by L. Reichard White
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
Research has now revealed that from the age of three, toddlers don’t forget a debt.
Does that strike you as odd? Why would toddlers even recognize the concept of “debt,” let alone not forget one? Have AmEX, VISA, Capital 1 and MasterCard already gotten to them?
Clearly it’s not the credit industry that explains this. At such an early age, genetics must be involved. But why would Mother Nature give us an instinctive genetically specified understanding of “debts” — and the capacity to remember them — as early as toddler-hood?
She must have had very very good reasons.
The interesting thing is that you have certainly experienced the results of this gift from Mother in your adult life and they’re very important if usually under-appreciated, particularly because they tend to be subliminal and instinctive rather than explicit. For example, you know who needs to buy the next round of drinks — and which soccer mom needs to drive this week.
You may consciously work out a schedule or not, but everyone takes a turn or there will be problems.
Once you consider such things, they seem rather normal and deceptively mundane, but keep in mind that Mother Nature had to go to a lot of trouble over a long period of time to make things seem that way.
But why would Mother take the time and trouble to give us that innate understanding of debt — and apparently a little subliminal accounter app to keep track of it?
The answer starts with the fact that, as suggested by Rosseau and others, compared to other organisms, we humans are born largely “tabula rasa,” that is as “blank slates,” and so rather than being born with most of our behaviors and knowledge, we have to acquire them later.
For example, while hoofed animals can walk within a few minutes of birth and run soon after, it takes us approximately three months to learn to merely crawl.
That means that like us, nearly all our ancestors’ key knowledge, skills and behaviors had to be acquired by experience, or, preferably, by learning from someone else. Learning from someone else avoids the many dangers of learning by experience — and the monumental handicap of continually needing to reinvent the wheel.
The fact that we don’t inherit our key knowledge, skills, information, and behaviors means that each one of us becomes a depository of different, often unique — and sometimes critical — information, skills, knowledge — and particularly, experience. And these exist only in our individual brains.
This dispersion of unique knowledge and experience means the essential human data-base and operating system is spread out and distributed among all the individuals around us.
Madrigal knows which herbs help heal wounds — and how to find and use them. Gaud can always find that hidden water-hole during the semi-annual desert crossing.
But our ancestors had a problem we don’t have: They were indeed pre-historic — that is, they existed before writing was available to write hisstory down in black and white.
The loss of either Madrigal or Gaud could be catastrophic to everyone. Ditto the loss of other group members and their special knowledge, information and experience.
Mother Nature — or as some like to call Her “The Theory of Biological Evolution by Natural Selection” — wasn’t oblivious to this problem and so gave us an appropriate and nearly unique set of behaviors which prod us to keep each other alive. By convention, folks call these behaviors “altruism.”
But altruism creates its own problems. Anthropologist, scholar, and all-around mensch Christopher Boehm puts it this way:
“How can cheerful, altruistic cooperators, people guided by generous feelings and positive expectations about cooperation, avoid being exploited by lazy slackers and outright cheaters, or by opportunistic bullies who take advantage of situations by force?” –Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, p. 212
The problems with “lazy slackers” and “outright cheaters” taking advantage of generous productive folks are fairly obvious. Opportunistic bullies who take advantage of situations by force — or as we call them, psychopaths — are a much bigger problem, especially when they congregate and morph themselves into permanent “leaders.” And/or governments.
None-the-less — since they all have similar effects — slackers, cheaters, bullies and bullying leaders are all usually called “free-riders” by population geneticists. So the population geneticists and others rightly ask, “How can altruistic genes survive when beset by free riders of all kinds?”
In other words, how can altruists — who are intent on keeping the data-base intact by keeping everyone alive — keep from being bled dry and rendered extinct by free-riders — who are only too happy to take advantage of their altruistic tendencies?
Thus our data-dependent ancestors had to solve two competing equations at the same time:
1. How do you preserve the distributed decentralized data-base by keeping everyone alive while, at the same time,
2. how do you keep opportunistic free-riders of all kinds from bleeding everyone dry?
As you may have guessed, Mother used debt as tracked by our little subliminal accounter — and the trade that enables — which, by definition, requires reciprocity, to balance those competing equations.
You give me some cream for my strawberries today, I give you some huckleberries to go with your cream tomorrow.
With reciprocal trade in place — and our little subliminal accounter on duty — any potential free-rider is quickly recognized as taking but not giving back. What? No huckleberries?
A shirking soccer mom finds herself out of the pool. Harry — who never buys a round — finds himself drinking alone.
On the other hand, we don’t mind buying drinks for Donald who just lost his job. We don’t expect him to buy but know when he gets his next gig, he’ll try to make good.
With our little subliminal accounter on duty, while any potential free-riders get nipped in the bud and can’t even get off the ground, folks still get help when they need it. Nifty solution!
We “moderns” learned that in many cases it’s necessary to keep things explicit instead of subliminal and we call it “accounting.” This is the solid foundation upon which trade, the whole modern economy, and so the world-as-we-know-it is constructed.
But unfortunately, there are a few problems. For example, our little accounter requires face-to-face recognition to work. That means it doesn’t work well or at all in larger groups, especially when folks pool their resources in a central “pot.”
And keep in mind that keeping track is hanging in the shadows well before we moderns evolved the habit of keeping it explicit. As you’ll see, it’s hanging in the shadows even when it isn’t explicit, expected — or even welcome.
In fact, the strangest problem is that Mother apparently designed the accounting to be mostly subliminal and non-conscious. That’s why it’s taken so long for researchers to discover it. Here’s how I first stumbled on this odd design feature – – –
Paul R. was a blackjack counting group organizer. He was extremely personable, well read, a passable pianist and an entertaining raconteur, but he remarked to me that no one would go out for drinks with him and he didn’t understand why.
I was friends with several of his team-mates and so thought I might be able to trouble-shoot. I asked Mark, Girl George, and several others about the situation. At first they didn’t see things the way Paul did but when pressed, Mark realized that Paul had it right and folks indeed avoided clubbing with him.
It took a good bit of digging to excavate the underlying dynamics. What it amounted to was that Paul actually ran a tally on-the-spot to keep track who should buy the next round of drinks, food, etc. and for how much and let everyone know.
Once that habit of Paul’s was uncovered and brought to the surface, everyone “snapped” on it and agreed that was indeed the problem. This somehow took the fun out of things to such an extent no one wanted to hang-out with Paul, even if they didn’t exactly know why.
It seems that believing in the surface context of no-strings-attached apparently altruistic “gifting” and “sharing” is important even if the underlying dynamics are something different.
And of course, Paul didn’t know about our little subliminal accounter app and neither did I at that time. Paul didn’t realize that it would have pretty much automatically taken care of things without his explicit accounting or that at most, only a little very gentle nudging would have taken care of things and that usually comes automatically from everyone’s subliminal accounter anyway.
Because of its anthropological importance — those free-riders remember — and strength, that nudging, if even necessary, usually works quite well — at least in small face-to-face groups. And if that nudging doesn’t work, things automatically get more serious.
Although we’ve all experienced these subliminal transactions, and although we may not recognize them as such, most of us instinctively understand their operation.
But since, for some reason, we don’t particularly like the “trade” part to always be explicit, it turns out the reciprocal nature of these transactions is often deprecated, ignored — or sometimes even suppressed — invariably with catastrophic results. But let me lead up to those catastrophes gently.
First, Austrian-school economist Frederick von Heyak, recognizing the intellectual consequences of that suppression, points out that as a result of historical, mostly “left-wing” influence in sociology, history, archaeology, etc. “the study of traditional institutions such as property ‘fell under a ban’” and that as a result archaeology, sociology and other similar and related disciplines, even to this day (2020 A.D.), demonstrate an “inability to comprehend economic phenomena.“
So as not to miss Hayek’s emphasis on the significance of this malign intellectual influence, he punctuates it like this: “I have just written that the study of traditional institutions such as property ‘fell under a ban’. This is hardly an exaggeration …“
Yet, despite the emotional and intellectual pressure to deprecate the transactional nature of “altruism,” even the left had to reluctantly curtsy to the evidence.
Implicitly recognizing the existence of our little subliminal accounter before the research proved it existed, anthropologist and over-all mensch Christopher Boehm curtsies by pointing out that in our small ancestral groups, “vigilant sharing” — rather than “automatic, unambivalent, totally altruistic sharing” is how things are done and posits — even at the small ancestral group level — “actuarial intelligence” as part of the built-in skill-set that makes “vigilant sharing” work.
This recognition of the transactional nature of most altruism has even managed to struggle its way into left-handicapped literature and academia as — don’t laugh — “reciprocal-altruism.”
So now with even the left grudgingly admitting “reciprocal” — and thus the transactional nature of altruism — we can begin to make logical sense of things.
If you’ve ever been forced into naked one-sided altruism against your will, maybe because you’ve been taught it’s good, you may recognize this example of what it looks like from the inside – – –
Having no clue what I was observing as a youngster at a Boy Scout Jamboree — no I was never molested — a particular incident made a solid impression on me.
I heard another young attendee in a neighboring tent crying softly. I’d talked to him earlier. What stood out was that he was proud of his new baseball glove, and, as compared to my literally antique glove, he should have been.
I went over to see what was wrong. “I want to play baseball with the others over there,” he said, pointing to a pick-up game just starting. “Well, why don’t you go over and ask. They don’t have full teams, I bet they’d be glad to have you play.” “I can’t. I don’t have a glove,” he said.
“But you showed me your new glove a little while ago.“
“I let Joey use it so he could play first base.“
This is clearly not a good idea for harmonious and productive relationships.
Here’s another real-life example of the havoc that often happens when someone ignores their own accounter – – –
Two teachers who are good friends, Mrs. W. and Ms. C, take turns driving to work together in a northestern state. Mrs. W. is older and because she dosen’t see well at night, has an accident while driving them home in the snow one evening. The next time it snows Mrs. W. asks Ms. C. to take her turn driving. Ms. C. agrees good naturedly — and possibly in the interest of self-preservation, offers to drive during all the bad wheather. After asking if Ms. C. is serious, Mrs. W. is delighted and relieved. After several weeks, Mrs. W. asks if she should now drive. Ms. C. declines the offer. Mrs. W. continually offers to buy gas, but this offer is also declined so Mrs. W. is suprised, hurt and devestated when Ms. C. blows up a few weeks later and calls her a “free loader.”
As the song goes, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” But how about next month?
What I call “naked altruism,” that is no-strings-attached altruistic “gifting” and “sharing” does happen but until proven otherwise, it’s safest to assume you’re involved in a subliminal reciprocal transaction. Your little accounter probably does.
Which brings us to North America’s Thanksgiving and the catastrophic failures it ear-marks – – –
[Plymouth Plantation’s charter] had required that “all profits & benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means” were to be placed in the common stock of the colony, and that, “all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock.” … In his ‘History of Plymouth Plantation,’ the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years, because they refused to work in the fields. …
This “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was an early form of socialism, and it is why the Pilgrims were starving. …
Many early groups of colonists set up socialist states, all with the same terrible results. At Jamestown, established in 1607, out of every shipload of settlers that arrived, less than half would survive their first twelve months in America. Most of the work was being done by only one-fifth of the men … In the winter of 1609-10, called “The Starving Time,” the population fell from five-hundred to sixty. –Richard J. Maybury, The Great Thanksgiving Hoax
Here’s an instructive example of what that was like, notice the impeccable source:
Likewise ignoring or suppressing our little accounter on the large-group cultural level causes socialism in larger groups such as countries to self-destruct and/or morph into totalitarianism in the attempt to make things work despite our little accounters.
The end result has been, that despite “The withering away of the state” as the motivating meme, paradoxically and ironically, the countries that attempted the world-wide socialist revolutions ended up with the most repressive, murderous totalitarian states in the history of the world.
You probably won’t be too surprised by the quick and easy fix for Jamestown, Plymouth, etc.
After much debate, the officials assigned every family a parcel of land and let them keep their produce and trade it, thus keeping their little accounters happy.
As a result, in 1614, Jamestown Colony Secretary Ralph Hamor wrote that after the switch there was “plenty of food…we reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty men as three men have done for themselves now.” In other words, they were producing ten times as much corn after ditching the socialist system.
So what you can learn about “The Green New Deal” from America’s Thanksgiving — and for that matter, about all other naked altruistic unbalanced-transaction schemes such as the former Soviet Union, Mao’s Communist China, North Korea, “The Green New Deal,” etc. — is the same lesson the Puritans learned — and what my friends in Warsaw-Pact era Poland taught me.
I heard it over and over from them. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard it too: “They promised us workers’ Paradise but gave us the other place instead.“
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L. Reichard White [send him mail] taught physics, and the philosophy of science, designed and built a house, ran for Nevada State Senate, served two terms on the Libertarian National Committee, managed a theater company, etc. For the next few decades, he supported his writing habit by beating casinos at their own games. His hobby, though, is explaining things he wishes someone had explained to him. You can find a few of his other explanations listed here.
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