28 June, 2016

The psychology of good governance

One of the primary challenges of governance is to contend with the concept of "ownership" of resources in a population. The challenge becomes acute when resources are scarce. But even when resources are not scarce, managing ownership is always a challenging task.

Ownership has several dimensions to it. It is not just about privileges over something. Ownership is just as much about responsibility, accountability and even identity. The concept becomes even more complex when having to manage issues of joint ownership or public ownership. Not all elements of ownership provide the same levels of rational incentives to its members, because of which, managing joint ownership is replete with complications like the Prisoners' dilemma, Tragedy of the commons, Conflicts of interest (Bach or Stravinsky), NIMBY, etc.

The concept of ownership is pretty unique to the human species. Management of ownership is what makes human societies "civilized" compared to the jungle.

The jungle does not understand the concept of ownership. While some animals are "territorial" by nature, this is still not the same as claiming ownership. Ownership is much more involved and deep in terms of commitment, than the territoriality of say, wild cats. Ownership is driven by consciously explicated, codified laws, while instincts are not.

Managing ownership is critical towards creating compassionate and just systems. A democratic republic for example, is owned by every citizen, who enjoys fundamental rights and are expected to perform fundamental duties. Ownership itself goes beyond rights and duties -- and is inculcated in the form of a national identity and having citizens identify themselves with the republic as patriots.

Managing ownership is indeed very critical to bring a society out of anarchy or the jungle law.

However, ownership has a dark side to it too, which can make it even more insidious and even more brutal than the jungle.

The concept of ownership is central to notions of slavery and bonded, indentured and forced labour. Ownership concerns have also been central to the several bloody conquests, oppression and exploitation that have been the bane of the history of humanity.

When people, communities or entire nations become objects of ownership and are treated like the property of a private, vested interest, "civilization" becomes far worse than the jungle.

I'm reminded of this story from the Readers' Digest that I'd read several years ago. A group of hikers get lost in the jungles (before the days of the GPS) and are wandering around for several days, surviving in the wild. After a few days of hiking, they come across a fence on which they see a board saying:
"Warning! Private property! Trespassers will be shot! Survivors will be shot again!" (Image Source: Google)
Seeing this, they exclaim, "Ah! Civilization, at last!!"

The dark side of ownership that was in vogue at that time, is also what prompted Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, to say, "I think it would be a good idea!"


As always, I'm interested in how to distinguish between the benign "civilized" form of ownership and its darker variety? What is a model that can explain the formation of these kinds of approaches to ownership?

So, here is my theory, rooted in cognitive psychology. 

One of the primary challenges of life, is survival. And survival is all about staying alive in an uncertain environment and facing an uncertain future. 

Life has evolved two broad strategies for tackling the survival problem in animals, and encodes either or both of them as instincts. 

The two basic survival instincts are: the territorial instinct and the herding instinct

The "territorial" instinct tries to establish one's dominance or will over what one considers their "territory." This way, uncertainty from the territory is much lesser as compared against the rest of the world. The territory is one's dominion or backyard, where one can afford to relax and let down their guards. 

In contrast, the "herding" instinct tries to find safety in numbers. The herding instinct makes the animal to want to "belong" to a herd and be accepted by the herd. The herd as a whole is much more powerful and assertive than its individual members, thus reducing survival crises to some extent. 

Usually, stronger animals like tigers and other wild cats are territorial, while weaker animals like deer and cattle are characterized by their herding instinct. However, this distinction is not sharp. Elephants for example, which are not weak, tend to favour herding over territoriality.

Now, my theory of civilized versus oppressive forms of ownership has to do with the above survival instincts. 

When territorial creatures are taught the concept of ownership, they tend to form systems of oppressive ownership; while when creatures who are driven by the herding instinct are taught about ownership, they tend to create benign or civilized forms of ownership systems. 

It is easy to see why I assert the above. 

Territoriality is all about exclusivity and dominance. When exclusivity and dominance is codified into law, it legitimises a number of oppressive and exploitative practices, in the name of security or integrity or some such reason. 

Herding is all about belonging and co-habitation. Herding by itself does not recognize or respect personal boundaries or property. However, if the concept of ownership and property is introduced into a herd in such a way that the core principles of the herd are not compromised, then the herd would implement ownership in a way that is inclusive, respectful (of one's privacy and property) as well as fair. Fairness is an important element of herd dynamics. If a herd is unfair to its members, they tend to break away, thus weakening the herd. In contrast, for the territorial mind, might is right.

In the territorial world, ownership is seen as a natural expression of the individual instinct for territoriality. For this reason, ownership is considered sacrosanct and almost regarded as a fundamental rights. Who owns what, is of course decided by their "fitness" to own something.

In the herding world, ownership by individuals is seen as defying of the collective will by the individual, and is treated with disdain. However, if the herd is educated about the need for private space and property, ownership is seen as a "weak right" accorded by the collective towards the individual, which can be rescinded for collective good anytime.

So my contention is that, a system of law that is codified by a population driven by the herding instinct is likely to be more fair, compassionate, humane and civilized; while a system of law codified by a population driven by territoriality is likely to be oppressive, exploitative, dogmatic and belligerent.

Principles of natural governance, if you will.