22 August 2014

Friends, strangers and progress

Small [unoriginal] thoughts on a big topic:*

People in communities tend to cooperate because they are in a "repeated game" in which trust is reciprocated, cheating is punished and a shared existence leads to "compassionate" tolerance.

People who meet "in the agora" (market) do not necessarily know or trust each other, but they can benefit from trade. The greatest gains from trade come from the greatest differences (one man's trash is another's treasure), which explains the emergence of "commercial" tolerance.

These differences explain small town conservatism and urban radicalism. They also explain how you can build trust among strangers (put them in a repeated game) and tolerance in small towns (reduce co-dependence). Those innovations may be difficult to introduce when the equilibrium status quo tends to reinforce the opposite dynamics.

Bottom Line: Human cooperation tends to fit the local context, but it can be improved with the careful addition of familiar dynamics from other situations.

* Read, e.g., this fascinating 1977 perspective on China's struggle between creative openness (individualism) and monolithic isolation. Today's China combines these characteristics in unexpected ways.

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