In Scaling up communities – Part 1, I explored the theory that we, humans, have a limit of how many people we can feel connected to as individuals – before they turn into a faceless abstraction. This number, known as Dunbar’s number, is about 150 – but it is more popularly known as our ‘Monkeysphere’ (plus it is more fun to say ‘monkeyshpere’!).
When we ‘scale up’ the community we live in – the people we daily interact with – to be more than about 150 people, they cannot all fit inside our ‘monkeysphere’ – so we need laws in order to interact with each other. This is an excellent coping mechanism for scaling up our communities, but it comes with a price: we are sometimel left feeling like we are a number….because, for all practical purposes, that is what we have become. By creating laws that are applied uniformly, we have given up much of our individuality in the eyes of the law.
This is not a complaint – rather, an observation.
As our communities grew, we could make them more efficient by specializing in what we happen to be very good at. Since sharing a meal together is such a universally bonding human experience, let’s return to that metaphor.
If there are only 2 people, they may both work together to cook a soup. But, when you are preparing a meal for 50 people, not all can aid in the soup preparation (the old adage about too many cooks spoiling the soup comes to mind). So, some will make soup, others will make other things. Even among the soupd-cooks – some will chop the food and only one will get to stir, so-to-speak.
In other words, scaling up creates both specialization and segmentation of the group. This, in itself, is not a bad thing – it all depends on how it is done.
As people have larger and larger tasks that need to be co-ordinated, more rigid governance structures need to be established in order for the scaled-up activity to succeed. Aside from Who holds the power within such a community, more complex governance structures had to evolve. After all, the person(s) in power needed agents who made their commands happen.
In other words, we are talking about the emergence of civil servants – the agents of the state. (OK, so I skipped a few steps along societal evolution by jumping from small groups straight to nation states – but the principle is sound.) Because these people were not acting on their own behalf – but on behalf of the state (whether this was a king or a chieftain or a democratically elected government), they had to separate their ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ behaviour.
I know I am not expressing this as accurately as I would like – please, indulge me in another try.
When the community is small, it is usually possible to arrive at a course of action that most people agree with – and all put into practice. We may not all like it, but this is the decision of our family (extended family) so we go along…we may not want to play pictionary, but being the only one sulking in the corner would spoil it for everyone else so you suck it up and give it your best…or help hunt down the mammoth instead of wandering off looking for apples, depending on your exteded family.
Since the group is small and every individual knows each other, it is likely that most moral issues are also approached from a common direction. Yet, if there are some serious disagreements – in a very small group – they are settled by either dominance assertion or split of the group. This does not scale up that easily…
As the community becomes as large and complex as a state, the variety of experiences within it is going to be much differentiated among the different members. Therefore there will be much more of likelihood that people will not all agree with each other on questions of morality. Different states have varying methods of arriving at a concensus (and for allowing a variation from concensus to exist), yet, they all share the need for their civil servants to continue to behave as agents of the state.
In other words, in a large state, it is very likely that there will be a civil servant who does not think that it is a good idea to add fluoride to the water supply. Yet, if that state decides that fluoride will be added to the water, and that civil servant happens to be working at the water plant, that civil servant must put aside his personal view and carry out the will of the state. In a free country, there is always an alternative – the civil servant may choose to quit his job and become a tailor instead.
The point is that, while he is acting on behalf of the state, the civil servant must carry out the will of the state, not his own will - or resign.
When you think about it, the ‘resign’ bit is a built-in control: if the order of the state is too evil, civil servants will resign en masse because they will refuse to carry it out. This will disrupt the governance structures to such a degree that the state will cease to exist, as nobody will be willing to act on its behalf. Which is pretty much what happened during the ‘velvet revolution’ and similar events.
And, of course, this is one of those costs of scaling up our communities which we do not usually think about. Yet, the more people we contract as civil servants, the more people will have to put aside their personal opinions and carry out the will of the state.