Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Individual and the Collective Pt2

Last post we observed the dynamics of the collective in the terms of a small tribe, and indicated that at this size, things worked pretty well. That is not to say that error modes were not possible, but that when error modes arose, there were mechanisms in place to deal with those errors. Essentially, at this scale, the ability of individuals to veil their actions in a wall of secrecy did not exist. While it is certainly possible for the individual to lie, cheat, steal and deceive, such actions could only be carried out to a limited extent, and carried repercussions that were deleterious to that individuals long term well being. 

For example, let's say a farmer lied about the size of his crops. In a small tribe, it would be pretty obvious that he had lied, because many witnesses would exist who could refute his claims. His attempts to deceive would be transparent, and the repercussions of his deception harmful mostly to himself.

And I can hear some of you out there saying so what? If he raised the crops by himself, he's entitled to do what he wishes with them. 

The problem is that in this situation we are discussing the collective. And as an individual within that collective, drawing upon benefits from that collective, the individual has accepted responsibilities to that collective.  The collective's warriors have protected him, the collective's educators have educated him, the collectives other food providers have assisted him in various ways, such as helping him till his fields, provided seed from the community storehouse, etc. We are not discussing a farmer who gathered his seeds from the wild, cleared his land single handedly, and so on. We are discussing a farmer who's ability to grow crops and provide food has been augmented by his participation in a collective.  While his desire to "increase his benefit" to himself is understandable, it is an example of "short term thinking" that ignores the consequences of such actions on his long term interactions with the collective. Simply put, his attempts to deceive will lead to the collective seeing him as a parasite, and penalizing him via loss of benefits created by the collective. In the worst case, he might lose his right to even be a member in the collective.

Which, since I am using an example in which there is only the single collective, and nowhere else to go, means that rather than allow him to become a predator now that he has been expelled as a parasite,  his head goes on a pike to remind others of the consequences of harming the collective.                                                                                                                                                                                 
And yes, I am continually going to use that pike, because history has.

If it is not yet obvious, I am extremely strict in how I define "Self Sufficiency". To be perfectly blunt, unless you are in a situation such as I described of being the sole inhabitant of a deserted island, without tools, or even knowledge provided to you from a collective, you cannot make the claim to "derive no benefits" from the collective. The very fact that you are sitting there, able to read this post on your computer, is a result of the education you received as a member of a collective, and the provision of that computer as a result of collective action making the very existence of your computer possible. In fact, the very existence of language itself is only possible because the collective exists.

And also let me make it very plain that the collective and "government" are not the same thing. The government is the system used by the collective to self organize and self govern itself. The collective creates government as a necessary outcome of organization, but that government can be one of any number of types depending on the will of the collected individuals who comprise the collective. Any "authority" given to "the government" is thus directly derived from the individuals who have consented to be governed.

So, it should be plain at this point that under ideal conditions, the existence of the collective is a positive sum game, in which every individual chooses to participate in exchange for the benefits to be gained from participation, and in which every member, from the lowest "hired hand" to the chosen "head" understands that participation in the collective is a matter of individual alignments of self interest.

It should also be obvious that under ideal conditions, the collective has a system of checks and balances that prevents individuals from engaging in short term self beneficial behaviors that cause harm to the collective in the long term. Because such actions harm the long term health of the entire collective, and thus harm every individual within the collective, the collective will act in its own self interest and penalize the individual taking them.

And yet, one needs only to look at the world as is to realize that those checks and balances seem to be absent.


Well, let's go back to our farmer example.  Now, instead of a single farmer let's assume you have thousands, each of whom contributes different amounts to the collective. Next assume you have no way to match any individual to the amount they contribute, because all you know is the amount contributed, not who contributed it. Let's say the amounts are all tossed into a hat on slips of paper and you pull them out randomly. And let's say that you know that 10% of those figures are bald faced lies.

Now... tell me who has lied about their contribution?

So, why can't you?  Because you no longer have enough information. Because the numbers are no longer attached to individuals. In essence a veil of secrecy has been placed between you and the farmers. Because you can no longer "see" the farmers, they can now do anything they wish, and inevitably, some of them will chose to take the strategy of short term profit in which they receive all the benefits of being part of the collective, but do not contribute to the collective in an equivalent manner. They have lost their accountability.

And that is the error mode we encountered once we grew beyond the tribal stage. The checks and balances we had at the tribal stage no longer worked, because it became possible to keep SECRETS.  Once it became impossible for anyone to know what everyone else in the tribe was doing, because there were just too many people for that to be possible, short term strategy overwhelmed long term strategy.

So, why really, is that such a bad thing? I am quite sure some of you are thinking hiding from the government is a good thing, so rather than looking at this from the point of view of the chief, let's instead start lower down the chain.

So let's say you are a farmer. You have 10 people working on your farm. And let's say you decided for some reason to divide your farm into ten sections, and build a wall around each section so you have no idea what your workers are doing in their section. They of course tell you that they are doing the work you need done, but you have to take their word for it, since you put up those walls. Now let's say that at harvest time, when you are depending on them to deliver the crops you paid them to deliver, instead, two of them say that they had a "bad harvest".

What would you do? You paid them for a certain amount of crop. They claimed they did their jobs. They gave no prior notice of any problems, they just suddenly don't have the crop you paid them to produce.

Bet you are regretting those walls now, aren't you? After all, you have absolutely no way to know if they are telling the truth or lying to you. Nor could anyone else. What went on behind that "Wall" is completely "Secret." Maybe that individual simply took your "payment" and did nothing. Maybe they took the payment, and had a fantastic harvest, but plan to sell it the next town over instead of paying you what they owe. But no matter what the cause, you made a considerable investment for no return, right? And I am pretty sure, you want to hold them accountable too. But how can you, when they are behind that wall of secrets? Why, you'd have to tear down that wall...

And get a little transparency, yes?

But wait, let's complicate things even further, and become one of the hired workers. You've just worked really hard all year, and it's your effort alone that produced such a wonderful crop, right? After all, the seed, fertilizer, equipment, instructions on how to grow the crop... none of that means a damn thing, because it was your labor alone that produced the outcome. That crop is YOURS damn it, and you can do what you want with it, so why should you repay the farmer? Especially since he can't see you through that wall. And if he tries to come through that wall? Well, you have every right to kill him to keep from having to give him anything!

I do hope you are seeing the sarcasm here. After all, it SHOULD be obvious that that a deal was made, and payment is due.

But, this is the argument generally made to justify the "taxes are theft" meme. And like that argument, it ignores the initial investment made by the "collective" (represented by the farmer in this example) in order to justify short sighted self interest on the part of the hired hand. The Farmer provided the environment, the seeds, and everything to the hired hand, making it possible to even grow the crop in the first place. Without that initial investment, the hired hand could have scratched at the dirt all day with his fingers, and gotten the same result he delivered in the end. Nothing. This is a Non-Mutually Beneficial Transaction.

And that makes the hired hand... a parasite.

But let's turn this around again. Let's keep the same setup, the walled off farm, but this time, let's suppose that the Farmer has a walkway around the top of the wall, and the hired hands only agreed to work for the farmer because he says he can get them twice as much for that crop than they can themselves. The hired hands can't hide what they do from the farmer, so when the crop comes due, they hand it over, expecting to get a much higher personal benefit in exchange for their labor as part of the farmer's "collective" than they would as individuals. And let's say that instead of twice the profit, he sells it for five times as much, then turns around and tells the hired hand's he's so sorry, but he only got them the same amount they would have gotten alone, and pockets the rest? Sure, the hired hands did not get "harmed", but don't you think that they would have lynched the farmer if they had known he had lied to them about how much profit their labor had actually returned?  And yet, that wall of secrecy, in this case, prevented the farmer from being accountable to the hired hands. And we have here another Non-Mutually Beneficial Transaction.

Which makes the farmer... a parasite.

But.... I'll lay you odds, some of you out there are going, "but that just good business!"

And from the point of view of short term self interest, it is indeed "good business", because of the veil of secrecy. Because of that veil, the farmer avoided being accountable to the hired hands, and thus exploited them of the benefits that they COULD have earned from their labors.  Had that veil not existed, and the hands known precisely how much profit had been made from their labor, they would have likely insisted on making a much more equitable split in which everyone profited to a greater degree.

And that is WHY short term self interest became so overwhelmingly dominant once accountability was lost, and secrecy became possible.  Because it is ALWAYS in the "Farmers" best interest to prevent being held accountable to the hired hands, just as it is ALWAYS in the farmers best interest to ensure that the hired hands remain accountable to him. So long as the Farmer can keep secrets, but the hired hands can't, the farmer "wins". Just replace the word farmer with "elites" and hired hands with "masses" and I'm quite sure you'll understand what I am getting at.

This is known as "Asymmetry of information." And to be quite honest, we've become so accustomed to this asymmetry, that we've come to view it as a "necessary" and "good" thing. In many cases, we've even confused it with "privacy." The problem is that Privacy is a socially granted privilege, where secrecy is a forced deceptive action.

To clarify, imagine you are in a large barracks style dormitory. You have your bed, and that's it. Whether you like it or not, your every single action is visible to every single individual in that dorm... and yet, given a short period of time, I will lay you odds that every person in that dorm will begin automatically ignoring any activities by any other individuals except those they are interacting with at that moment. In fact, I'll even give you a simpler situation, a party. How many parties have you been at where you couldn't even describe what the people ten feet away across a room were doing because you "weren't paying attention?"

Privacy is a form of "Social invisibility" that every individual chooses to grant to other individuals. Even in situations of complete transparency, privacy is possible, because it is a privilege that has to be granted by individuals to other individuals.

But secrecy is not. There is no choice involved in secrecy, only deception. It's a wall of blindness intended to prevent knowledge of what occurs behind it. And when it's in place, and accountability is lost, inevitably, short term self interest begins to make all the decisions.

And ultimately, that is a bad thing.

To see why, let's keep looking at our farm, but now we are going to examine this farm under two conditions. With walls, and without walls.

In farm 1, with walls, our ten hired hands received a profit exactly equal to what they would have received working as individuals. Let's call this "break even". They all worked collectively, but none of them gained any advantage from doing so, because all of the advantage went to the farmer, i.e. their landlord. Even though they each produced more than they would have individually, only the landlord is better off. Now, while this worked the first time, let's take it several years down the road.

Now, because of the wall, the hands couldn't know precisely what the landlord was doing with the efforts of their labor, but you can be pretty sure they got hints. When the landlord starts wearing expensive clothes as he walks the walls and looks down on them, or when they see the top of his new mansion, or notice that he's putting on a lot of weight while they are barely getting enough to eat, well, it's going to become more and more obvious that someone is profiting, and it's not them.

And, since each and every one of them is a selfish animal only looking out for their own self interests, and only joined the collective because they desired to acquire benefits for themselves greater than they could acquire individually, they pretty soon realize that their self interest, and the farmers self interest are NOT ALIGNED. Eventually, after talking to one another and realizing they each have aligned self interests, and that they each have a single obstacle to realizing their personal self interest, well that is usually when a nice sharp pike comes out, an axe is taken to the wall, and the farmer get's divested of all the profit he's made at the hands expense, as well as getting a nice close shave in the bargain. Ah well, click, click, click, click, click.... Boom.

You see, farmer 1 forgot one very important fact about being part of the collective. It exists ONLY because it is mutually advantageous to every individual in the collective, and when it ceases to be an advantage for everyone, the collective tends to take steps to return it to a mutually advantageous situation by removing the elements that stopped it from being a mutually advantageous situation.

Now I won't lie and say that the Farmer doesn't have options for trying to prevent the hands from settling things with him, but that's not what this essay is about. Besides, I'm quite certain you already know all about suppression and oppression, and how it usually ends up creating exactly the kind of violent revolt it's supposedly suppressing.

So instead, we'll switch to Farm number 2. The one without walls, where the farmer and the farm hands have symmetrical information on each other.  In this situation, the farmer has also made the same "contract" with the hands, and when he goes off and actually makes five times the profit, he can't hide that from the hands.  So... he has to share that excess profit.  He still makes his share, plus his share of the excess, so he profits, but so do the hands.

Now, let's assume that the hands use that excess profit to create improvements to the land they have contracted to manage, so that next year, they have crops that are, say, 50% larger than the previous year. Now, you have the 10 hands, plus what is effectively 5 extra, without having to split the profits 15 ways.  So the Farmer now goes, and makes the same five times, etc, etc... At the end of that same several years, Farmer 2 not only has equaled the profits of Farmer 1... he gets to keep his head and his profits in the bargain!

Yes, this is simplified. I'm making a point here. In example 1, sure, the farmer made more per year, at least at first, but his short term strategy had the nasty long term effect of getting his head a nice spot decorating a pike.  Farmer 2 didn't make as much profit as Farmer 1 did at first, but because his hands also profited, they didn't keep making the exact same amount of crops each year, but increased them, every year, to the point that Farmer 2 ended up earning just as much, but because his self interest and the hired hands self interest remained aligned, he gets to KEEP MAKING that profit. So next year, while Farmer 1 is busy rotting, Farmer 2 is enjoying the benefits of a mutually beneficial transaction.

Click, click, click, clickclickclickclickclick.... hey, this gun doesn't have a bullet in it.

To decorate a pike, or not to decorate a pike, that is the fundamental difference between short term strategy and long term strategy. And why secrecy is really not a good thing to have around.  Transparency keeps you honest, and honesty keeps the collectives self interests more closely aligned.

Next time, I'll discuss why this is so difficult to manage in a massive collective, and how both transparency and accountability are likely to be restored.

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