Saturday, May 05, 2007

Successful group structures

In an email about Wilson's book, I summarized it's basic message about groups as follows. (Click here for all my posts about this book.)

The fundamental idea sounds trivial. To create a successful group create a group structure that
  1. encourages individual behaviors that provide benefits to both the individual and the group
  2. limits behaviors — at both the individual and group levels — that benefit one side at the expense of the other. (Religious cults tend to promote activities that benefit the group at the expense of the individual. Monopolistic practices tend to benefit the individual at the expense of the group.)
That's the fundamental trick of innovative environments — such as the free market system, the scientific research community, and the internet. (Not all successful groups are innovative. Innovative environments also include structures that encourage innovation as well as behaviors that benefit both the group and the individual. The Amish are a successful group that doesn't encourage innovation.) Innovative environments are not always perfect, but to an important extent, they are structured so that individual and group good coincide.

To say that one wants activities that benefit both the individual and the group is not the same thing as the laissez-faire doctrine that an "invisible hand" will always make everything come out right. Wilson has a chapter on Ayn Rand in which he likens unbridled selfishness (the underlying value of the invisible hand philosophy) to a cancer, which ultimately kills the host on which it relies. Successful groups have mechanisms that contain cancers just as they have mechanisms that encourage behaviors that yield both private and public gains. The challenge, of course, is to find ways to identify and suppress cancers without stifling innovation and healthy individual growth. Every successful group/environment has mechanisms to limit runaway selfish interests. Healthy individual growth is important. Cancer is deadly. (Democrats should use the cancer metaphor when criticizing Republican-backed greed in the name of free markets.)

The fundamental underlying problem is that within a group, selfishness will beat altruism, but between groups, groups with more altruists will beat groups with more selfish individuals. So producing group goods will be good for the individual to the extent that the group benefit overcomes the within-group disadvantage one pays for it. But even then, the group must deal with internal free-riders — or those who contribute to the group good will eventually be outnumbered by free-riders, destroying the group as a value-producing unit.

This raises the question of what benefits a group. From an evolutionary perspective that question is answered by asking whether the group survives. In a social context, we can't wait that long. So we are ultimately thrown back to asking the group members — or the group decision-making process, whatever it is — what they think benefits the group. Of course whenever such a question is asked, the group members also consider how a proposed group effect will affect them individually. So this is not an easy question to answer.

Any group that has the ability to make decisions about its own operational structure, i.e., any human group, will be forced to struggle with this fundamental question.
  1. Since a group's operational structure is (and must be) flexible so that it can change with changing conditions,
  2. but since decisions about how to change the group's structure must be made by some process that involves individual decisions made by individual members of the group,
  3. and since in making those decisions the individual group members can't be expected to ignore how their decisions will affect them directly,
  4. how should the group decision making process be set up so that it makes the best decisions about the group?
And by the way, what are the best decisions about a group? Perhaps there are situations in which it would be best for a group to dissolve itself. The sorts of groups that Wilson discusses (e.g., hunter-gatherer villages) are essential for their members' survival. But many of our modern groups are conveniences — created for the benefit of their members but not at all necessary for the survival of their members. When a group is no longer valued by its members (e.g., a bowling league in which most of the members have lost interest in bowling), it may be time to let it die.

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