[ print ]

Political Scientist, University Professor, University of Washington & University of Sydney
Communities Of Fate

We all live in communities of fate; our fates are entwined with others in ways we perceive and ways we cannot. Our individual and group actions often have consequences, sometimes unforeseen, that affect others in significant ways. Moreover, there are those, beyond our families, with whom we feel entangled, whose interests and welfare we perceive as tied to our own. In the lingo of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), "an injury to one is an injury to all." Self-evidently, who is included in the "one" and who in the "all" differs among us, and therein, I shall argue, lies the rub.

How we understand our community of fate matters for the perils the world faces today and into the future. The fact that so many people choose to live in ways that narrow the community of fate to a very limited set of others and to define the rest as threatening to their way of life and values is deeply worrying because this contemporary form of tribalism, and the ideologies that support it, enable them to deny complex and more crosscutting mutual interdependencies—local, national, and international—and to elude their own role in creating long-term threats to their own wellbeing and that of others. Climate change and religious zealotry are among the well-documented examples of individual and small group actions that have significant spillover effects. Perhaps most alarming is our collective failure to incorporate not only future generations but also our future selves into our communities of fate. "The end of history illusion," recently documented by Daniel T. Gilbert, Jordi Quoidbach, and Timothy Wilson, reveals how deep the problem runs. The implications for almost all public policies are enormous.

But there is hope. It is possible to expand the community of fate well beyond the network of those we personally know. We make decisions all the time that have consequences for others; there is now evidence that if we understand those consequences and expand our community of fate, we might actually make different choices. For example, we purchase goods because they are cheap but fail to acknowledge that they may embody labor that is badly paid or treated. As research by Michael Hiscox and Jens Hainmueller details, more information and a different framing can transform the consumption patterns of at least some buyers.

Jaron Lanier, in Edge, argues that the "new moral question" is whether our decisions are self-interested or take others into account. Who an individual includes in her community of fate or what Lanier labels "circle of empathy" is a moral question, yes, but it is also an empirical question. Organizational and institutional factors can explain variation and transformation in the community of fate. They can enable individuals to revise their beliefs and understandings of the consequences of their actions and, in some instances, to change the boundaries of their communities of fate.

Of critical importance are the governance arrangements of the group and the procedures for enforcing them. All groups have rules and norms that define membership and appropriate behavior; membership organizations, including government, codify those rules and norms into formal institutions. How the community of fate—and not just membership—is defined requires a leadership (or set of officials) committed to a set of principles that they are willing to uphold in unforeseen circumstances, punishment of violations that make these commitments credible, and provision of services, security, and other benefits members expect.

But the community can be narrow or broad. To expand the community of fate beyond the actual members of the given organization depends on the desire and capacity of leadership and key members to convince the rest that their welfare is tied up with a larger set of others, often unknown others. Success is further contingent on the provision of new information in a context of strong and potential challenge to its veracity. Organizations most effective in expanding the community of fate are those that allow members to question what they are being told and to seek additional information, if need be. In practice, this implies some form of participatory governance or bottom-up democracy.

The broadening of the community with whom individuals feel solidarity and mutual interdependence, is generally the result of factors that promote collective action: incentives, punishments, monitoring, and interaction over time. But, with a push from the behavioral economists, we now recognize the equal importance of appeals to fairness and the creation of emotional attachments. At least some people, some of the time, will make individual sacrifices in order to combat unfairness. And what Elisabeth Wood labels "the pleasure of agency" can motivate actions that serve a larger whole or a longer term set of interests. As Ernst Fehr, Samuel Bowles and others find, implicit and emotional incentives can lead to complementarities rather than substitution of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

So, the good news is that communities of fate can be expanded to include strangers and future generations as well as friends. But there is a problem here—and two additional sources of worry. First, we are far from figuring out how to use our scientific knowledge about our mutual interdependencies to make more people aware of their shared welfare. How do we extend what we have learned from the lab and case studies to a larger set of institutions and organizations? Second, and even more troubling, the mechanisms that draw people out of their narrow self-serving behavior can be used for good or ill. Terrorists and other zealots, of the religious, nationalist, and political kind, believe they are serving a larger collective good, at least for those within their definition of the collective to be served, and many sacrifice for their cause. How do we inhibit these types groups and promote the governments and organizations that serve a more fully encompassing public? That is, indeed, a problem worth worrying about.