Conservatives who argue that more and bigger government isn’t the solution to our problems are absolutely right: Government is just one agent of our will, with strengths and weaknesses that delimit the scope of its efficacy. Whether we address the challenges and opportunities which confront us through government, or churches, or civic organizations, or just individually, nothing supersedes the importance of personal responsibility.

But what is personal responsibility? We generally consider, for instance, not abandoning one’s children to be a personal responsibility. We consider obeying the laws, caring for one’s elderly parents, perhaps even taking adequate care of one’s home and property, all to be personal responsibilities. At the limit, some might use the term to refer to the need that each individual take care of him or herself, so that the rest of us won’t have to. All of these have one thing in common: They involve responsibilities to others. And we understand that those others bear reciprocal responsibilities in turn. Personal responsibility, in other words, is synonymous with mutual responsibility. It is a social obligation we owe to one another.

Something as vital to our collective welfare as mutual responsibility shouldn’t be treated as a casual wish, something we dearly want to see exhibited by others, but feel powerless to affect beyond meekly encouraging it. We should, instead, strive to cultivate it, to instill it in people, something we understandably implore parents to do. But imploring parents to instill it in their children is as weak and insufficient as imploring people to exercise it in the first place. We need, rather, to make the exercise and cultivation of mutual responsibility in people’s individual interest. We need to incentivize it. And, of course, we do.

There are four basic tools for incentivizing socially desirable behaviors: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. In hierarchies, codified rules are officially enforced through formal rewards and punishments. Examples of this method of incentivizing behaviors are legal and penal systems, employment contracts, church leadership structures, and formal organizational frameworks in general. The strength of this method is that it facilitates the pursuit of intentionally formulated goals through very direct means. Its weakness involves the rapid accumulation of bargaining, monitoring, and enforcement costs as the goals become increasingly complex, the interests of the parties increasingly varied, and the population involved increasingly large.

Markets operate by facilitating multi-lateral mutually beneficial exchange. The easier it is for me to focus on one thing I do well that others require or desire, and offer it to others in return for the things they do well that I require or desire, the more organically and robustly we are each incentivized to act in one another’s interests. The strength of this method is that, for many purposes, it is the most efficient way to align individual and collective interests, and thus coordinate human efforts in mutually beneficial ways. The weaknesses largely revolve around transaction costs and externalities, creating problems such as the robust production of environmental pollution and depletion along with the robust production of wealth, and the ability of some to off-set certain costs of their enterprises by imposing them on others not involved in, or not profiting from, those enterprises, sometimes quite catastrophically.

Norms are unwritten rules diffusely and informally enforced through the social approval and disapproval of other people. They are particularly effective in small, permanent or long-enduring groups with a high-degree of interaction and interdependence, a low degree of anonymity, and when addressing visible or easily discoverable behaviors. Their weaknesses include that they become decreasingly effective as circumstances diverge from those described in the previous sentence, and that, when most effective, they tend (even more so than hierarchies) toward “overcontrol,” intruding more than necessary on individual autonomy and self-expression.

Ideologies, as I use the term here, refer to all cognitions: beliefs, values, thoughts, anything held to be true by the individual. In a sense, ideologies are norms internalized through socialization, rules that we enforce internally by the self-imposed reward of pride or the self-imposed punishment of shame. Their strength is that we can never hide from ourselves. Their weaknesses are that they generally form a relatively flimsy bulwark against the temptation to act in one’s own crude self-interest, and that, unless one is very careful in how their own ideology develops, they tend toward rigidity rather than forming a robust foundation for continuing cognitive growth.

One weakness shared, in different ways, by hierarchies, norms, and ideologies is that, while they generate in-group cooperation, they often do so in opposition to out-groups similarly organized and motivated, thus reinforcing lines of conflict on a larger scale even as they reinforce bonds of solidarity on a smaller one. Norms often accomplish this very locally, while hierarchies can accomplish it on scales of all sizes, ranging from the very small (such as a small but very formally organized business) to quite large (such as nation-states), though norms almost inevitably are more prevalent for very small scales of social organization. Ideologies, meanwhile, reinforce whatever levels and types of organization the individual most closely identifies with, from the absolute egocentrism of a sociopath to the all-inclusiveness of global humanism and environmentalism, and everything in between.

A particular variation of the in-group/out-group dynamic involves concentrations of power, which can implicate any and all of these institutional modalities in various combinations: Hierarchical control of the means of enforcing formal rules; economic control of vital resources; ideological control of “legitimate authority;” and disproportionate normative control in the hands of those most influential in the community (sometimes due to “charismatic authority,” sometimes to influence imported from other modalities). These can interact in self-reinforcing nuclei of political and social power or, in some circumstances, separate out to some extent into competing camps.

When examining the world through the lens of these social institutional modalities, it is crucial to understand the salience of their interactions. They are, in most situations, tightly intertwined, sometimes almost dissolved into a single solution. Hierarchical organizations, laced with embedded normative and ideological informal infrastructures, are major actors in market economies. Hierarchically organized churches compete in the marketplace of ideas (and sometimes the marketplace of profitable goods and services as well), often with a large moral, or ideological/normative, component to their mission. Families are largely normative, though can have traces of a not-completely-formalized hierarchical framework overlaying that normative structure.

One traditional focus in the debates between the right and the left is the relationship between hierarchies and markets, and what combinations of the two provide for optimal economic efficiency This also happens to be a major focus of Institutional Economics (and of Oliver Williamson, one of the 2009 Nobel Prize winners in Economics). But for a more complete understanding of the implications and potentials of different policy alternatives, one must also include norms and ideologies (and emotional reactions) in the mix, and consider how these too are tangled into the complex dynamics that comprise the field of human endeavors. (The inclusion of normative arrangments was the focus of the other 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Elinor Ostrom).

Understanding the nature of the human social field, to as great an extent as we are capable, is a necessary prerequisite to devising effective social policies, often by applying a light touch in particularly system-sensitive ways.

In conjunction with my campaign, I have two projects on the drawing board that seek to utilize, for the purposes of improving our collective existence (rather than simply for winning an election), the two somewhat neglected social institutional modalities: 1) the creation of a non-partisan, issue-centered, hostility-free (through moderation) political blog, which will seek out and provide the best analyses, from all perspectives, of the contentious and important social issues of the day; and 2) the creation of a network of non-partisan community organizations, from the block level on up, drawing on and augmenting all of the various kinds of community organizations that already exist, but dedicated to achieving a higher degree of inclusiveness. Anyone interested in either or both of these projects should please contact me.

The world we live in is complex and challenging. But simply agreeing to be reasonable people of good will doing the very best we can, with both humility and determination, would take us a long way forward in our on-going attempt to address that complexity and meet that challenge. As we’ve proven time and again, we’re capable of doing great things together, when we’re inspired to do so. Let’s keep inspiring one another to make this the most robust, sustainable, and fair society we are capable of making it: That’s a project worth getting excited about.

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