Thursday, June 23, 2011

Trust is the Key to the Modern World

From a review of The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind by Robin Fox:

Fox describes New York Times columnist John Tierney’s bafflement in September 2003 upon discovering that the lavish weddings regularly taking place in his Baghdad hotel were mostly marriages of first cousins who were the children of brothers. Questioned about this practice, the young people told Tierney, “Of course we marry a cousin. What would you have us do, marry a stranger? We cannot trust strangers.”

That, as others might have told him about endogamous marriage, is what pairing up in low-trust cultures without functional central authorities often entails. After presenting a similar example from Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, Fox writes of a scene in David Lean’s 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia. A British agent tells the tribal chieftain Aouda that he should attack the Turks in Aqaba for the sake of “the Arabs.” “Who are these Arabs?” he asks. After reciting the names of some of the tribes he knows, Aouda demands to be told exactly what tribe “the Arabs” consist of that he should risk his men’s lives on their behalf. Bringing all this to bear on Iraq today, Fox comments, “[T]hus some of the sheiks in Anbar province will ally with the Americans against al-Qaeda and its allies if it suits them. But their and Aouda’s sole concern is with their tribal advantage. This was Aouda’s highest moral imperative.”

The modern world cannot function if we regularly assume that everyone we don't know is out to get us. We cannot, say, buy a car unless we trust that the manufacturer and the dealer and the salesman are trustworthy on some level; we could not shop in a supermarket if we did not trust the grocer and the distributor and the grower. One of the main contributors to trust in our system is the power of the state to enforce trustworthy behavior. This is something not grasped by many libertarians, who want to sweep away safety regulations and leave it up to people to look into the background of every company and the safety of every device themselves. In such a system people only do business with those they know and trust, which puts a very severe limit on economic activity. It is the existence of our large, powerful states, with their vast regulatory apparatus, that makes it possible for millions of strangers to do business with each other. Thus one of the key events of history was the transfer of loyalty and identity from small, local entities -- tribes, clans, villages -- to the nation, bringing millions of people into communities large enough to get the modern economy going.

Part of the problem with "development" in the parts of the world we consider "under developed" is this lack of trust and lack of loyalty to large entities. If people in Africa want to join the modern world, they must shed their old, tribal identities and adopt new national or continental identities more suited to modern economics. If they do not want to do these things, well, that's fine by me, but they will remain poor by the standards of the rich countries. The modern world is not just based on technology, but on a way of thinking about economic and social relations that is quite different from what humans knew for most of their history.

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