Culture and language as public goods

Herewith a weekend half-hour read. Comments and corrections appreciated.

A culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons that sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood – with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg.
Philip Rieff, 1966. The Triumph of the Therapeutic.1

Did any social scientist know that roughly “half of all species on earth are parasitic on the other half”
Jeroen Bruggeman, Review of Robert Trivers’ Deceit and Self‐Deception.2

I Introduction 

It’s uncontroversial that culture is a public good. What other kind of good would it be? It were mostly ignored in contemporary economics until, noticed by its absence it was rebranded ‘social capital’. Language too is a public good. The computer age has given us an excellent metaphor for them. They constitute the operating system for our lives together. But they appear very rarely in economics textbooks as public goods. They don’t really fit the economist’s way of thinking about public goods. 

Economists think of public goods is posing a particular kind of social dilemma which has since been refined as ‘the free-rider problem’. David Hume takes up the story in 1739:

Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because it is easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But it is very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons should agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and would lay the whole burden on others. Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. … Thus bridges are built; harbours opened; ramparts raised; canals formed; fleets equipped; and armies disciplined every where, by the care of government.

This received its neoclassical formalisation in 1954 from from Paul Samuelson and, where he defined public goods as ‘collectively consumed’ the contemporary treatment of public goods is well summarised in the canonical quadrant first presented by Richard Musgrave in 1973.3 

Figure 1: The canonical public good quadrant 

Excludable  Non-Excludable 
Rival Private Goods

Beef, beer, bread

Common pool resources

Artesian water, fish in the sea

Non-Rival Club goods

Club memberships, subscriptions, toll roads

Public goods 

Street lights, defence, fireworks 

A fireworks display is non-excludable because one cannot stop people in the area from seeing it. And it’s hard to charge a price if free-riders still get the product. ikewise a fireworks display is non-rival because, unlike a physical object, one person’s ‘consumption’ of it doesn’t prevent others ‘consuming’ it. 

II    Free rider problems: free-rider opportunities 

One of the best things about this quadrant is rarely pointed out. The two axes map the up and downsides of free-riding. For economists, the essence of public goods is non-excludability – which can present the free-rider problem if it prevents the good being produced. On the other hand, non-rivalrousness creates the free-rider opportunity something which, as I’ve argued elsewhere receives far too little attention. 

Now the mindset that this quadrant illustrates conceives of public goods as economic goods like private goods – but which raise free-rider issues. Culture and language are different in ways I documented at length here. Most fundamentally they are what I’ll call “relational goods” – they’re produced as they’re consumed. Relational goods appear in our lives in specific forms which I’ll call ‘shared goods’ and they come with specific (shared) purposes. 

This includes games, conversations and specific institutions that see people share specific, identifiable purposes. These include formal institutions like the Post Office and Apple Corporation and also informal institutions like the queue that might form spontaneously at a bus stop. And then there are things which exhibit the same properties but which have evolved to the point that they are true public goods – public resources freely available to all. They include language, culture and markets. Having previously called them emergent public goods, but also call them generative orders for in addition to being goods in the sense that they’re valuable resources they also constitute worlds within our world and worlds we inhabit. This table locates them alongside classic public goods.

Figure 2: Relational goods: Jointness in production and consumption

Relational goods

(Production is joint with consumption)

Discrete goods

(Production is separate from consumption)
Joint in Consumption Shared relational goods

Conversations, games, communities of practice, standards 

Emergent public goods or generative orders 

Language, culture, markets, the price system, liquidity, money 

Classic public goods 

Street lights, defence, fireworks

Separate in Consumption Unclear 4


Private Goods  

Beef, beer, bread


III   Shared intentionality: the ultimate form of sharing

There has been any number of things that have been singled out as defining our species – from language, storytelling, honouring deities, burying our dead and cooking to yoga classes (OK no-one has suggested that last one, I’m just making sure you’re paying attention.) But for the last couple of decades, the multi-disciplinary cluster of scholars delving into the evolution of our species have come to focus increasingly on our social skills – where previously our cognitive powers as individuals played a larger role. 

At the centre of this new approach is the notion of shared intentionality. As Simon Angus and Jonathan Newman put it:

Considerable experimental evidence suggests that, from an early age … human infants outperform apes at tasks that involve collaborative activity. Specifically, human infants excel at joint action motivated by reasoning of the form “we intend to do X” (shared intentions), as opposed to reasoning of the form “I intend to do X because he is doing X” (individual intentions). Jointly intentional action pervades human existence, from the mundanity of you and your partner choosing a color of wallpaper for your house to the exquisite plays of your favorite sports team.5

Each of the examples in the passage so far quoted presupposes some specific project in which multiple people agree to participate, either explicitly or implicitly in something that could be recognised as a project – usually in order to achieve some goal. I will call this first order shared intentionality in order to define two other, more indirect and attenuated forms of shared intentionality which I discuss in the next two sub-sections. They thread the tendrills of shared intentionality into every part of our lives. This is something that David Hume understood in 1739 when he wrote:

Two men who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho’ they have never given promises to each other. Nor is the rule concerning the stability of possession the less derived from human conventions, that it arises gradually, and acquires force by a slow progression … In like manner are languages established by human conventions without any promise.

IV    Second order or extended shared intentionality: the institutions of social and economic life

Consider games – either in their embryonic and/or improvised form out on the schoolyard or in their more formalised sense at Wimbledon or in the World Series each year. Distinct from a shared, agreed project like painting a room, they nevertheless entangle their participants in webs of shared intentionality – to play the game for the participants’ and possibly others’ benefit. Conversations have the same form. But their purposes are vastly more diverse and protean than sporting games. And the ‘rules’ the participants observe can’t be satisfactorily formalised as games can. 

Games, conversations and any similar human forms are ‘institutions’ in the sense that that word has been defined in some social sciences as  “habitual ways of living and thinking”. 6 But ‘institutions’ in the more common meaning of the word also threat shared intentionality through our social and economic lives. They can be highly formalised – like the post office, the army or Apple Corporation. Or they can be informal – arising spontaneously to meet collective needs as occurs in the spontaneous formation of a queue for boarding a bus. 

With games, conversations and other human institutions, participants are each corralled into behaviour that serves shared purposes by understandings that they mutually share. They achieve this even while the participants are actively competing – in the case of games. In the other examples discussed, the participants share some intention with other participants, even though their interests may differ in numerous respects. Yet the intention that they share – to be part of a queue and the utility it affords, or part of a conversation – coheres through it all. It does so because it serves the participants’ purposes as individuals to participate in sharing with other individuals in queuing and conversing, or if they’re in a formal economic institution like a business, in producing. Each of these institutions brings people together with some overriding purpose, however loosely defined in what I will call extended, or second order shared intentionality. 

V   Third order shared intentionality: The generative orders of culture and language

And beyond these direct and extended, or first and second order forms of shared intentionality there is a third order of shared intentionality. This is a platform and a repository of resources for for human life: the generative order. I would suggest that there are three such orders in existence – language, culture and markets – though my focus here is on the first two.7 Each of these orders is a truly extraordinary creation, itself initially scaffolded by the epiphenomena of shared intentionality among early hominids and, once established themselves scaffolding our ascent through the eons. 

Here’s a cut down list of the qualities of a generative order or emergent public good from a longer list I’ve previously sketched

  1. The order is a freely available good built on the sharing of intangible (and so non-rival) resources – symbols, expectations, norms and routines.
  2. The norms within it impose constraints on its participants to conform with them. 
  3. Though the public good is free to all, it does not suffer the ‘tragedy of the commons’. People put their time and effort into developing it because it is a by-product of their efforts to interact. They meet both its costs of development and comply with the constraints it imposes on them in order to access the agency that operating within the order gives them.
  4. The generative order both fosters social cognition and motivates action. Thus, in markets, prices both enable participants to apprehend economic value as well as motivate them to maximise it. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, language and culture have a similar dual function. 
  5. Generative orders operate as a repository of the existing knowhow within their communities. Whereas this is true for the culture of some animal species, humans are distinctive in the extent to which for them, culture is an ever-accumulating book of wisdom.8
  6. At any point, there is no guarantee that this book of wisdom isn’t also a book of folly, though maladaptive routines can be weeded out over time.

VI   The apex free-rider opportunity

Free-rider problems and opportunities loom large in understanding relational goods, but in quite different ways to the way we’re used to talking about them with classic public goods. They’re built on free-riding – and so, cannot proceed without it. No free riding, no relational good. Not only that, but the relational goods that mediate human social life – including culture and language – are strictly prior to the possibility that private goods might be exchanged in a market, both historically and logically. Private goods presuppose – they gain their characteristics as private goods within a market which is itself an emergent public good. Thus it is either prior to private goods to at least coevolves with them. 

We think of human ascendancy as arising from the industrial revolution or at least the agricultural revolution ten thousand years earlier. But it predates them both. Even when humans were hunter-gatherers, language and culture had seen them migrate to every substantial land mass on earth other than Antactica. No other single species has achieved anything like that (except the animal companions we took on our journey as partners in companionship or production or which stowed awat for the ride as pests!).

With other apes left behind in warm and temperate climates, nothing remotely resembling our versatility or geographic range exists at the species level. At the next level up in the animal kingdom the ‘order’, rodents roughly matche our own range. But the order of rodents comprises around 2,200 different species. Even as hunter gatherers before the agricultural revolution, humans were dominant, not just by geographic range but also by biomass. 9

And that dominance was made possible by a unique aspect of human culture. Non-human species – for instance the porpoises, apes and some birds have developed advantageous techniques of hunting and foraging that have remained unique to certain communities and areas. But the things learned and passed on within their culture seem not to accumulate to any appreciable degree. By contrast, human culture accumulated to transform humanity.  

As Wikipedia tells us, Hippocrates, Galen, Pliny the Elder and others knew that willow bark could ease pain and reduce fevers. We now know and have further exploited the fact that the active ingredient in achieving this effect is salycilic acid. In any event, once discovered the knowledge of how to use it efficaciously and safely was encoded in human culture. And built upon. And this is just a small example. 

Though there have been some huge discoveries – like the wheel and penicillin – and Newton described his own extraordinary conceptual breakthroughs as standing on the shoulders of giants, almost all of our progress and adaptability as a species is built on our capacity to learn incrementally from the experience of multitudes both in our own generation and back through the aeons. And, since psychologist Nicholas Humphrey published a groundbreaking article in 1976, evolutionary biologists have become increasingly confident, that humans’ remarkable productivity and adaptability to different environments is not built directly on their greater intelligence than other species, but indirectly upon it via free-riding on culture as explained in the next section.

Remarkably engaging for academic article, Humprey’s “The social function of intelligence” began with an anecdote about Henry Ford sending out inspectors to junk yards to discover which parts never failed. One answer, it turned out, was Kingpins. Ford responded by downgrading their specifications to cut costs. Humprey continued:

Nature is surely at least as careful an economist as Henry Ford. It is not her habit to tolerate needless extravagance in the animals on her production lines: superfluous capacity is trimmed back, new capacity added only as and when it is needed. We do not expect therefore to find that animals possess abilities which far exceed the calls that natural living makes on them. If someone were to argue … that some primate species (and mankind in particular) are much cleverer than they need be, we know that they are most likely to be wrong. But it is not clear why they would be wrong. This paper explores a possible answer. It is an answer which has meant for me a re-thinking of the function of intellect.10

Humphrey showed how those things about chimpanzees that most resembled human intellectual abilities – like tool use for instance – showed remarkably little analytical thought, being the likely product of trial and error. Humphrey suggested boldly that, rather than requiring intelligence, the techniques the great apes used for survival might actually substitute for it. For whatever their initial origin, the present-day practitioners of those techniques simply learned them from others. 

He went further, fascinatingly suggesting that, at least among the primates, the resources of culture affords the great apes relatively leisurely lives that actually make lower cognitive demands on them to survive than other primates like baboons that are forced to live much more by their wits. Humphrey declared that he was “yet to hear of any example … of a chimpanzee (or for that matter a Bushman) using his full capacity for inferential reasoning in the solution of a biologically relevant practical problem”. 

Humphrey solves the puzzle of primates’ outsized brains by contrasting their cognitively undemanding practical lives with their lives as ‘social animals’. For to successfully navigate primate society, the primate must calculate the consequences of their own behaviour and the likely responses of others from ephemeral, ambiguous and changing evidence. “In such a situation, ‘social skill’ goes hand in hand with intellect, and here at last the intellectual faculties required are of the highest order”.11

According to this view, humans’ extraordinary adaptability to different environments is not the product of our technical intelligence, but rather our social intelligence being sufficient to maintain a culture sufficiently rich to progressively accumulate and hold the practical wisdom learned from endless discoveries most of which occurred by trial and error. A dramatic illustration of this is offered by numerous similar stories of Europeans becoming stranded in landscapes in which the indigenes had learned to thrive. And yet when they had to fend for themselves, despite plenty of human ingenuity and long periods to learn about their environment, the Europeans suffered, and sometimes perished.

Though the city of Sydney is today celebrated for its fertility and easy climate, the community of nearly 1,500 people who founded Sydney Town in 1788 nearly starved and took years to build comfortable subsistence. Burke and Wills did starve or rather died on a diet of the vegetable nardoo – the indigenous ‘bush tucker’ they’d pinned their last hopes for survival on – without learning the natives’ ways of detoxifying it and mobilising its nutritional value in peparing it as food. Below is a tiny extract from a fabulous article which, among other things reports Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. At the time it was the most lavishly equipped expedition ever launched, contained three years of supplies and internal heating for the ship’s crew. Having spent nearly two years caught in pack-ice, the crew abandoned their ship at King William Island and all perished. 

The local inuit name for King William Island means “lots of fat.” But despite the time they spent there and their preparations, the crew were unable to live off the fat of that land. Understanding something of the technology the local inuit had developed gives us some appreciation of why that is so. Here’s the way three researchers explain how the inuit hunted seals in their article “The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation”. It explains inuit footware and how it’s made:

Winter footwear was constructed with many layers: first the alirsiik, furlined caribou stockings, then the ilupirquk, short lightweight stockings with the fur outside, then a pair of pinirait, heavier stockings with the fur to the outside, then kamiik, boots with the fur outside, and finally tuqtuqutiq, short heavy double-soled boots of caribou skin. Clothing was stitched together with fine thread made from sinew taken from around the vertebrae of caribou. The sinew had to be cleaned, scraped, shredded, and twisted to make thread. Several different kinds of stitches were used for different kinds of seams. A complicated double stitch was used to make footwear waterproof. To make these stitches, Central Inuit women used fine bone needles that made holes that were smaller in diameter than the thread.12

Not much standing on the shoulders of giants here one suspects – mostly standing on the shoulders of innumerable pygmies, the product of endless small incremental improvements.

VII   Undermining relational goods: the other free-rider problem

However, paradoxical as it may sound, even free-riding doesn’t come entirely for free. It is the product of a benign set of relations and certain actions or inactions may endanger their benignity. I will explore those actions under the appropriate headings below. 

7.1   Peer-punishment, pooled punishment and the second-order free-rider problem

Much economic debate about public goods is a debate about the right role and size of government. Nevertheless, humanity supplies some of its classic public goods, particularly local ones, without governments. I remember working bees at my primary school in a little village near the Dandenongs in Victoria and this kind of local democratic self-help has been an integral part of American’s national self-image since Tocqueville observed it in action in the early nineteenth century. And this is voluntary action. If these goods are sufficiently important, if one is not using governments, it may be necessary to sanction free-riders. 

If ‘pooled punishment’ is not available through some formal and coercive organisation like government, the alternative is peer punishment – via such things as individuals shaming, shunning and excluding perceived free-riders from social and economic participation. But in solving a problem this raises a problem. Punishment itself is costly. In addition to requiring time and effort, it can arouse the hostility of the punished. And that raises the ‘second order free-rider problem’. If people are punishing free riders, that raises the ‘second order free-rider problem’. Why don’t they leave it to others? 

At least if one thinks of humans as nothing more than the sum of these kinds of incentives acting on them, peer-punishment must always be a work in progress. Nevertheless sometimes peer punishment works well. I would conclude from my own experience that the rules of spontaneous games are generally well adhered to. Here both players have an interest in all players following the rules and each have an equal sanction against the non-cooperation of others – of exiting the game and perhaps seeking a better cooperator to replace the uncooperative partner(s). 

The spontaneous queue at a bus stop is a stronger test of peer-punishment because there is a conflict of interest between the free-riding queue jumpers and rule followers. Where exiting from a spontaneous game punishes cooperators and free-riders alike, a cooperator exiting from a bus queue imposes no costs and may reward free-riding queue jumpers (depending on where they are in the queue). Even so, where they are part of the culture, such queues usually work effectively. Primates’ bring to peer punishment strong emotions around notions of fairness as is evident on viewing a famous video of a capuchin monkey rejecting a type of food they’ve just accepted once they see their fellow monkey receive something nicer.13

And humans help ‘scale’ the significance of these emotions by applying them to general normsThis can make peer punishment reasonably effective at least in some circumstances. Thus for instance, in the case of one relational good – the institution of spontaneous queuing – peer punishment seems to work well. Spontaneous queues are held together at least as much by the anxiety people experience anticipating others’ altruistic punishment as it is by their encountering that punishment itself judging from Stanley Milgram’s experimental exploration of the question. Those he paid to queue-jump procrastinated for up to half an hour to work up the nerve. “For some, the anticipation of intruding was so unpleasant that physical symptoms, such as pallor and nausea, accompanied intrusions”.14

7.2   Alignment with purposes 

In addition to the potential inefficiencies of peer-punishment, there are other important differences between the free-rider problems associated with classic public goods and those associated with relational goods including emergent public goods.15 As opposed to classic public goods, relational goods deliver their benefits via ongoing relationships which are: 

  1. of mutual value to those involved in them and 
  2. informed by specific purposes.

In this case, free-riding or non-cooperation typically takes the form of some non-alignment with, or even active subversion of, those purposes. Assuming for the time being that those purposes are broadly understood between the parties, relational goods conjure the spectre of an endless dialectic   

A relational good can be used to further improve cooperation for all. Thus for example, if an individual plays their role fairly in task sharing (for instance within the shared parenting arrangements common to early hominids) it improves their own productivity and wellbeing as well as others’ and thus the group’s. On the other hand, like a virus ‘infecting’ an operating system or a counterfeiter printing money, culture’s many resources can be hijacked to trick or manipulate others. Here one individual’s gain is another’s loss. Thus for instance wild tufted capuchin monkeys deceptively use ‘alarm calls’ that normally warn others of predators, to disperse others to grab their food.16

And there’s more to such “Machiavallian intelligence” as the field of evolutionary human development came to call it. For defection from the purposes embedded in some institution is not a zero sum game. As well as redistributing resources from cooperator to defector, there’s also a loss to the community. It degrades the relationships on which the relational good is built and thus the shared value it generates. The unfairness of the monkey’s Machiavellianism sabotages the value of the community’s culture as a repository of resources – in this case by degrading the signals within it. Indeed, economists have a term for the process – Gresham’s Law – which states that bad money drives out good. And the speed with which Gresham’s Law takes hold in degrading a culture contrasts markedly with the time it takes to build it up. 

VIII   Nurturing and optimising culture

Here at last, is the paradigm free-rider problem for the relational goods that hold our institutions together and the public good of culture. It discloses an agenda of great scope and importance, and yet one that it seems to me has somehow eluded our direct gaze. If I think of the many discourses in which this quest might be prosecuted, each has important things to say but somehow stops short of taking seriously the question “how do we optimise the quality and value of our cultural resources?” I am not speaking of anything anything resembling wholesale social engineering here, but rather piecemeal tweaks to institutions to strengthen the hand of truth-telling and cooperation and so build our defences to free-riding and defection.

I’ve written elsewhere about how economics, constituting itself in the image of the natural sciences, has preoccupied itself with explaining our world and how it came to be and only secondarily with the use of such knowledge to improve our lives. Yet this differs subtly, but profoundly from the focus of professional disciplines such as medicine, engineering and education. There, scientific knowledge is valued, but only to the extent that it helps the discipoline achieve its human purposes. I suspect something similar can be said for other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology that might otherwise be more helpful in this context. Nevertheless those disciplines offer us valuable resources as for instance techniques of ethnography imported from anthropology have been helpful in many contexts, for instance human centred design. 

Among modern ideologies too, socialism and liberalism tend to focus on material interests and/or individual choice. They have strong preferences for the kinds of values they’d like to embed in culture, which can tempt their holders towards social engineering. But they offer little additional insight into nurturning the quality and value of the resources within the culture. Only Burkean conservatism speaks reverentially of the wisdom embodied in the culture of everyday life and the importance of protecting its integrity and defends it against what it sees as the overweening rationalism of other creeds.17 

However, while conservatism could be described as concerned about preserving what is best about a given culture (from a particular point of view), it is largely silent on the question of how it might be nurtured or improved except through each of us contributing within our own little platoons. It is, if anything, instinctively hostile to institutional action in this direction (with the exception of certain established institutions playing their traditional role).

IX  So what?

I have previously pursued the implications of some of these observations and intend to write more about them. I’ll discuss them very summarily here. I think (and feel) that our culture is increasingly under siege. But perhaps that’s how it feels to every generation. In any event, as ever, while I might try to theorise my concerns at quite an abstract level, I’m pretty uninterested in doing so if that theorising doesn’t disclose ideas for addressing my concerns however partially. So here are some points:

  • I argued in this essay that our information economy is increasingly an information oligarchy. That is, not only are the public good aspects of information poorly served by our preoccupation with competition (which is better suited to private goods), but the rules of the game are being increasingly distorted by competition when rules of the game should embody the collective interests of those who play and benefit from the game. Thus financialisation and all manner of manipulation of the rules of the game by the powerful was making our markets in finance and in law increasingly inefficient and unfair.
  • I went on to argue in that essay and had previously illustrated the point elsewhere that our public life was increasingly being engulfed in discursive oligarchy – where the sinews of our culture whether in the mass media, PR, advertising or on online platforms – were increasingly manipulated for private profit rather than our own social wellbeing.
  • Something similar can be said for culture within the workplace. Many workplaces seek to cultivate a collaborative workplace, but increasing rates of pay inequality militate against that effort. Moreover, those endeavours often have a top-down flavour and an obviously manipulative quality. One would expect nothing less from managers seeking to optimise shareholders’ interests and their own bonuses. Yet in an essay I’ll post soon, I’ll show how one could use normal HR tools such as surveys of employees to keep manipulative behaviours under surveillance and help employees build a fair, cooperative workplace culture and guard against the tufted capuchin monkeys among them.
  • I recently posted a reprise of my ideas of an Evaluator General. A major part of my conceiving of this was seeing how it really was possible to put people much more fully at the centre of programs to assist them – using techniques like co-design as we used at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). Despite bromides about the importance of doing things with rather than to people, this is basically impossible where the cultures of a delivery hierarchy and the population being serviced differ dramatically. In these circumstances, the delivery agency’s (respectable middle class) culture is experienced by the target group as a soft tyranny of arbitrary rules imposed from above and beyond. To succeed, such programs must instead find mutually acceptable ways for the cultures of government bureaucracy and the target community to engage and mutually accommodate one another. Of course, here as elsewhere if one is trying address culture, one needs some kind of institutional architecture and then one needs to do the cultural work. The Evaluator General could not guarantee that this would occur, but properly implemented could give this difficult mission a chance. I firmly believe there’s no reason it can’t be done – that only lack of imagination and intent stands in the way. But I can’t prove it.
  • And then there is language, which is getting much worse as bullshit pervades our capacity to do work. I’ve written quite a bit about that too, but might try to say more as I try to further explicate my concept of discursive oligarchy.
  • And beyond all this is our own profound tendency towards kidding ourselves and spinning a good story about our motives – certainly for others, but also for ourselves – as set out in the recent inelegantly titled Elephant in the Brain. Or as he whose name cannot be spelled (Friedrich Nietzsche) once put it

The intellect, as a means for the preservation of the individual, unfolds its chief powers in simulation; for this is the means by which the weaker, less robust individuals preserve themselves, since they are denied the chance of waging the struggle for existence with horns or the fangs of beasts of prey. In man this art of simulation reaches its peak: here deception, flattering, lying and cheating, talking behind the back, posing, living in borrowed splendour, being masked, the disguise of convention, acting a role before others and before oneself—in short, the constant fluttering around the single flame of vanity is so much the rule and the law that almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could make its appearance among men.


  1. 1. Philip Rieff, 1966. The Triumph of the Theraputic, New York, pp. 2-3.[]
  2. 1. Sociological Forum, Volume 30, Issue1, March 2015, pages 243-248.[]
  3. 1. If you’re interested in the development of the concept of public goods, Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay has written some excellent recent articles on it.[]
  4. 1. It is unclear to me whether there are any goods that are joint in production but separate in consumption. One candidate example is all the ways in which parties may have participated in some joint activity and yet taken something quite different from it – for better or worse. This is the stuff of both comedy and tragedy. My mind turns to ‘first contact’ experiences in my own country between European and indigenous peoples. At times the two cultures seemed to be forging understanding which was subsequently revealed to be more or less complete mutual incomprehension. Certainly the miracle of emergent public goods arises only once subjective meanings acquire sufficient alignment that some sharing of meaning takes place.[]
  5. 1.

    Angus, S.D, Newton J., 2015. “Emergence of Shared Intentionality Is Coupled to the Advance of Cumulative Culture”. PLOS Computational Biology 11(10): e1004587 available at As the authors put it in a supplement:

    Experiments with children suggest that the collaborative urge in humans is a primal one, which develops early in infancy, prior to much of our aptitude for rational inference, and certainly prior to our ability to articulate complex hierarchical beliefs such as are required by traditional game theory. Tomasello et al. define shared intentionality thus:

    Shared intentionality, sometimes called “we” intentionality, refers to collaborative interactions in which participants have a shared goal (shared commitment) and coordinated action roles for pursuing that shared goal.

    Michael Tomasello, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll, 2005. 

    “Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 675–735, at p. 680. []

  6. 1. Rutherford, Malcolm, 2001.  “Institutional Economics: Then and Now”, Journal of Economic Perspectives Volume 15, Number 3, Summer 2001, Pages 173–194 at p. 174. See also[]
  7. 1. Some have proposed that other generative orders exist such as science which I prefer to define as a pervasive institution such as a profession, but since my purpose here requires nothing more than the distinction between second and third order shared intentionality I leave this for another time.[]
  8. 1. See Tennie, C., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364(1528), 2405–2415. at[]
  9. 1.

    Robert Boyd, 2018. A Different Kind of Animal How Culture Transformed Our Species, p. 12-13. 

    You might think that human expansion across the globe was a recent phenomenon made possible by agriculture and industrial production. But this is not the case. By the beginning of the Holocene, ten thousand years ago, hunter-gatherers had occupied every part of the globe except Antarctica and a few remote islands, and they lived in every kind of environment from the moist rain forests of Africa to the harsh deserts of Central Asia and the icy shores of the Arctic Ocean.

    At this point, I’m sometimes asked about rodents: Don’t they have a worldwide range too? And the answer is yes, they do. But rodents are an order that includes more than 2,200 species, almost all with much smaller ranges. Humans are different. One species, Homo sapiens, occupies virtually every terrestrial habitat on the planet. Norway rats are an exception, but one that proves the rule. Their range is almost as large as the range of humans (they don’t survive in the Arctic). However, these creatures were limited to Central Asia until the Middle Ages and spread to the rest of the world by hitchhiking on human transport.4 Norway rats and other human commensals (mites, helminths) live in similar human-created habitats everywhere. …

    Other standard zoological criteria tell the same story. Among vertebrates, human biomass5 is exceeded only by that of our domesticates and is many times the biomass of all wild terrestrial vertebrate species combined.6 The large human biomass is not just the result of agriculture and industrial production. It has been estimated that the carrying capacity for hunter-gatherers was about seventy million at the beginning of the Holocene.7 This large biomass is notable because in many environments human foragers are top predators who hunt the largest animals in their habitat. Top predators are typically less numerous than their prey. For example, it has been estimated that at the beginning of the Holocene, lions—another large predator with a sizable range—numbered only about one million individuals.[]

  10. 1. Nicholas Humphrey, 1976. “The social function of intellect”.[]
  11. 1. I note by way of aside that, in a much more modest way, a similar turn was taken in the economics literature in the late 1990s as James Heckman’s investigations announced the significance of ‘non-cognitive’ skills to accomplishment in human society. See eg. Cawley, J., Conneely, K., Heckman, J. and Vytlacil, E., 1997. Cognitive ability, wages, and meritocracy. In Intelligence, genes, and success (pp. 179-192). Springer, New York, NY.[]
  12. 1. Here’s Heinrich and Boyd on the significance of social learning:

    Suppose an early hominid learned, through independent, trial-and-error experimentation, to strike rocks together in order to make flakes useful for food processing. Her companions, {being} exposed to the same kinds of learning conditions, might learn to make flakes too – entirely on their own. This behavior could be preserved through socially mediated learning …  because, for example, groups in which tools were used would spend more time in proximity to the appropriate stones and food, thereby increasing an individuals’ probability of acquiring a flaking technique. (This mechanism is similar to that thought to preserve chimpanzee nut-cracking or termiting behaviors). However, that is, as far as it would go. If an especially talented individual found a way to improve the flakes, this innovation would not spread to other members of the groups because each individual acquired the information necessary to manufacture the tool by interacting with the environment. In contrast, if the early hominid had the ability to acquire the knowledge of how to make the tools by observing other tool makers, then innovations could persist as long as younger individuals were able to acquire the modified behavior by observing … others. As a result, observational learning can lead to the cumulative evolution of behaviors that no single individual could invent on her own. []

  13. 1. There’s some debate about how much the monkey was motivated by ethical norms of being treated equally with the other monkey (as opposed to now simply seeing the availablility of the nicer food). One of the leaders in the field, Michael Tomasello suggests that:

    Given our analysis of these studies, it is highly unlikely that this emotional expression constitutes resentment that a conspecific is, unfairly, receiving a better piece of food. But it may be expressing anger at the human experimenter for handing over a poor piece of food when she could have handed over a good one.

    Tomasello. Michael, 2015. A Natural History of Human Morality.[]

  14. 1. Milgram, S., Liberty, H.J., Toledo, R. and Wackenhut, J., 1986. “Response to intrusion into waiting lines”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(4), pp.683-9 at pp 685-6. Still, this experiment was done in a (then) law-abiding country where queuing was common. In other cultures, queues are much less likely to form, and one imagines the norms of honouring them would be weaker. Interestingly they’re not particularly disorderly societies – Sweden is a queuing culture, Switzerland is not. And we don’t know how much the gentilities of queuing are indirectly supported by the highly orderly nature of life in a society with high levels of background social capital and criminal law sanctioning egregious breaches social norms.[]
  15. 1. I relegate one difference to this footnote which is that the quantity of effort may be harder to discern and/or it may not be very important. For instance, in a conversation, there’s usually at least as much interest in the quality as in the quantity of participants’ contributions (for instance measured in the proportion of the time they spoke). We do hear about ‘passengers’ in a conversation, but rarely with any great passion.[]
  16. 1. Wheeler, B. C., 2009. Monkeys crying wolf? Tufted capuchin monkeys use anti-predator calls to usurp resources from conspecifics. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, 276, 3013–3018. and see Hopper, Lydia M. et al. , 2018. “Celebrating the Continued Importance of “Machiavellian Intelligence” 30 Years On”, Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol. 132, No. 4, 427–431 for more recent literature.[]
  17. 1. The same view is important in Hayekian liberalism. However unlike Burkean conservatives, Hayek shows very little concern for the ways in which markets may disrupt and degrade cultures.[]
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John R Walker
3 years ago

Relevant to your thoughts is , there was only one person on the first fleet( James Ruse) who had any practical knowledge of farming, without his skills they might well and truly have staved to death.
And soils around the harbour and environs were of very low fertility, but it was escaped cows ,not the first settlers, that found the first areas of reasonably fertile soils at the “ Cow pastures” around Camden about 30 miles from Sydney Cove.

John R Walker
3 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Re James Ruse and how the first fleet in general had very few people who had the skills needed to start a colony from scratch , there are almost too many references, from memory Robert Hughes :The Fatal Shore covers it quite well. But it’s a while since I last read it.

Re the cow pastures Éric Rolls : A Million Wild Acres , which I’m currently rereading, details that and much more .
Do you need quotes ?

R. N. England
R. N. England
3 years ago

The free-rider problem is everywhere. It might easily be called the advocacy problem. The first advocate was a nestling squawking louder and gaping wider than its sibling for the grub in its parent’s beak. That kind of advocacy works because the parent feeds the stronger chick more often. Exorbitantly paid executives claiming credit for other people’s work are a modern example. There is an assumption that if you are active enough in securing more resources than your fellow human beings, it’s OK, even if your net contribution is negative. But if you do nothing the market is prepared to pay for, and still get what you need for a healthy life, that’s bad, even if you are working on the next century’s technological breakthrough. People who find the noisy advocacy of the market place both tiresome and repellent probably include the best and brightest, whose ideas will give humanity a future.


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