Archives for posts with tag: Division of Labour

Survival of the fittest“.

Evolution is not about survival of the fittest but about the demise of those unable to adapt. Even if the difference seems trivial this approach has vast consequences. As Ernst Mayr explains it What evolution is, (Basic Books, New York, 2002) one can never know what “best” may mean, in any situation. First of all because (Werner Heisenberg, Herbert Simon, Dan Ariely) you can never have a complete picture of anything and secondly because in the real world ‘situations’ are changing constantly – Panta Rhei.
So the only relevant test is survival, being able to cope with whatever comes along and not the brilliance with which one might be able to solve a very particular problem, at a particular moment in time.

Division of labor

After understanding ‘survival’, it’s a lot easier to figure why social strategy functions better than sheer individualism: by creating the right environment for its members to become specialists a complex team will cope better when confronted with  different complex situations than a mob composed of identically qualified members.
With the caveat that this arrangement works only as long as every member of the team realizes that it’s better for him to belong than to get out and only as long as all the members of the said team act consistently as if ‘one for all and all for one’. Otherwise put, complex teams where each has it’s own more or less indispensable role work properly only as long as most of the members continue to be ‘socially intelligent‘.

For those who feel there is an apparent contradiction here please note there are two levels of analysis/interaction.
Individually, each of us has to take care of him/herself (and his/hers immediate family).
Socially, each of us has the duty to evaluate the other members of the group and to exchange information with them about the well being of the whole group.

This can be taken even further. Whenever a subgroup becomes too ‘specialized’ –  as is in ‘becoming so preoccupied with it’s own well being as to stop caring about the rest’, its own survival is in danger. Time and time again, history shows us that those who become estranged from the rest of the society end up badly. Creating problems for the entire society, true, but ultimately their behavior amounts to a form of suicide. Callous royals end up on the chopping block, seemingly indestructible dictators end up at the hands of angry mobs… Erstwhile top of the feeding chain (too big to fail?!?) companies end up broke or bailed out by the government…

Politics versus Economics

I’m constantly amazed by the fact that politics and economy have grown so apart from each other and each of them so disconnected from reality.
Politics has become a constant struggle for administrative power while economy has ‘metastasized’ into a battle field where the foot soldiers struggle to survive while the big brass  gorge themselves with ‘money’.

Nowadays, too many politicians have forgotten that their job is to figure out, in close cooperation with the rest of the society, how to solve the various problems which  challenge us on a daily basis. Too many of them do nothing but fight among themselves, each of them attempting to impose their particular vision on all of us.
In the same time, the economic mechanism is no longer geared towards ‘making the ends meet’ – the original meaning of the Greek word oikonomia.
Our not so distanced ancestors have invented a self governing mechanism which very efficiently allocated the available resources to those who were able to put them to good use. Adam Smith described this mechanism as ‘the free market’.
Presently, we’ve corrupted this previously self leveling mechanism into a collective MMA arena where the heavier knock the wind out of the weaker in the name of ‘king profit’.

All this because we mistakenly believe free market capitalism to be an ideology when it is nothing but a mechanism for allocating resources.
The best to date, admittedly, but only as long as we’re wise enough to preserve the freedom of the market.
And as soon as we’ve mistakenly ‘anointed’ profit as the most important goal of any economic venture… the market had ceased to be free!  You see, profit is the best measure for efficiency – which, in its turn, is the best indicator for economic survivability, yet efficiency itself is pointless if the needs of the market are not met. Smith’s famous characters – the baker, the brewer and the butcher, went to the market to meet the needs of their customers. They became comfortably well off because they were successful in meeting those needs in an efficient manner, not because they were successful in cornering the market… as some of the present day tycoons are teaching us

Why do I maintain that a ‘profit obsessed’ market is no longer free?
Well, simply because the participants to such a market are just as free as those addicted to heroin. Both kind of addicts think of nothing but the object of their addiction and are oblivious to everything else. As in blind to everything else!
And I’m sure you all agree with me that being blind is detrimental to being able to stay alive. Specially so for those unaware of their blindness!
Or unaware of their addiction…



According to various theories, history is cyclical.
Meaning that we keep doing more or less the same things – or ‘errors’, until we figure them out for what they are.
And then we do them again, under a different guise…

“In China, people must use identity documents for train travel. This rule works to prevent people with excessive debt from using high-speed trains, and limit the movement of religious minorities who have had identity documents confiscated and can wait years to get a valid passport.

While this is the first time Chinese officials have used glasses to implement facial-recognition, the technology is widely used by police. China is also currently building a system that will recognize any of its 1.3 billion citizens in three seconds.”

We’ve spent most of our previously mentioned history living in closely knit and relatively small communities.
We made huge ‘progress’ during that time.
The period had started when we had climbed down from our ancestral tree – or had been made by God, take your pick, and had ended – for most of us, anyway, when we had moved to what we presently call ‘cities’.

Win some, loose some.

Apparently, ‘city-slickers’ are more ‘advanced’ than their rural cousins.
More people living together allows for a deeper division of labour, hence a higher specialization. Productivity increases faster and accumulated knowledge becomes simultaneously deeper and wider.
Unfortunately, all these come at a cost. At first for the individuals and, ultimately, for the society at large.

Living in smallish, and necessarily closer knit, groups provides a lot of ‘natural’ social solidarity. Individuals feel that they belong somewhere and, by sheer necessity, give relatively much to the community. Effort as well as attention.
Lost in the city‘, individuals are simultaneously freer to experiment/innovate and also more prone to growing alienated. So alienated as to become a danger to themselves and/or to those living around them.

On the other hand, small communities, where everybody knows everybody else, necessarily generate a lot of social conformity.
Individuals enjoy a lot of (relative) security and psychological comfort but don’t have very much lee-way.
Innovation, technological as well as social, is slower in this circumstances.
It took us some 130,000 years to ‘invent’ speech, another 65,000 to ‘invent’ writing and then, after no more than 6 short millennia we invented the printing press.
Less than another 6 centuries later we have the Internet.

Writing was invented by the Assyrians – an ‘imperial’ people who lived in cities and who needed a ‘technology’ to keep track of taxes due on the commercial trades which sustained the whole civilization.
Basically the same thing was repeated in many other places. Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, etc.
Written records and favorable geography had allowed the imperial administrations to control relatively vast tracts of land, relatively huge amounts of people and marshal considerable resources to whatever goals considered worthy by those who controlled the flow of information.
Writing down ones thoughts/discoveries also made it possible for humankind to better store its knowledge about everything. ‘Hard copies’ travel better through time than oral traditions.

Until something went wrong.
We all know that all those ancient ‘imperiums’ had crumbled, despite having been the most advanced civilizations of their times.
Other, more nimble, competitors were able to outmaneuver the older behemoths.
Maybe because the old behemoths had exercised too much social control?
‘Written’ central administration was able to marshal enough resources for the ruler to be able to impose stiffer rules towards his own personal safety. The most immediate consequence being that increased social conformity stifled innovation and, hence, created the conditions for the others to catch up, outmaneuver and eventually leave the behemoths behind…

The printing press had a relatively smaller impact than the mere pen.
OK, information was more readily available to those who wished to learn – hence the boost in science and technology, but was ‘useless’ as a ‘coercive tool’. It doesn’t make much difference to someone who wants to control a system whether the information used to do such thing is hand written or ‘pressed’. The small number of ‘insiders’ need to keep that information under tight control so…

The latest ‘gizmo’, the internet, is a totally different development than the printing press.
While the latter is unidirectional – from the author to the wide public, the former goes both ways with equal ease.

Each of us can, almost instantly, become a ‘shooting star’ and, simultaneously, all of us can be monitored by whom ever has the necessary means.

As if we’ve backtracked to a ‘Global Village‘.
In more ways than one.

In a traditional village, everybody knows more or less everything there is to be known about everybody else.
In the Global Village everybody can learn considerable amounts of information about almost anybody worth following while those with enough means can learn almost everything about everybody. Then analyze that information to whatever depth they are able to.  And store it for as long as they find any use for it.

Darwin had wrote “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection“.
Some of us had mistakenly understood ‘evolution’ as being a ‘fight for survival’.
‘Fight’ as in ‘kill/subdue all those around you’, not ‘strive to improve yourself’, unfortunately.

Ernst Mayr had put things right. ‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.

Adam Smith, a philosopher, had explained to us that free market capitalism functions because ‘the butcher, the brewer and the baker‘ cooperate across their respective ‘professions’, fully understanding that by respecting each-others work each of them would better serve their individual interests than by struggling individually.
Unfortunately too many of his contemporaries, and some later exegetes, mistook Smith’s words as meaning that ‘Greed is Good’.
And proceeded accordingly. Which was just another ‘application’ of Gresham’s Law. The ‘greedier’ among the capitalists slowly climbed to a dominant position and created a situation later described as ‘savage capitalism.’
Since people have a tendency to over-react, and to make matters worse instead of solving the problem, Karl Marx came up with an even more stupid idea than ‘Greed is Good’. According to him, the world should be run, in an equally authoritative manner, by a different class of people. Not by the ‘greedy capitalists’ but by the ‘virtuous communists’.
As if there ever was any real difference between dictators…

Almost a century later than Smith, Emil Durkheim, a sociologist, revisited the concept of ‘cooperation’ – from another angle, and demonstrated that society had leaped forward when each of its members developed his/hers particular talents instead of toiling together indiscriminately.  And then traded, on the free market, the results of their efforts. Nothing really new, just told in a different manner.
A marked difference from the ‘rantings’ of Marx. Who, by the way, had assessed the situation perfectly. Which makes it all the more baffling the fact that he was able to propose such aberrant remedies.

Almost simultaneously with Durkheim, another guy had noticed two very interesting things.  After a successful career as an engineer Vilfredo Pareto had started to study economics. Then he turned his attention to sociology. As an economist he had noticed the Pareto Principle – 80% of the results (income) are produced by 20% of the causes (agents), while as a sociologist he discovered that whenever social mobility, upwards as well as downwards, is hampered, the society where this happens will, sooner rather than later, experience serious difficulties. In fact this observation is quite straightforward. Whenever young people from the ‘lower strata’ cannot accede, despite being better qualified and harder working, to more meaningful positions because those positions are ‘safeguarded’ for members belonging to the ruling minority, the people from the lower strata stop striving while those from the ruling minority become lazy and careless. The recipe for disaster, don’t you think?
If we put both Pareto’s observations together we discover something similar to Smith’s budding concept of a free market. Whenever an individual, or a group of individuals, become so powerful as to dwarf those around them, economically as well as politically, the free market, economically as well as socially, stops working.

That’s why all monopolies have never failed to collapse.
That’s why all authoritarian regimes, including those built according to Marx’s rantings, have eventually failed – causing great harm to those fool enough to believe in them.

That’s why dinosaurs had disappeared – they had grown too big for their own good.
They behaved as if they were ‘greedy’. They seemed more interested in dominating the world instead of minding their own business.
Fishes – which are older than dinosaurs – survived and thrived.
Crocodiles, alligators, turtles, tortoises, snakes and you name whatever other reptiles come to your mind have survived the same conditions that have cut the mighty dinosaurs down to size.

That’s why Mayr goes on warning us. ‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit.

Let’s not destroy ourselves, as a species, attempting to prove him wrong.

Pareto’s elite theory is rather straightforward.
As soon as a society ‘grinds to a halt’ tension starts to build up. A ‘lion’ – or a coalition of lions, will sooner or later seize the opportunity and ‘make a grab for it’.
By tearing the calcified sinews which tied the society down the lions actions unleash – for the moment, at least, the creative forces that could not assert themselves. Things become markedly better than they used to be.
Because the lions are ‘lazy’ they soon hire ‘foxes’ to run the show. Unfortunately the foxes tend to be rather narrow minded and soon their narrow-mindedness coupled with the decrepitude of the lion ‘in charge’ bring back the society to the original – aka bogged down, situation.
A younger lion/fresh coalition of lions restarts the cycle.
Basically we have the definition of the boom-bust cycle.
A very compelling example would be the manner in which communist states had crumbled under their own weight. Or the manner in which all monopolies – or even companies in dominant positions, eventually screw up. The automobile industry – a mature economic field, would be a very good example for this.
Nothing dramatically different from Schumpeter’s ideas, albeit at a different scale.
Ideally, in a free (aka fully functional) ‘market’ there are a number of lions which keep each-other at bay and a big enough number of foxes to keep the show together. The lions, acting in concert, make sure that the foxes do not take over while the foxes prevent the lions from driving the whole thing over the cliff.
If the circulation of the elites is hampered, in any way, shape or form, the continuous/evolutionary social and economical fine tuning no longer works and the society reverts to the boom-bust cycle.
A really free market would closely resemble Darwin’s, or more exactly Mayr’s, evolution while the present situation is one where the circulation of the elites has been brought almost to a halt.
The whole process tends to be rather ‘circular’. As in a vicious circle.
Or a virtuous one. As it used to be, until very recently.

NB. This blog is more like a collection of notes than anything else.
I write them down because doing this streamlines my thinking process and I make them public because readers’ feed-back (mostly on FB) is very helpful.

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