5.12 Social Inventions

A social invention is when society discovers a new way to increase social performance. Individuals in a world environment attribute their results to their acts, but in social environments most of our gains arise from the acts of others. Societies therefore invented accountability, that we are responsible for the effects of our acts not only on ourselves but also on others. Who actually discovered this is lost in the mists of history, if it was even one person, but even so it was an invention, a social invention.

Forming a social unit engages synergy but disconnects people from the direct consequences of their acts. Justice—punishing unfairness—is one way for a community to restore this. Unfairness is here not merely inequity—the unequal distribution of outcomes—but distributing outcomes according to contribution. For example, consider the following story:

An old Zen master worked in the community garden. His pupils told him he shouldn’t work due to his age. He continued to do so, so one day they hid his garden tools. From that day he didn’t eat. Scared their master might die, they returned his tools. As he raked the lawn again he said to them: No work, no eat. He knew that it is wrong to take without giving.

Studies suggest that people intuitively recognize justice and so tend to avoid unjust situations (Adams, 1965). People even prefer fairness to personal benefit (Lind & Tyler, 1988), while chimpanzees are simple outcome maximizers who follow Rule 1 entirely (Jensen et al., 2007). Criminals destabilize society, but justice changes the dynamic by punishing unfair acts. If individuals seek revenge on those who “wronged” them or their family, cheating is unprofitable over time, as today’s defection is paid back with interest tomorrow. If a society can make unfair interactions a bad choice, selfish people will prefer mutual synergy to mutual conflict, i.e. justice aligns individual good and social good. Unfortunately, in “an eye for an eye” cultures one revenge act creates another, giving endless vendetta cycles, as in the Middle East. Revenge was the precursor of modern justice, as individuals administered justice personally, rather than leaving it to society. The case has been made that our entire justice system of police, laws, courts and prisons aims to deny unfair acts (Rawls, 2001).

People often fail to see how the community level operates. A theft is “good” for the robber but is bad for the community. If someone steals $100 and is caught penniless, a court may sentence them to a year in jail, but if the police, trial and incarceration costs are over $100,000, and the robbed get no return, a “rational” person might ask “Where is the value?” If everyone loses, why waste money prosecuting? The error is to apply a personal perspective to a social level problem. For a community, $100,000 may be a small price to pay for social order. The state works at the community level not the individual level; e.g. depression reduces productivity but no laws deny it because it affects people not communities.

Social rules are about changing social interaction contingencies, not individual profit or loss; e.g. the 1980 clean up of New York crime changed the social environment, from one where shootings were common to one where it was safe to walk the streets. The increased productivity of an entire city was worth the effort. Spending thousands of dollars in police, court and prison costs to prosecute a hundred dollar theft is a good deal on the community level, as successful crimes create copycats and one defection can snowball into a social collapse, e.g. if a fast-food restaurant is kept clean people drop less rubbish, but if it is messy they drop more. So it is less work to keep an area fully clean than partly clean due to social factors. Giuliani’s clean up of crime in New York cost millions but generated a synergy gain of billions because it followed Wilson’s Broken Windows Theory.

Democracy was the social invention that a community selects its leaders by vote rather than physical conflict (Mandelbaum, 2002). The conflict now occurs on the information level rather than the physical level. Democracy vests the power to control the community in the community itself rather than a king or dynasty, so democracies also tend to limit terms of office. A dictatorship has a center to hijack but a democracy that distributes control to the people does not. This turns out to be better than trusting central elites, however benevolent, not because it is more efficient but because it allows anarchy free transitions of power. Given a human history of bloody power struggles, it is always amazing to watch a democratic leader peacefully hand over control to a successor, such as when Bush handed over power to Obama.

Democracies combine individual freedom, social order and resistance to hijack. They produce more because free people contribute more work, more ideas and more research. They also self-regulate more, reducing security costs (Tyler, 1999). The allied democracies overcame the Axis dictatorships in World War II by producing more as well as fighting better. Democratic nations have increased over time not because democracy is “nice” but because it is productive. Note that currently China is challenging this ideal with the idea that a benevolent “emperor” is better, as Plato declared.