Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Monday, December 04, 2006
I Want My Mummy! or Why Understanding Economics is Hard.

You've heard of the seven basic plots. Now learn about the four basic ways of living with other humans. The research of Alan Fiske is summarized in this column for the Philadelphia Inquirer by Andrew Cassel.

Alan Fiske (or Alan Page Fiske as seems to be his own preferred form of his name, judging from the cover of his book) claims that human beings tend to follow four relational models in their ways of interacting. The reader with ten minutes to spare is promised or warned that this essay, Fiske's own "overview" of the four models, will start trains of thought that may take years to complete. For the two-minute reader, here is how the four models are described in Cassel's column.

Communal sharing is how you treat your immediate family: All for one and one for all. Or as Marx put it: From each according to ability, to each according to need.

Equality matching, by contrast, means we all take turns. From kindergarten to the town meeting, it's all about fair shares, reciprocity, doing your part.

Authority ranking is how tribes function, not to mention armies, corporations and governments. Know your place, obey orders, and hail to the chief.

Market pricing, of course, is the basis of economics. It's what we do whenever we weigh costs and benefits, trade up (or down), save or invest.

Here's another, more biographical article about Fiske and his ideas. He first thought of this twenty years ago. Since then he's been dreading the moment when someone in the audience would say, hey you idiot - what about this fifth /sixth / seventh model? But no one ever has.

When models collide, trouble follows. Cassel writes:

For example, you might see housework as a communal-sharing function, while your spouse approaches it as equality-matching. Neither is wrong, yet you still end up angry or guilty when the laundry isn't done.
Note that market pricing came last to human history and is the last one individuals learn to use - if they ever do. It needs an understanding of ratios.

That does not make it the good model and all the other models bad. Not unless you want to invoice your children for services rendered, anyway. But it is a reasonable analogy to call the market pricing model the most evolved, or least primitive model.

Cassel's column, with its provocative mention of Marxism as an example of the "communal sharing" model, was published on November 24th. Although going on what I have read so far Fiske himself does not seem to have drawn any strong political conclusions - in fact he cites the work of Marx as one of the minor influences that helped him to build his theory - one or two bloggers have picked up on Cassel's equation of Marxism with the communal sharing model. Classical Values asks, "I wonder whether the emotional appeal of Communism might have represented an evolutionary step backwards, repackaged rhetorically so that its proponents could pat themselves on the back and maintain they were moving forward."

One Cosmos writes: "Economic conflicts arise when one group or person is operating under a different type of interaction than another. For example, if you are a primitive progressive operating under the aegis of small group “communal sharing,” you may well believe that higher education, healthcare, housing, tattoos, tattoo removal, and gender reassignment surgery should all be granted to you by the government free of charge."

I agree with these two bloggers that the relative lack of appeal of market pricing, despite its superior record in creating wealthy and peaceful societies, is something to do with it being the most difficult model. But I'm not sure that the appeal of Marxism wholly rests on it being communal sharing. I came across this comment on Laban Tall's blog this morning:

They [progressives who ally with Islamists] can't imagine western civilization collapsing any more than a five-year old can imagine his parents' marriage breaking up. Unlike the five-year-old, they're in a position to help it along, but of course they can't comprehend that.

It's the same as their (non-)thinking about economics, that there'll always be somebody to rob.

Underlying everything they believe is the assumption that there will always be... something, somehow, much bigger and stronger than them, which will take care of them while they struggle against it. They're psychologically incapable of experiencing responsibility.

Yes, I cried, and that immediately helped me to understand ...

Whoa, now. Perhaps before I start to apply Fiske's models to this, that and the other, I should do more than ten minutes' reading on what they actually are.

Then I can tell you how this all links in to the Anglosphere somehow, and with Fukuyama's concepts of high and low-trust societies. Let me finish for now with another quote from Fiske's overview:

But the diversity of culturally organized, complex social relationships presents a seemingly impossible learning problem: how can a child, an immigrant, or a visitor possibly discover the principles that underlie relationships in a strange culture (such as the one into which you are born)? The coordination of interaction is all the more challenging because of the variety of domains that must be coordinated: work, exchange, distribution and consumption, moral judgments, sanctions and forms of redressing wrongs, aggression, sexuality, social identity, the meaning of objects, places, and time. If people use different models to coordinate each domain, how can they deal with the resulting cognitive complexity of social life, let alone integrate several domains to form a personal relationship or an institution?