Government, Civil Society, and the Utility of Cooperativeness

Here is a point that I’m sure I’ve made before but I want to make again. There is a kind of higher-order public good you can call “trust,” “cooperativeness,” or something else. The idea is that some communities are able to overcome certain kinds of challenges involved in coordinating group behavior. The capacity successfully to solve collective action problems at a large scale, with a large population, is the Holy Grail of human society. If you can do this, you can do anything… which is a point I don’t think ideologues have really been able to get their heads around.
Suppose you have a super-cooperative, high-trust society. This is the kind of society where the need for coercion to solve collective action problems is least necessary. Voluntary civil society associations will thrive. But if you’ve got the super-cooperative, high trust conditions for a thriving voluntary civil society, you’ve also got the conditions for a really effective government in which corruption will be minimal and power will tend not to be abused. If there are limits to non-coercive social coordination even in super-cooperative, high-trust societies, states in those kinds of societies will tend to do a pretty good job in deploying coercion responsibly to secure the otherwise foregone gains from successful collective action.
So: The world in which there is little need for state coercion, states will tend to be pretty effective and non-abusive. And worlds in which states work pretty well are worlds where states don’t need to do all that much. Reduce the level of cooperativeness and trust, and the quality of government gets worse. But then civil society gets worse, too. So whatever you want, whether it be good government or a flourishing voluntary civil society, you want the conditions for the other thing.
The trick is that in large modern states jurisdictional boundaries cover many communities with highly variable levels of cooperativeness. So here’s a question. Will the quality of the government of widest scope tend to average out unequal levels of cooperativeness, such that high-cooperativeness communities will tend to get worse governance than they could provide alone (maybe even worse than they could do without a state) and low cooperativeness communities will tend to get better governance than they could provide alone? It seems that the answer has to be “yes,” but what does this imply?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

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