A fuller and more balanced toolkit

A conjecture I’d love to get your reaction to. I’m wanting to explicitly position human institutions as tools, and ask of each two things: what are they best at, and what contribution vital to the functioning of a just society can they and they solely provide?

Bear with me for a moment here.

I include markets, amazingly supple and efficient tools for bringing latent information to light, and bundling that information in the form of a signal we call “price.” But that is all they can do, for if information cannot somehow be reflected in price it does not exist to the market, no matter how vitally salient it may be to our choices and life outcomes.

Government, the state, operates best at scale, and functions best when protecting us — not by any means exclusively the most vulnerable among us – from the doleful implications of a world purely organized along market lines. It is best at serving ends none of us could achieve when organized exclusively from the bottom up, no matter how dedicated, and at capturing collective benefit from circumstances the market does not recognize. But I am wary of its coercive power, and believe that these measures are close to all we should let it do for us.

Mutual aid and only mutual aid can teach us to avoid dependency on the benisons of the state, or the helpless lassitude and cynicism that tend to settle upon us when we are organized primarily as consumers of the things of the market. It teaches us the real power of cooperation — a kind of humble awe for what ordinary people are capable of when self-organized. None of the other institutions can come close to what it teaches us about the yoking-together of our energies and the commonality of our fates.

And nothing can stand before the right and obligation of individual conscience and sovereignty over the self, the ultimate wellspring of moral judgment, arbiter of claims to legitimacy on the part of various kinds of collectivity, and guarantor of freedom.

I believe that it is only when these tools are held in the proper balance, and turned to the tasks to which they are best suited, that we’re truly able to thrive, as individuals and collectivities. It makes me a very curious sort of anarchist, admittedly, in that I do see valid roles for despised institutions like the state and the market. And it surely does feel naïve and baldly arrogant to imagine that there may still be some contribution to be made by positing a new balance of these functions at this late date. But while I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m mistaken, or have overlooked something obvious, I just don’t recall, in all my reading, anyone ever having set things out quite this way. And I do think it will be a fruitful place for me, at least, to start in conceptualizing a useful balance of affordances and limitations in the design of a liberatory statecraft.

9 responses to “A fuller and more balanced toolkit”

  1. Adrian McEwen says :

    It’s the first time I’ve seen it explained in that manner, and I really like it – it does a good job of explaining my worldview for these things too, I think.

    Is part of the reason it’s not normally framed thus because most people arguing one approach over another tend to have a more extreme position that they’re arguing from?

    The positions of extremes – pure markets vs communism, etc. – makes for an easy position to explain, but counterintuitively ends up with an argument that’s harder to resolve.

    I’d hope that if you can succeed in moving the discussion into the middle, where we all (I can dream ;-) agree that there’s some level of all of those elements involved in the best solution, then maybe the debate will move up a level in its intelligence.

  2. Dan Lockton says :

    This rings true because your tools/affordances framing explicitly recognises that no single human institution is the “answer to everything”, despite what many people would apparently like. By this framing, being ideologically dedicated to the power of ‘the market’ would be like being dedicated to hammers, or flathead screwdrivers, and denying that anything else in the toolbox could ever be useful. The metaphor could be extended in lots of ways; we even have phrases like “blunt instrument” as applied to policy measures, for example.

    I would say the “turned to the tasks to which they are best suited” bit of your conclusion is maybe a more useful way of phrasing things than “balance”, if only because “balance” so often (e.g. in the media) seems to imply “present these two things in opposition” even when, as you point out, the point is that there is a whole toolkit of institutions with quite different affordances, not just opposites.

    Presenting some kind of “spec sheet” for different (forms of) institutions, laying out clearly what the affordances and constraints are, how they can be used together successfully, and in what circumstances, would be interesting.

  3. Dr Ibble says :

    Through reducing institutions into functions, you miss the reason they exist: Institutions are apparata of cultural transmission. Take them away and see progress reverse in a few generations.

  4. Martin Spindler says :

    Seeing institutions as tools aligns well with New Institutional Economics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_institutional_economics), which, being a primarily economic theory, however, gives primate to the market. It’s useful insofar as it tries to make explicit the social costs of markets. (Interesting along that line could be a further investigation into e Pigovian Tax movement and market externalities in general, because what the state/government allows its market not to have an infuence in price-setti is often informative as well.)

    What in my opinion is missing in this toolkit is a discussion of public goods, something that is beneficial but typically underprovided. I think this mighty be what you see as the Governments role, however this is not just protecting us from market forces, but giving rise to and providing goods that markets will not provide in sufficient quantities, at acceptable cost, or at all.

    I like the idea of “mutual aid” as an institution, however I think this is dangerously close to “Big Society” and “Philantrophy”-discussions that are currently used to undermine core service provisioning by the state. I know that is not what you intend, but I think there needs to be somewhat of a delineation.

  5. Eliz Pomeroy says :

    Beautiful….more on mutual aid please? How do you think competition relates to equity? Have you ever read, “….– the flash points – at which the pull of narrow self-interest is subjugated to concern for relative standing.” from Bolton and Ockenfels?

  6. Sebastian Deterding (@dingstweets) says :

    Interesting indeed, and I never have seen it put quite like this, though my hunch is you might want to speak to a political theorist :).

    The notion that social institutions are tools reflects Aristotelian politics (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics) in that he saw the politician as a craftsman, and politics as the means to the end of collective flourishing or well-being. The “balancing” of the different poles reminds me of anthroposophical notions of “threefolding” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_threefolding).

    Mostly, you seem to rearticulate through tool terms the principal distinction of state, market, and civil society (aka “the third sector”), only that you split civil society into mutual aid and individual responsibility (http://www.icnl.org/research/journal/vol10iss1/art_3.htm). Some theorists of the civil society argue that it is a third sector sitting in the middle of state, markets, and families – the latter pointing to your own historical situatedness IMHO that you speak of the private as the individual, not as the household (common from antiquity to the mid-20th century).

    One point of contention, though: It seems as if you are not doing governments full justice in that your take on them *presupposes* a well-functioning nation state with rule of law, a monopoly of violence, setting the legal and institutional frameworks in which markets can operate at all, etc. Framing government as the counterbalance that captures everything the market cannot do is in danger to subjugate society and politics as a whole to an economic logic (http://www1.worldbank.org/publicsector/politicaleconomy/FukuyamaPresent.pdf, http://www.effectivestates.org/ten.htm). Remember that the (democratic nation) state is (supposed to be) the way by which individuals give their co-existence a peaceful order expressive of the negotiation of their individual interests and values – a social contract.

    You may find that factually, in postindustrial, Western, democratic nation states, reality looks otherwise. But I would take that as a call to reaffirm the state understood thusly instead of acquiescing with the current state of affairs – also because I do not believe that individuals or civil society (“mutual aid”) on their own will ever be as effective in counter-acting the interest of pure market actors as civil society acting through the state.

  7. Sebastian Deterding (@dingstweets) says :

    One tiny Aristotelian addendum: If the final end is individual and collective well-being, then problems start to occur not only when one institution begins to colonize or overbear on the others (lack of balance), but also when the institutions start to switch from means to and end (tools) to self-reproducing ends in themselves: Profits for profit’s sake, power for power’s sake, individuality for individuality’s sake, cohesion for cohesion’s sake.

  8. Arvind Venkataramani says :

    This is an intriguing formulation, but I’m not sure how it’s useful; mostly because there are all sorts of blurry boundaries here.

    Markets, for instance, only bring certain kinds of latent information to light – those that are already part of a network of exchange. Anything potentially about to become part of that network is simply not present (and isn’t that the most useful information of all?) even if it is basically representable as price. Further, that price signal has a lot of noise: if I buy a new toaster because I can’t find a replacement part to fix the (mostly operational) old broken one, does that signify a greater demand for toasters? The market would say yes, a sensible human being would say no. So the best we can say about markets is they are a somewhat adequate way of reflecting exchange- and use-value related information… until we come up with better ways of measuring demand and determining value.

    Government and mutual aid bleed into together at certain scales. Which is operating at the village council level? Which in the battleground?

    I’d like to flip your definitions around: and suggest as tools the functions you ascribe to these institutions. That is:

    we need a way to surface distributed, latent information – currently we have markets, but we can do better
    we need a way to manage and deal with the commons of society equitably and sustainably – currently we have governments, but we can do better
    we need a way to organize and cooperatively pool resources – currently we have networks, neighbourhoods, associations, corporations… but we can do better
    we need a way to negotiate between the individual and the collective – currently we have rights frameworks combined with systemic coercive force. can we do better?

    Hm. That’s interesting, if nothing else, and it frees us from the constraints of having to justify or protest the institutions themselves.

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