Henrich on markets, trust and monogamy


Jason Collins


September 14, 2012

The Edge has put up video and transcript of a great interview with Joe Henrich (the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition and Evolution at UBC). The whole interview is worth watching or reading.

A couple of the more interesting snippets are below. First, on the division of labour:

One of the interesting things about the division of labor is that you’re not going to specialize in a particular trade—maybe you make steel plows—unless you know that there are other people who are specializing in other kinds of trades which you need—say food or say materials for making housing, and you have to be confident that you can trade with them or exchange with them and get the other things you need. There’s a lot of risk in developing specialization because you have to be confident that there’s a market there that you can engage with. Whereas if you’re a generalist and you do a little bit of farming, a little bit of manufacturing, then you’re much less reliant on the market. Markets require a great deal of trust and a great deal of cooperation to work. Sometimes you get the impression from economics that markets are for self-interested individuals. They’re actually the opposite. Self-interested individuals don’t specialize, and they don’t take it [to market], because there’s all this trust and fairness that are required to make markets run with impersonal others.

I don’t agree with Heinrich’s use of the word self-interested in the last sentence, as being trusting, specialising and trading has large individual benefits. However, the importance of trust is rarely emphasised enough.

Second, on monogamy:

Societies that have this are better able to maintain a harmonious population, increase trade and exchange, and have economic growth more than societies that allow polygamy, especially if you have a society with widely varying amounts of wealth, especially among males. Then you’re going to have a situation that would normally promote high levels of polygyny. The absolute levels of wealth difference of, say, between Bill Gates and Donald Trump and the billionaires of the world, and the men at the bottom end of the spectrum is much larger than it’s ever been in human history, and that includes kings and emperors and things like that in terms of total control of absolute wealth. Males will be males in the sense that they’ll try to obtain extra matings, but the billionaires are completely curbed in terms of what they would do if they could do what emperors have done throughout the ages. They have harems and stuff like that. Norms of modern society prevent that.

Otherwise, there would be massive male-male competition, and even to get into the mating and marriage market you would have to have a high level of wealth if we were to let nature take it’s course as it did in the earliest empires. It depends on what your views are about freedom versus societal level benefits.

The nature of the causative link between monogamy and economic growth is an interesting question. Monogamy promotes stability, but I suspect that populations that implement monogamy are the same populations likely to implement a range of other growth promoting institutions.

I also tend to see the tradeoff between the freedom of polygamy and the “societal level benefits” of monogamy as being an indirect tradeoff. If a few men monopolised all the women, they would quickly find their freedom curtailed by the other men.

The interview has plenty of other interesting food for thought.