Who are we?

Examining Individuality and Alternatives

One reasons to use costs and priorities over supply and demand is that you can look at any level of entity abstraction.

Are we individuals? Households? Families? Tribes? Cities? States? Nations?

This is critically important in economics and policy. Supply and Demand assumes one entity owns a resources. Costs and priorities recognizes that many entities have overlapping interests and influences. Ownership is a collection of rights, authorities, expectations, and responsibilities. When many entities have influence over a resource, naming a single owner is not enough. You have to describe the various roles different entities play specifically. You have to describe all the processes and interactions involved in resource use. Ownership involves a collection of legal rights, social expectations, and political influences, both for the owner and others who want or need to interact with the resource.

But it’s not just about who controls resources, it’s also about how we organize our actions. Who gets to say what we should do as a group?

In the United States, federalism, as we call it, is a critical part of the political organization of our society.

I remember when I first learned that it is generally state governments and not federal which prosecute murders. This surprised me. The federal government seemed the most important and powerful, why wouldn’t it concern itself with a horrific crimes like murder?

The answer goes back in our legal tradition to the constitution and the articles of confederation. The constitution grants very specific roles to federal government, and basically leaves the rest to state governments.

Unless a federal crime is committed, or there are jurisdictional issues, state governments handle violent crimes such as murder, theft, assualt, etc. It was O.J. Simpson vs The State of California, for example. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

For an interesting look at social implications of the design of our legal system, I recommend the movie Bernie, with Jack Black. It’s based on a true story and features some real interviews from people in the community(on netflix or your favorite torrent site last time I checked).

A Look At History, Nature

Early man lived in tribes. The tribe was the most important unit for organizing resource use, both who gets what and who does what. Modern families seem to bear some resemblance to early tribes, though this varies from culture to culture.

In nature, you get “beasts” and “bugs” of all types. Ants and termites live in colonies. Spiders eat their mates. Cicadas lie dormant for years and then have giant mating orgies. Primates have very interesting social lives and sex lives. Cats. . . are cats.

There seems to be a trend across history building bigger social and political organizations. I’m not an historian or an anthropologist. Written records, accounting, and agriculture seemed to have developed about the same times. That’s very interesting.

To be fair, I’m not sure if I’m recalling details from actual history lessons or Sid Meier’s Civilization video game franchise. But there’s a lot to look into: Ancient Babylonians, Ancient Egytians, Mesopotamia, Warring Greek City States, Early Roman Empire, Holy Roman Empire, Christianity, Ottomans, Islam, Crusades, Charlemagne, Spanish Conquistadors, British Empire, Dutch Trading Companies, other European powers, etc.

Looking at history, markets hardly seem to be the most important feature, though they probably played a role in each society. What’s the whole obsession with markets anyway? It seems to come from Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

Econ has a lot of useful stuff to say about free agents organizing resource use and development, but I don’t think it supersedes political and social history. It merely superimposes it.

Dissecting the Individual

We’ve talked about many different political entities. We may be inclined to percieve an historical arc building bigger and more resilient(and possibly better) political organization. I can’t say if there’s any truth to this. It’s merely something to consider.

But now, instead of building up, I want us to “break things down”.

“Dissecting” is the wrong phrase. We want to “disrupt” our perception of the individual so can observe other patterns that are also important.

Do you see the pattern? Does percieving the pattern improve your observation or hamper it?

I’ve read a couple interesting books about evolution recently. One is Undeniable by Bill Nye.

Biology has never been my strong area of science, but Nye’s book is accessible and excellent. He presents geological evidence and the myriad of techniques that make the scientific account of natural history Undeniable.

Nye’s explanation of the biological processes of evolution is excellent. Individuals don’t evolve, populations do. Each individual has a (mostly) fixed genetic expression, but reproduction is imperfect, constantly introducing random changes and creating random combinations of existing features within a population.

Evolution happens in punctuated equilibrium. A thriving, large population in a stable environment won’t change much. When an environment is disrupted, populations isolated, and pressures are changed, that’s when populations can change dramatically really fast.

Individuals don’t “evolve” to succeed in the new enviroment, they merely “get lucky”, and then the next generation looks like the lucky one.

The other biology book I “read”(skimmed) was The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.

We can look at evolution not in terms of individual organisms “trying” to survive, but as individual genes “striving” to reproduce.

Evolution is counter-intuitive when you look at individuals. Genes can hurt an organism’s chances of survival but still improve the odds for the gene, by affecting others in a population.

This is an important biological explanation for tendencies of altruism. A single individual can only save or lose their own life, but if they help many relatives succeed, that has a greater impact. It’s also less expensive than trying to mate a bunch and ensure only your own offspring survive.

Successful genes encode features that maximize that gene’s propogation and survival within a population.

Economics and Culture and Information Memes

Choices are not merely individual preference, but a matter of being subject to certain external influences over others.

We like music because we relate to it. At least part of this is involuntary. We can’t choose our default personality or natural tendencies any more than an organism can choose to have the “best” genes. It’s just luck. RNJesus! as the gamers say.

Dawkins in The Selfish Gene introduced the concepts of memes. They are little pieces of information, which, like genes or a virus, reproduce within a population.

By looking at memes, individuals are not making choices, but memetic mind viruses infect a host, and then change their behavior.

Psychology and Individuals

Individuality is an important concept in human society for good reason. We aren’t like worker ants or honey bees. We are empowered, self-contained, rational, logical AND emotional beings.

I don’t think we should throw away individuality, we only need to recognize it’s valid in some contexts and less important in others.

Ironically, individuality is most useful as a concept when looking at an individual in relation to a group or social community.

Within the mind itself, the concept of individuality doesn’t help us describe cognitive function, except that it is used as a concept to visualize, recall, and role play.

Pixar’s Inside Out personifies various emotions as independent psychological agents. There is not a single ego directing action, but different psychological tendencies competing to resolve choices.

There may be something to this. Check out this video by CGP Grey

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