Society, Individual/Group Behavior and Private Property

I have recently been in some on-line debates on the above issue and thought the dialogue in one of them on the Real World Economics site worth posting:

Part of the Comment I was responding to:

While there may be phenomena which occur at the group level that exceed individual intentions and do not reduce to individual actions, such phenomena are not in themselves intentional, premeditated or rational.

My response:

Most individual actions are, research suggests, unconscious and not rational and even conscious ones in my experience are often perhaps mainly irrational: habitual, biased, self defeating, contrary to stated goals etc. Indeed much of individual behavior (I am in the conflict business) is indeed almost completely self defeating aka not linked to stated goal seeking. And my experience of organizations suggests that there are group intentional phenomena of enormous significance, that are unintelligible through the lens of atomistic individualism. Group think, organizational norms etc. Most people are not exactly existentialist freedom actors. They are members of herds with much social contagion. Indeed if they were not swarmy business and markets would find it hard to function. Semi-intelligent swarms is what I have seen.

There are psychological experiments on measuring a stick that show how malleable most of us are to group pressure. Which is not surprising given how much of our evolution was in hunter gatherer bands where cooperation was essential to survival and selfish behavior that you didn’t conceal, likely to get you killed or banished which was about the same. Inuit when asked if they had sociopaths apparently replied that they did but they tended to fall off the ice quite young.

And on the subject of private property some observations: 1) There was no private property before about 10,000 years ago: hunter gatherers have only a little: portable tools, weapons and minor food store owned by the band 2) For most of the last 10,000 years very few people had any private property: most lived in systems that were feudal, tribal, kingdoms, or anarchy with little private property and often no rule of law to make it stable if they had any 3) even today probably billions of people have no net private property: their debts > value of property 4) In most countries a fair % of property is state/collectively owned: Singapore I recall 80% of its land area is owned by the state and the figure is 28% in the US. Hard to imagine a society with only private property: I can’t recall one in history but open to correction.

So private property as a large scale phenomena is a century or so old. Probably too early to say how it is working out. I guess we will see how long our civilization lasts and whether private property and its externalities bring it down or help it thrive. Whether it morphs into something else or reverts to some previous state or whether it stays exactly the same: not many people having much of it. I lean morph into something else a little different, a little more constrained by societal needs or civilization collapses. But no crystal ball here. Just scenario based futuring I suppose a la Peter Schwartz.

And a footnote more widely addressed given this reply. I am also a little disappointed that in Real World Economics there is so little attention paid to economic history (I am an economic historian by training though I spent my career in business) and when there is, it is not much on the longue duree; but very recent times as the only thing of interest, though actually much of the economics profession attention span doesn’t seem even include 2008. It lives like good Zen Buddhists in the free market fundamentalist present: now and now and now. 🙂

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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