does not mean that material effects are absent or unimportant, just that you can’t hold everything equal. Take the Christianity example: there are huge boons to well-being and productivity and [everything else I talked about] in belonging to a church. Many of these are psychological themselves, but let’s only focus on material aspects. These come from “the church”, but you’d have to show me some really extreme evidence to convince me that those were the primary or only reason they joined. The religious aspect, however you think about that, seems more than a little important.

— Lou Keep, The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life

Douglass North, Elinor Ostrom, Daron Acemoglu, Ronald Coase and colleagues, broadly construed. See also: Market design, economic inequality, capitalism’s end game, democracy, insurgency.

What are the effects of the social arrangements we construct for ourselves? We tend to talk openly about constructing or intervening in a limited subset of these, say “a robust free press”, and “competitive markets”. Our lives are, however, the site of intersections of a whole swag of co-evolved systems; manners, notions of honour, legal systems, clientilism, slavery, freedoms, states (democratic or otherwise), property rights, religions… For all that it is not clear how to measure these things, it is clear that they make huge differences to our society and how it works… Variation across the globe is also suggestive that they are contingent; The world you grew up in is not the only possible one. (Unless you are Francis Fukuyama circa 2000). To this last point, I recommend, as a technocratic 21st century global citizen, sitting down for an afternoon to discuss politics with a hunter-gatherer from a tiny polity somewhere in the world. Or a Red state Republican. Or a West Java metal-head. See how much shared vocabulary you don’t have.

I’ll probably file social capital, whatever that is, here, since whatever use the term does reliably seem to have have is about institutional function.


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