Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Community, Association and Markets

Ever since Blackadder turned me on to them, I've been listening to the weekly EconTalk podcasts. A couple weeks ago, the guest was Stephen Marglin of Harvard, author of the recent book The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community There are some very interesting things about this interview, though other aspects of it left me deeply unsatisfied.

Marglin's basic thesis is, as his title indicates, that "thinking like an economist" (specifically, making decisions based on an analysis that almost exclusively considers factors of measurable loss and gain) undermines human community. More broadly speaking, Marglin sees personal choice and mobility as detrimental to traditional elements of community.

Now, this is a line of thinking that I'm not generally sympathetic to. However, some of Marglin's distinctions and arguments had enough appeal to me that I keep coming back to them in mental argument.

One of the things I found most interesting about Marglin's analysis was his distinction between "community" and "association". By his definition, community is not merely a place where one finds companionship, society and mutual aid, but also a group which one cannot leave without fairly serious cost. According to the old adage that you can chose your friends but you can't choose your family, community is much more along the lines of family than friends.

An association may seem to have nearly all the same benefits as community: companionship, society and mutual aid. But an association is a group which one joins based on some sort of identified commonality and which one may leave at any time with fairly little cost.

Marglin argues that many structures which used to be communities in the past have become associations. While people used to experience serious costs if they left their occupations or neighborhoods, society and societal expectations have changed to make these relatively painless moves. Similarly, people now church shop with relative ease, while in the past leaving a church was a nearly unthinkable move.

While we naturally find our ability to choose our company to be a good thing, Marglin argues that by making "community" an optional rather than necessary part of our lives, we have fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship we have with others in our lives.

Now, I'm profoundly grateful to have been able to choose to leave the inland valleys of the Los Angeles area where I was raised and move my family to a region with values more in tune with our own, and housing values that are within our income -- not to mention a much better company that I now work for than my employer in California.

At the same time, however, I have a certain sense of the value of community of the sort one is born into and has little choice about membership in. I was born into such a community, though of a somewhat quirky variety, via my parents close set of friends, and though I now live far from these people, I still find myself very much in touch with the same set of people and their children. Perhaps not constantly, but with more regularity and permanence even than my extended family.

Still, what was once a fairly geographically close community (nearly everyone living within a 10 mile radius) has become a group of people who keep track of each other on the internet and meet only at funerals and such. By Prof. Marglin's measure, it seems fairly clear that freedom and markets have taken a serious tole on that community.

Now, Marglin doesn't have a clear answer on how much one should restrict people's ability to make free gain/loss decisions about what to do with their lives. He's sure that we need to give more regard to communities, a good which he believes economics is fundamentally incapable of measuring, but he's not really sure how much we need to pull back on freedom of career, movement, trade, etc.

This stating of a problem without much of a hint of a solution was one of the things which I found very frustrating about his argument. And yet there were other elements which rang surprisingly true to me.

For instance, all to often, when people announce that they are suspicious of markets, they come out instead in favor of some sort of centralization and distribution. Many today announce that they believe markets are bad for society in regards to health care, and that instead the federal government should provide us all with a single payer health plan. Similarly, a fair number of people believe that the centralized state should provide a comprehensive "safety net" against unemployment and poverty, rather than requiring that people rely upon their own work and resources (and the charity of others) to provide for all their needs.

Marglin, however, takes things in a very different direction. He makes the following example: He's looking out the window at his barn. Now, if his barn burned down, he would call his insurance company, they would send out an adjuster, the adjuster would certify that the barn had burned down, the insurance company would issue a check, he would hire a contractor, and eventually the barn would be rebuilt. However, if this were two hundred years ago, if his barn burned down, he would need to rely on his neighbors to rally round him and help him rebuild his barn. He would rely on them because it was more work than he could perform or pay for himself, and they would rely on him in their turn.

In other words, insurance helps people avoid the need of relying on their neighbors. Insurance frees you from needing to have a strong, mutual aid relationship with your community. He points to the modern Amish, who refuse to use insurance, as an example of a group of people who have chosen to avoid individual goods such as insurance, have done so because they believe that the reliance upon each other which is central to community will be destroyed by such things.

Now, Marglin doesn't go into this, but it strikes me that one of the forces that, in a world without individual protections such as insurance, unemployment benefits, etc., one of the forces that keeps community together is the implicit fear that if one does not cleave to one's community, one will be left alone when one is in one's hour of need.

And yet, it is precisely this fear that one may be abandoned by the community that drives us to want insurance, unemployment benefits, welfare, etc. Our fear that the other members of our family, parish, neighborhood, etc. may not take care of us lead us to seek guaranteed protection from the biggest kid on the block -- the national state. And yet, this very move is what is most likely to both enable us to be on the outs with our families, parishes and neighborhoods, and also make those communities feel that they have less responsibility for us.

This really struck me when I came to it. All along as I was thinking about what Marglin was saying, I was mentally rejoining: "Whatever destructive effects that markets may have on community, it must surely be outweighed by one's ability, given sufficient choice, to surround oneself with people who really are kindred spirits."

For all that I often find myself wishing that I lived in a neighborhood that was a community, rather than living 10-20 minutes drive from all our friends, I invariably find this desire outweighed by my gratitude that I am able to socialize primarily with other devout Catholic families with kids rather than whatever people happen to live next door to me. And yet, as I consider it from this point of view, I wonder if what causes the widely fractured religious, social and cultural views that make me prefer to spend my time with the people I choose rather than the people I live near is, in fact, the lack of reliance on those around us which the modern individualistic economy allows. I find the idea of relying on those geographically around me (as opposed to perhaps those in my church or my family) unattractive because I have little in common with them. But perhaps the reason why, by this time, I have little in common with them is because the ability of people to move and switch jobs and protect themselves from disaster via state services, insurance and all the other trappings of the modern, individualistic economy, has allowed people for form much more diverse and at times divisive views than they would if they seriously relied upon their neighbors for essential personal, financial and physical help.


Foxfier said...

I have experimented with the idea of a "community."

In fact, I joined an online "community" of people who were supposedly organized, in online games, to act much like the communities you mention.

We happened to end up in a sub-group with a leader who was having personal problems and dislikes ANY couples who do not agree with every word he gives out.

They attacked and then abandoned us.

I do not believe, in this day and age, that such a community can be created without a DIRE form of faith to back it up.

Darwin said...

I should probably clarify, I'm not clear that there's any way to "get there from here". It seems pretty clear to me that most of the time if you set out to build a community from scratch you either do not have enough motive for people to hold together (Marglin argues that there pretty much has to be a religious motive as with the Amish) or your commitment to staying together empowers people who do not take the best interests of others to heart to make everyone miserable. What an artificial committed community lacks is the organically built-up mores and traditions which help keep people from hurting and offending others.

Also, whenever we look at institutions of the past, we look at them from an outside perspective. Clearly, most people were all too happy to leave their small towns, neighborhoods, etc. and start moving around, and although one can theorize that they didn't know what they were in for, it seems at least as likely that they experiences problems with small communities which we don't fully appreciate. Certainly, my dad's mother who came from a small town in Iowa was all too happy to live in a 50s era suburb instead of a small town.

I did find his points about reliance on others somewhat applicable, though. I think it helped underline for me one of the reasons why I really don't like most nationwide "safety net" solutions.

Anonymous said...

Now we understand your love affair with the HOA better. I have lived in 3 neighborhoods over the last 5 years.
A - Townhouse. Within a 5 minute walk there were 1000-1500 people. (~8 person/sq mi)
B - Duplex in modern subdivision. 5 minute walk there were about 100-200 people. (~1 person/sq mi)
C - House built in 1900 on city lot. There are 750-1200 people within a 5 minute walk. (~7 person/sq mi)

In both A and C we truly had neighbors. In the case of B, we knew to people on the other side of the duplex and knew of a couple others, but we didn't have constant contact. My wife has numerous friends, but the neighbors are more important. When my kids want to go play, we can take a short walk around the corner to one of our neighbors. I couldn't imagine having to drive for play dates. Well actually I could. It was what my wife had to do when we lived in the duplex. It was a pain and a lonely existance. I wouldn't trade my small city lot for a large lot in a 1000 thousand years.

Anonymous said...

Egads. Gross miscalculation on the density there. It should be 180K/mi*mi, 20K/mi*mi, and 140K/mi*mi. Admittedly the numbers are high, but it is a very small area being measured.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:


Darwin said...

Home Owners Association -- also known as the local fascist guild. They send me threatening letters every so often saying things like, "When it stops raining, mow your lawn, or else we shall be forced to do it ourselves and bill you."

We get along all right with our neighbors, but they're not people we spend time with particularly. The great advantage of our house (not on a big lot, incidentally, it's just that nearly no one is home during the day and we don't have much in common with the lesbians who live on one side of us or the Spanish-only speakers on the other) is that it's one mile from where I work, so I can walk in good weather if need be. However, it's about four miles from our parish, and all our friends (through our parish) are scattered within in a 5 mile radius of the parish, but often in different directions.

mrsdarwin said...

I really couldn't go so far as to characterize our life in the suburb as "a pain and a lonely existence".

And I'd be happy to live much further away from people to be free of the HOA, which is a community in the worst sense -- we can't be free of it without either incurring the significant financial hardship of moving, or the significant legal trouble of ignoring it.

Rick Lugari said...

HOA aka Sturmabteilung, Home Owner's Association.

It's a well organized association of petty tyrants bent on oppressing the common man and demanding conformity at all costs. The more active the member, the more likely you wouldn't want to associate with him/her.

I was raised in two kinds of environments, an old suburb much like the one I live in now and a rural setting near a small town (village officially). I have fond memories of both, but if I could afford to choose I would move to back the rural environment.

Darwin said...

Interestingly, at least judging from our circle of acquinance, neighborhood socializing seems to be a luxury item in this area. The people we know who live in expensive neighborhood with big houses (think 200k+ houses with 3000sq/ft plus houses) seem to have a lot of socializing in their neighborhoods. Our own neighborhood, with <130k values and <2000sq/ft houses tends to be a ghost town, though we run into neighbors occasionally when out doing yard work on weekends.

Anonymous said...

Being an economist, I feel as though I should respond to Marglin’s argument. I don’t see a problem with “thinking like an economist” as long as the issue at hand is truly an economic one; that is, it pertains to economic efficiency and optimizing welfare. However, where economics goes wrong is in making every behavioral decision a purely economic one. In that regard, “thinking like an economist” probably does promote radical autonomy and the illusion of freedom of choice: choosing to end a marriage or a pregnancy are just a couple of decisions that modern people approach from a “Homo economicus” framework rather than a religious or philosophical one.

Having said that, I still don’t think Marglin’s thesis is entirely correct. The stark distinction between “associations” and “communities,” while theoretically interesting, seems to be a false one. Just how costly does it have to be to leave an association before it’s considered a community? I suspect that these things lie along a continuum, and that people are forming different types of associations today than in the past, but that we all derive some sense of community from these associations (whatever they might be). Also, there are types of associations (or communities?) that seem particularly pernicious (e.g., urban gangs) yet no rational, utility-maximizing agent would join them – so why do they exist if we’re so calculating?

Marglin has a valid point that, when faced with plenty (as we do in modern, industrial market economies) people tend to see less need for community. But I don’t think I would go so far as to advocate – what? – less choice or less prosperity as an antidote. Community still exists, albeit in a more fragmented form (as Darwin’s example points out). It's fashionable today in academic circles to bemoan the loss of community, but a lot of those same academics probably aren't very community-seeking themselves (church-going, anyone?). They have valid points -- I'm thinking particularly of urban theorist Joel Kotkin on this one -- but I'd argue that communities are still strong in places. I live in one of those LA valley suburbs which are supposed to be socially dysfunctional, yet every summer our neighborhood holds a potluck and gathers for some community building.

Kevin J. Jones said...

I've long wondered whether the youth revolt of the 1960s could have happened if parents didn't have social security to fall back upon. Before that, adults needed to maintain their children's loyalty and obedience to support them in their old age.

Recall Christ's attack on people who give all their money to the temple, rather than caring for their parents as required by the law. He even cites for comparison OT law that punishes *with execution* those who curse their parents.

That's how harsh some traditional societies dealt with people who rejected their unchosen community.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

For all that I often find myself wishing that I lived in a neighborhood that was a community, rather than living 10-20 minutes drive from all our friends, I invariably find this desire outweighed by my gratitude that I am able to socialize primarily with other devout Catholic families with kids rather than whatever people happen to live next door to me.

I think that with a true community, though, most of your neighbors would share your religious beliefs, at least on the surface. Check out the comment left by SteveG (towards the bottom, on 3/31/08 at 1:10pm) to my post on a similar subject. I thought that article he linked to about "the downside of diversity" had some really interesting food for thought on what a community really is.