Ordinary people blunder into highly advanced systems

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different From Ours and Scott’s Seeing Like A State — “the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature” — both discuss cultural evolution and its magical results:

In Seeing Like A State, ordinary people living their daily lives blunder into highly advanced systems for doing whatever it is they do. Primitive farmers will know every tiny detail about exactly when to plant which crops, and how to exploit microvariations in soil quality, and know ridiculous tricks like planting fish heads in the ground as fertilizer. Ordinary city-dwellers will organically build houses and stores and streets in exactly the right fractal patterns to maximize some measure of quality of life. Scott dubs this “metis”, an evolved intuitive sense of practical wisdom that often outperforms seemingly more scientific solutions.

Many of the societies Friedman profiles in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours seem to operate on metis. Most don’t know who developed their legal system; in a few of them, it is explicitly declared to have been the work of God. Most don’t really know why their legal system works — in some cases, Friedman only gives an economic analysis of why some rule might exist after admitting that previous scholarship (both modern academic, and within the society in question) has failed to come up with answers. And a lot of them are too brilliant, and need too many weird interlocking parts, to be the work of any single person.

“Cultural evolution” is the idea that cultures evolve in a way analogous to biological organisms. The definition gets kind of fuzzy — if I come up with a good idea and my culture adopts it, is that the result of “cultural evolution” or ordinary human ingenuity? `But a lot of people find the concept to have some value — and if it has any at all, Legal Systems Very Different From Ours has to include some of the best examples.

Friedman frames this in economic terms. Social “entrepreneurs” come up with some new system that solves a need, and it catches on by raising the utility of everyone involved. The mutual-protection-insurance-groups of 18th century England work this way: somebody invents them and offers the opportunity for other people to sign on, everyone who does ends up better off than the people who doesn’t, and they eventually reach fixation. Same with the criminal-prosecutor bribes; someone thinks it up, it leaves both sides better off, so everybody who hears about it does it. Viewed very optimistically, wherever there’s a problem in your culture, institutions to solve the problem will magically appear and spread until everybody does them.

Conflict is an especially fertile ground for cultural innovation. Friedman stresses how many legal systems, including advanced ones with lawyers and codes and everything, show signs of originating from feud systems, which might be the most basic form of law. They work like this: “If you offend me in some way, I will try to kill you”. A slightly more advanced version that takes account of possibly power differentials between offender and victim: “If you offend me in some way, everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”. This originally sounds unpromising, but it turns out that people really don’t want their family members murdered. So we end up with an even more advanced version: “If you offend me in some way, we had better find some way to arbitrate our dispute, or else everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”.

The Somali system seems to be somewhere around here: if two people have a dispute, they find a mutually agreeable judge to arbitrate; the judge will decide who’s in the wrong and what fine they need to pay to make it right. If someone refuses to go to the judge, or refuses to abide by the judge’s decision, then it’s family-member-killing time. Needless to say, Somali judges’ services remain popular. And since judges gain status by arbitrating, and since only judges who make widely-regarded-as-good decisions get invited to keep doing so, there’s economic pressure for the judges to make good decisions (which then go down as precedent and inspire future cases). It’s easy to see how something like this can turn into a perfectly respectable legal system where people totally forget that killing each other’s family members is even an option. Catch it at this last stage, and hear enough people admit they have no idea who “invented” their legal system, and it looks like it appeared by magic.

Leave a Reply