Niceness and the State
July 23, 2002
Bulletin from the world of science: People are
nice! The New York Times reports: Were Wired
Researchers at Emory
University in Atlanta have found, through experiments monitored by
magnetic resonance imaging, that people get intense emotional
satisfaction from cooperating with others. The brain lights up discernibly
during acts of niceness, just as it lights up at yummy desserts, money,
pretty faces, and other delights.
And you thought it was
just you! Nope. Its pretty much the whole human race. There are
presumably exceptions, of course.
Reading a story like
that just makes you feel good all over. Isnt it nice that
were so nice?
I have no trouble
believing it. The older I get, the more I notice how many little kindnesses
people gratuitously perform for each other. Of course there are some
selfish slobs too; but we notice them because theyre exceptional.
The implications are
anarchic. We dont need the state to force us to cooperate; we
would do it spontaneously, without coercion. The force-system we call the
state is worse than superfluous. It interferes with and frustrates the
natural urge to cooperate; at worst, it embitters human relations. The
paradigm of state-behavior massive organized force is
You might say that the state is parasitic on our innate need to
cooperate. It makes us confuse obedience to force with social harmony. In
fact, its greatest fiction is that it is itself the key to social harmony, as
if we would all be shooting each other if the state werent there to
force us to behave.
During the last
century, this idea was pressed all the way. Since the state can produce
social order, many reasoned, the ideal state would be a socialist or
communist one. The state would be a total concentration of power;
formerly free cooperative acts would become economic
crimes. In communist countries people would actually be put to
death for buying and selling things you and I can get at the store every day
from a smiling clerk.
In reality, such states
turned out to be disastrous, not only economically ruinous but socially
destructive, fostering far more predatory behavior than freer societies
did. The Soviet Union lasted as long as it did only because of its bribery
and black markets, the vast underground economy or
what might be called illicit cooperation.
Yet many intellectuals,
including people as bright as Albert Einstein, were enamored of the giant
new force-systems and thought they held the hope of the future.
Sometimes I think an intellectual might almost be defined as one who
insists on learning the hard way.
States do try to enlist
our cooperative instincts, even for their most nefarious enterprises.
Stalin is now credited with at least 20 million murders; he needed a lot of
help to achieve that record not just a quota of thugs, but ordinary
people doing the paperwork without feeling they were abetting evil.
Franklin Roosevelt needed a lot of very brainy cooperation, in the
Manhattan Project, to create an inconceivably murderous weapon, the
atomic bomb. Some of the best scientists in the world flocked to serve his
German who obeyed Hitler is now a by-word for immoral obedience,
but the truth is that refusing to cooperate goes much against the grain for
most people. Few of us can bear to disrupt society, and defying the state
can seem unbearably disruptive, even when a bit of disruption is very
much in order. The state always takes advantage of this fact of human
statelessness is recommended not only by our individuality, but by
our sociability. We are individuals who enjoy cooperating with other
individuals. We enjoy using our minds, but mostly in social enterprises. We
enjoy making money, but chiefly so we can spend it on people we love. We
love to possess in large part because we love to share. If you cant
own anything, you cant share.
Maybe the nuttiest of
all socialist ideas was the notion that abolishing private property would
conduce to happy sharing. In reality, it meant only that everything was
effectively owned by those who ruled the force-system, the state. Stalin
owned everything in eleven time zones, yet his Western admirers never
thought of him as rich. After all, he didnt dress like a rich man.
Once a barking dog
awakened Stalin from his afternoon nap. Annoyed, he ordered the
dogs owner shot. Theres a lesson for nice people here.