Thursday, January 25, 2018

Informal Reciprocity Among Adult Family Members ≠ Healthy Family Dynamics Being a Form of Democratic Socialism

Stuart K. Hayashi




Image courtesy of Pixabay.





Among many people who call themselves free-market advocates, I frequently hear an assertion that goes along these lines: the family unit IS a democratic socialist institution that has a great track record. Everyone is expected to work unselfishly on behalf of the collective good of the family; it’s bad if it’s viewed as a transactional relationship where one says, "I will only do what my family members want if they first agree to do what I want them to do." Cited as proof of this is that it is not customary for family members to keep ledgers where they document what helpful deeds one family member has done for another, and then quantify in units how much help someone else still owes whom. Then these self-proclaimed free-marketers say that capitalist trade only becomes applicable outside the family unit. The libertarian-turned-Religious-Right activist Jennifer Roback Morse has written an entire book to advance this case.

As I have mentioned before, in the Stone Age there were seldom more than 250 people in a nomadic hunter-gatherer clan, and most members of the clan were genetically related to one another, rendering the entire clan a single family unit. The community was small enough that if someone was thought to be shirking his obligations, or thought to be cheating other clan members of their share, it would be easy to catch this malefactor and apply social pressure to change him. All interaction in the community was on a highly personal, face-to-face basis. Everyone knew everyone else, and "village" was hardly distinguished from "family."  This mode of living was overall collectivist.  These hunter-gatherers believed in gods and spirits that influenced the weather and the environment, but they did not judge these supernatural entities to be arbiters of morality. In these clans, there were shamans who recited specific chants to rebuke the gods for failing to provide good fortune to the clan.

But this dynamic changed when human beings became sedentary, formed cities, and switched to horticulture as their main source of food. As people developed these large cities, the family unit finally became distinct from the larger community. It was only then that you could think of someone as being a neighbor in your community while not being a member of your family or your household. In such larger communities, it concomitantly became easier for someone to break social rules and commitments in secret, not being caught until it was too late.

Hence, relationships became so impersonal that the citizens had to develop new social customs. Chieftains of large hunter-horticulturalist villages and kings of large Bronze-Age city-states could not possibly catch every single person who engaged in rape or theft in secret. Hence, these chieftains and kings told their subjects that gods and spirits are the arbiters that apply retribution for breaches of their rules about physical harm to others. The message was that if you break the king's rules and the king remains unaware, then it is the gods or spirits that will catch and punish you accordingly, and therefore you ought to behave even if you anticipate that the government will never learn of your transgressions.    That is how societies first came to see gods as the enforcers of ethical rules.

 Meanwhile, a household also had to develop new norms for interacting with people in this new category -- "those who are not from my household or family unit, and yet are from my community."  A single household had so many neighbors that it could not keep track of them all.   This is how, to maintain trust in this more impersonal setting, people developed written contracts.

As the socially conservative First Principles website puts it,

Socialism treats the national economy as an extended family and approaches economic organization from the perspective of household management. The sentiment “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” does surely characterize well-working family relationships. The members of a family generally do contribute to the family economy according to their abilities, both in dealing with the outside world and in handling household tasks. Allocations of family resources are generally made on the basis of needs and not according to the market value of the work performed by individual family members. Socialism takes the ethical and organizational principles of a family and seeks to apply them to a national economy.


First Principles continues that this dynamic is healthy in a nuclear family, as that sort of "society" is small and simple enough to manage, whereas the dynamic fails on the national economic scale, as the national economy is too large and complex.

Steven Horwitz of Bleeding Heart Libertarians explains, "Families are frequently organized in broadly socialist ways... Families...are able to organize themselves this way because all of the participants agree on an overarching goal. Intimate orders can and do have 'unified ends' where all the members are pursuing a particular purpose." He goes as far as asserting that all intra-organizational cooperation is socialistic and collectivist in this manner, and therefore each of these institutions can be thought of being an internally socialist society: "sports teams, the military,...many firms..."

This claim from reputed free-marketers -- that a healthy family unit is a form of collectivist "socialism that works," and that capitalist reciprocity only becomes necessary when a society becomes the size of a city -- is misleading.

First, it is true that it was the development of large cities, and the concomitant increase in the frequency of impersonal social interactions, that motivated our ancestors to formalize such institutions as legally codified private ownership in land, financial records, and written contracts. It is true that as societies grew larger and more impersonal, they developed the formal institutions that we usually associate with capitalism. It is also true that, in many respects, nomadic hunter-gatherer clans were more conventionally collectivistic than were the sedentary agricultural and urban societies that supplanted them.

But insofar as the expectation that other people reciprocate the values you bestow them is a mindset  that we are correct to associate with capitalism instead of socialism, it is erroneous to assume that some unselfish commitment to the group is the default, and that the expectation of reciprocity was some aberration that developed only later as communities grew large and impersonal. That expectation of reciprocity -- which serves as a fundamental basis for the market-related institutions that formalized later -- was present even in the nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.

As Larry Arnhart of Darwinian Conservatism phrases the issue,

...even in small foraging groups, there was some individual autonomy, and individuals were inclined to resist domination by the arbitrary wills of others. ... Our evolutionary ancestors were adapted for engaging in social exchange and detecting cheaters who violated the norms of fair exchange. Those evolved mental capacities for social engagement provided the psychological conditions in which the cultural evolution of a modern exchange society could succeed. ...in contrast to [Friedrich August von] Hayek, [Paul] Zak sees this cultural tradition of impersonal exchange as actualizing a potentiality of evolved human nature.

If you’re a new parent, it would be silly for you to expect your two-year-old to understand the magnitude of what you do for him or her. If your two-year-old seems to exhibit some ingratitude, then some latitude is in order, as you know that the  two-year-old cannot realistically be expected to have the experience and consequent knowledge that have informed you of the importance of gratitude.  It's not even realistic to expect adolescents to comprehend the full magnitude of what you, as a parent, have done for them.

But among family members who are adults, it is just to expect an informal reciprocity. People seldom think of the matter in these terms. As Mike Wallace framed it to Ayn Rand in his television interview with her,

Should husbands and wives, Ayn, tally up at the end of the day, and say, "Well, now wait a minute: I love her if she has done enough for me today," or "She loves me if I have properly performed my functions"?

No, you don’t document and quantify who does what for whom, not in such a clinical fashion. But if someone is consistently abusive, your goodwill has gone unreciprocated, and you have grounds to distance yourself from that family member. I do not think that such distancing is something to be taken lightly -- it is not something you should do based primarily on a bald demagogue telling you, after just a single telephone conversation, that you ought to disown your parents and siblings. But if, upon years of sober deliberation upon your part, you ascertain that there is little hope for this relationship unless your adult family member changes his or her abusive ways, distancing yourself from that adult family member deserves to be recognized as an option. This means value-for-value exchanges do apply among adult family members.

Likewise, it is misleading to conclude that because everyone within an organization works toward a common goal, and because the organization's members do not document the intra-organizational debt each member owes to another, that it follows that socialism is practiced within the organization. That is fallacious.

 When you go to work for a firm, there is an implicit agreement that not only will the firm pay you what it contractually promises to pay you for your work, but that this arrangement will be one of mutual respect, and that both sides will continue to find the arrangement emotionally fulfilling enough for the work relationship to continue. (Job satisfaction is part of the utility you gain from your job, on top of the financial remuneration.)

 If your employers pay the sums they promised but call your nasty epithets and dismiss your concerns, then the fulfillment of the promise to pay you financially does not erase the fact that the value you have brought to the organization is not being reciprocated adequately. Likewise, if your co-workers are abusive toward you and your employers fail to rectify this, then, again, even if you are paid as promised, the value you bring is not being reciprocated adequately. In both cases, if you leave the organization as a result, it is on account of your expectation of reciprocity going unmet -- the expectation of reciprocity that is essential to market transactions.

That is hardly altruistic or collectivist.  Auguste Comte, who coined the word altruism, clarified that true social collectivism demands that loyalty and service to one's collective be prioritized above any expectation of reciprocity.

We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service. ... However great our efforts, the longest life, well employed, will never enable us to pay back more than a scarcely perceptible part of what we received. And yet only to our condition of complete payment could we be authorized to require reciprocity of services [boldface is mine].



Recall from this post that the word that Comte used in the original French was réciprocité, the direct French equivalent to reciprocity.

It's not the case that a completely socialist, collectivist, or self-sacrificial orientation -- where reciprocity is not desired or expected -- is, or ought to be, the default for someone in interacting with others. It is healthy when, even as the default, an adult expects a reciprocal exchange of value in interactions with other adults.

 It is more accurate to say that when an adult interacts with adult family members and other adults with whom he or she is familiar, the reciprocal exchange of values is informal and need not be clinically documented or measured in quantifiable units.  That does not alter the fact that a healthy, quasi-capitalist trade in values is involved.  And when this adult interacts with strangers in a more impersonal setting, the impersonal nature of the context serves as the impetus for a formalization of the exchange of values, which is why property deeds, bookkeeping, accounting, contracts, and quantification of values are introduced into the exchange. Mutual trust is a form of reciprocity.  The reciprocity should always be there, even if it is only informal.