Bryan Caplan  

Lip Service

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Individualists such as myself are often accused of being psychologically oblivious.  Look around!  The vast majority of human beings crave community and belonging.  Social thinkers who refuse to account for this obvious fact may be smart and articulate.  But they don't know what they're talking about.
 
I agree that most individualists are psychologically oblivious.  But so is almost everyone.  The problem is not individualists, but psychology.  The replication crisis notwithstanding, psychology is a tough and subtle subject.  We can't directly observe anyone's psychology but our own - and our self-descriptions are corrupted by our desire to impress others.  Each person's intimate familiarity with his own psychology helps, but also misleads because we're so quick to generalize from our person to all mankind.

Assertions about humans' intense craving for community and belonging are a case in point.  The surface problem: The humans who energetically defend these claims tend to be exceptionally communitarian.  That's why they're so outspoken on the topic.  The fundamental problem, though, is that "community" and "belonging" sound good, leading to rampant lip service. 

How can I say that?  By noting the stark contrast between how much people say they care about community, and how lackadaisically they try to fulfill their announced desire.  I've long been shocked by the fraction of people who call themselves "religious" who can't even bother to attend a weekly ceremony or speak a daily prayer.  But religious devotion is fervent compared to secular communitarian devotion.  How many self-styled communitarians have the energy to attend a weekly patriotic or ethnic meeting?  To spend a few hours a week watching patriotic or ethnically-themed television and movies?  To utter a daily toast to their nation or people?  Indeed, only a tiny percentage of people who claim to love community find the time for communitarian slacktivism.

You could argue that coordination costs explain the curious shortage of intentional communities.  But nothing stops secular communitarians from matching the time commitment of suburban Catholics.  Well, nothing but their own apathy. 

The lesson: While individualists do tend to neglect mankind's craving for community, they err on the side of truth.  Actions really do speak louder than words.  And actions reveal that people are far less communitarian than they claim.
 



COMMENTS (13 to date)
Thomas writes:

I suspect that a large fraction of self-proclaimed communitarians think of government as a communitarian institution. It isn't, of course, because it hands down the dictates of elected officials, who "represent" people only in a very loose sense, and of unelected bureaucrats and judges. But the defenders of government action are fond of portraying it as communal action. And a lot of people buy into that myth.

David Condon writes:

I think you need a definition of individualism and communitarianism. You're writing a blog daily for others to read. You spend a good deal of time lecturing or preparing lectures. You likely have grad students which you speak with regularly. You have lunch with other faculty members. You collaborate with other professors to write papers. You raise a family. I would regard all of these as aspects of community, and together they probably exceed the amount of time you spend alone; not counting basic physiological functions. So it's really a matter of degree. I'm not sure how your definition would defer from introversion vs extroversion. And yes, you're probably a lot more introverted than most, but you're certainly no hermit.

Charlie writes:

"How many self-styled communitarians have the energy to attend a weekly patriotic or ethnic meeting?"

What about the immense time, energy and effort devoted to rooting for local sports teams?

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Bryan Caplan,
You recently wrote about your feeling alienated. What else is this alienation but frustrated craving for community and belonging?

Psmith writes:
But nothing stops secular communitarians from matching the time commitment of suburban Catholics.

This is not an argument against communitarianism, it's an argument in favor of suburban Catholicism as a form of community. The religion part is not an epiphenomenon, not just a 31st flavor of community. Catholicism has been optimized as a communitarian institution since the Nicene Creed, whereas modern secularism can't even convince its adherents to reproduce at replacement rates.

Josh writes:

This is tricky territory, but what do we make of data points like the opiate use, life expectancy changes, etc.? Is direct community-seeking the only, or best, measure of the importance of community? If we're talking about psychology and community, it's hard to stick to assumptions of intimate self-knowledge and simple causal relationships.

Roger Sweeny writes:

I think you have it wrong. Most people like to have a sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger and longer-lasting than themselves. This doesn't need to entail any sort of getting together or engaging in "community activities."

Thus, a college student can feel that she is part of the people who will make a world of cured sickness and no poverty by being ready to tell a pollster that she supports Bernie Sanders, and by "liking" pro-Sanders memes on Facebook.

A person can feel a connection to the American past and future just by having a cookout on the Fourth of July.

When things get weird, that desire to belong can be exploited by those ready to provide it. ISIS would be an extreme example. The rise of religious ("sectarian") parties would be another.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Patriotic TV shows?

I tend to think of support for community as enjoying taking your kids to the park or going to the store down the street or having breakfast on Saturday at the diner two blocks away where all the waitresses know my daughter and say hi.

I do that stuff constantly. I don't watch any patriotic TV shows though.

hanmeng writes:

I find this post quite appealing. Let's form a community--of individualists.

ThaomasH writes:

I think you can get lots of "Lefty" politics out of regular Utilitarianism with declining marginal utility of income without much "communitarian" longing. And according to Haite, aren't Lefties less "communitarian" (less "Loyalty" an "Authority") than Righties?

austrartsua writes:

Evolution tells us that we should expect humans to be very attracted to SMALL communities - families basically. Very small tribes of a dozen or so people. So concepts such as nation, city etc are far too big and are quite unnatural. The fact that humans managed to make such enormous conglomerates work is quite amazing and is a large part of the reason we are no longer indistinguishable from the other apes.

So, for cultural reasons cities and societies work. But we do not have instincts evolved for them. Patriotism and other things work by tricking us into feeling the same way we do for small family groups, for larger abstract entities like Germany, or the church.

To the extent that we are communitarians - we are only strongly so at the family level. We are deeply concerned with finding and keeping a mate, raising a family, looking after loved ones (mum and dad, brother/sister). These are instinctual (for 99% of us at least). All other communities are a distant second.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

We seem to be overlooking the distinction between "association" and community.

There does seem to be an "instinct" for association, probably to confirm or reinforce our sense of existence from observing the significance of one's life in the lives of others, or the significance of the lives of others to one's own - though finding that "exact," full significance sought may be more rare than hoped for.

There can be associations within communities, but the latter are largely impersonal, whilst the former have a better chance of being inter-personal.

And in that seeking for significance, there is usually a motivation to influence, if not determine, the perceptions others form of one's self.

Phil writes:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/05/10/the-incredible-impact-of-rich-parents-fighting-to-live-by-the-very-best-schools/

seems like people pay quite a premium for various communities, when which community you're in is tied to which school your kid will go to

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what do you imagine the price premium is in Southern CA for schools with different ethnic makeups?

doesn't that start to look like an externality or tax you're forcing people to pay if they don't want their kids to go to a crappy school?

now they have to pay extra to for a similar house

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seems like a tragedy of the commons situation to me

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