Benevolence in Family and Beyond
I concluded the last post by characterizing the family as a benevolence oriented commune. There is communal property. There are laborers who produce goods for trade. There is a place for those without the capacity to do economic labor and a place for caregivers. Biological bonds and the bonds established through formal inclusion into the family usually create a high degree of affinity. Living in close proximity, sharing common space, and eating at table to together, nurtures benevolence and empathy. There is much to commend about this communal existence. And that raises a question. If this is so good for a small community, then when not just make society, indeed humanity, a family writ large?
With precious few exceptions, communal groups dissolve within a few years or last a couple of generations at most. Why is this so? In large part it is due to the tragedy of the commons. Wikipedia says that it is:
The example Garrett Hardin (who coined the phrase) uses is this:
From a pure economic standpoint, each herder as an incentive to use the land to its fullest and to do so as quickly as possible before others do the same. No one has an incentive to nurture the commons unless all are going to nurture the commons. Individual work done to enrich the commons simply aids those who take no responsibility. The reality is that it doesn’t take a very high percentage of free-riders before the system breaks down.
There are some ways to avoid the tragedy of the commons. First, make sure that whatever is held in common is larger than the aggregate demand of the people who hold it common. When this can be accomplished, it is usually done by excluding new members from the commons. The commune essentially becomes the private owner of resources, making them no longer common to outsiders, but common to a fixed and exclusive number of people.
Second, if you arrange for a community to have constant and repetitive interaction where formal and informal surveillance of each other’s behavior is the norm, and you can ingrain high levels of internalized commitment to the community, then you may be able to avoid the tragedy of the commons. The problem is that there are human limits to this type of community. Social network research reveals that the upper end of the number of people an individual can include in a social network is 150 people. Practically, it is probably much smaller. Surveillance and solidarity breaks down.
This is why few communal groups have been able to expand and continue over more than a generation or two. A notable exception is the Hutterites. The Hutterites limit the size of their communities to 120. When they become larger, they must divide. Furthermore, children do not receive an education that would equip them to survive in the outside world. Group solidarity is enhanced through joint labor, joint meals, and regular worship together.
Most communes grow bigger than their common property can handle. Free-riders become a problem and the most productive workers limit their labor. Solidarity breaks down from the size of the network. Privatization emerges. The most productive are able to reap the full rewards of their labor. They use resources most effectively and produce an abundance that frees less productive workers to do work they are more productive at. Free-riders are compelled to produce something for exchange. What was once held in common is now better and more productively managed.
For these reasons, it is not possible to project the communal family to a large community, much less an entire society. Communal living requires very high levels of trust and familiarity. Markets, combined with a strong juridical framework, facilitate the ability of complete strangers to trade with each other in confidence.
Hernando DeSoto, in The Mystery of Capital, notes that the world’s poor probably control ten trillion dollars of hidden assets. The probably is they live outside the formal economy in their country. Land and property titles are not officially held but neighbors in a community can usually attest to who owns what. While that works on a very micro-level, it effectively removes these resources from the market as loan collateral or as an asset that can be sold to anyone other than immediate neighbors. Such assets are invisible to the national and global economy. Markets and juridical frameworks are what bring these assets into the larger market and give them value.
All this directly connects with benevolence. The size of the community constrains not only our ability to engage in responsible communal economic labor but also our ability to engage in responsible benevolent acts. A handful of people with a high level of solidarity can usually adjudicate the need for benevolence among themselves. The larger the group becomes the more difficult it becomes to make well-informed decisions and the greater the opportunity for free-riders to exploit the information deficit.
Communities are without unlimited resources to give toward benevolence so a tragedy of the commons quickly emerges, absent constraints being placed on how benevolence will be used. What that usually means is smaller subgroups are made responsible for benevolent care and the larger community uses a more abstract impersonal set of criteria for allocation of resources to these small benevolent groups.
This is where mediating institutions like the church and voluntary associations become so critical. They create broader “markets” for benevolence. When mediating institutions work well they provide a means where people with little specialized information can pool their resources and “buy” the expertise of a community of folks with more specialized information who can effectively address needs. When mediating institutions work poorly they can be every bit as capricious and ineffective (if not destructive) as if we had given without such institutions.
To summarize, person to person interaction inside the “commune” of the family is probably the most formative part of our lives in developing other-centeredness and benevolence. This style of benevolence can probably be extended to multiple families and individuals but only to a limit of, at the most, a few dozen people. When we get beyond that, mediating institutions are needed to fill the information gap we have about other’s needs. This doesn’t preclude the episodic case of personally helping a stranger in need but it does highlight that such benevolence is insufficient to be truly effective on a large scale.
The other-centeredness learned in the family and nurtured through the church should compel us to look to the need of strangers but it should also compel us to do so in ways that bring dignity to others and recognizes the centrality of families and social networks in nurturing benevolence (not dependence or free-riding) in the recipients of benevolent acts. As we are stewards of God’s resources, it should compel us toward generosity. While we will always be taken advantage of from time to time through our generosity that is not an excuse for carelessness in how we are benevolent to ward others.