Marriage IIb: How Institutions Work

How institutions work: individual goods

Institutions need to be good for the individuals who participate in them: the little people. In fact, not only do they need to be good for individuals, they need to be good for individuals in two ways. On the one hand, an institution needs to lure individuals into participating with some attractive incentive. On the other hand, the institution has to find some way to meet its participants most important needs and promote their long-term flourishing to reinforce their participation.

There are some group dynamics that lure in new participants with incentives so attractive that no reinforcement is necessary. The drug world works this way. Addiction brings in new blood just as fast as the old-timers rot away into living corpses. Doomsday cults and pyramid schemes force initiates to make sacrifices up front that commit them to defend the cult’s lies. But mostly, institutions need to be good shepherds to their flock, for two reasons:

  • Whatever ultimate end an institution is diverting its participants’ energy towards, it won’t have much energy to divert unless they are healthy and happy.
  • Fashion is downstream of status, and stunted human beings are rarely high status; so an institution’s current participants are, so to speak, its brand-representatives and its best recruiters.

One typical institutional-goods pattern is for the reinforcement to be some reward that typically requires patience and delayed gratification, while the lure is some framework that builds immediate gratification into the delayed-gratification activity.

Team athletics are a classic example of the pattern. Physical fitness is a very important good, in ways too numerous to mention. But not that many people are physically fit. Building a perfect body requires strenuous exertion, day after day, for months or years. Nobody likes strenuous exertion, at least not at first; it would be unnatural if we did. Week after week of imperceptible progress towards a final goal strains most people’s patience to the breaking point.

But triumphing over other people is fun. It’s so fun, in fact, that some people get excited about “winning” even when they have done nothing to contribute to the result (see: gambling, spectator sports). Winning is so thrilling that excitement of past victories can keep a contender coming back through the sting of frequent defeats (again, see: gambling, spectator sports). So if you give a bunch of boys some distance to run or weight to hurl and tell them they’re doing it to beat the other guy, that’s not strenuous. That’s practically the definition of fun.

So then you’ve got the boys playing in teams for the joy of winning, and they get to know their teammates and befriend them, and that’s fun too. But the friendships makes defeats sting a little bit more, especially when the boy’s failures caused his team to lose. No one likes a loser. That makes putting in all the strenuous effort even more rewarding, because everyone likes the approval of their friends. And the boys win some, and lose some, and win some more, and then they lose Regionals, and some of them will be gloomy or angry or generally frustrated that “in the end, all that practice was for nothing”. Well, there was a little bait-and-switch: they started playing the sport for the lure, but in the end they got the reinforcement instead.

Romance works the same way. Same pattern: one good that is distant and difficult, another good which is ready to hand and enticing. Very enticing, sometimes. If a man and a woman feel sparks, one thing leads to another. The lure is fooling around, and in the natural course of things lovers end up with babies. Everyone likes the idea of having children “some day”, but in themselves the responsibilities of family life are daunting and would be easy to put off indefinitely. Sexual attraction provides the impetus to take the plunge, and before he knows it the young swain is a distinguished patriarch.

That is not to say that these goods can only be provided by institutions. If you abandoned a group of boys on an island, they would make their own games; if you abandoned a young couple on an island, they would invent their own courtship rituals. But social institutions take the natural drives and needs of their participants as their raw material, and channel them, refine them, and intensify them.

For institutions to earn their social significance, they must typically outperform the instincts or naive experiments to which their participants would otherwise resort. In particular, institutions should be more enticing to potential participants, elicit greater efforts from them, channel more of this effort into the production of a final good — of a particular final good — and deliver this reward in a more reliable way.

Consider games like tic-tac-toe and tag. These are very simple games, and it is easy to imagine that children could come up with games of similar (lack of) complexity without any adult guidance. But they are games that get boring very quickly; they can only be played for so long at one time, and at a certain age a child tires of them entirely. They offer only slender inducements to exertion.

Conversely, there are other games that are pleasantly addictive (in particular, certain simple gambling games) without presenting any challenges to overcome or skills to master. Even if children did discover these by themselves, they would never see any meaningful return on the time they invested in them.

Still other competitions that children invent for themselves have a certain depth, or at least the illusion of depth, but their very intricacy means that as soon as the children start to genuinely care about victory and defeat, the game collapses in bickering about the nature of the rules. This is not so terrible a result. Children’s fights are good preparation for adult brawling and — to the extent that all competitive games are a ritualized alternative to warfare — a poorly-defined interaction which inevitably devolves into indignation, insults, and violence is decent preparation for adult life.

But this degeneration of spontaneous games is a sort of reductio ad absurdum of cultural anarchy: if your game only functions as a violent quarrel over cheating and disrespect, why make a game at all? Gangs of youths are perfectly capable of picking quarrels on their own. The very value of an institution is that it can propose some enticing objective which commands the attention and focus of its participants for long enough to channel their efforts into a disciplined pursuit which would have otherwise been beyond their reach.

A competition proposes to the competitors an objective which is rival (only one of the two can be victor); in order to channel this rivalry into competition, the rivals must be dissuaded from contesting the terms of victory. Only after institutions give competitions structure and reliability can the competitors become seriously invested in winning. But this advantage of reliable institutions over spontaneous improvisation is even more important for romance, because here it is not just the immediate objective of the interaction that is subject to strategic interaction, but the final end at which it aims.

Recall the concluding point I made in the first part of the essay. From a biological point of view a man and a woman have divergent interests, and this divergence creates a strategic dilemma. This dilemma can be resolved if both partners expect a certain level of cooperation from each other (and expect failure to meet that standard to lead to quick punishment), and it is precisely these stable expectations that institutionalization creates.

How institutions work: collective goods

So institutions provide individual goods, and they provide them more effectively than spontaneous, improvised interactions between their participants would have. But they can provide them only by first inducing the participants to act in certain ways (i.e., to conform to the rules of the institution), and this means that enforcers who demand a certain type of participation are logically prior to the participants who find this participation in their interests.

“Enforcement”, in this sense, is intended to be an elastic concept. Nearly any carrot or stick, nearly any sort of encouragement or disapproval, could do the trick. One way to protect an institution is to subsidize every interaction that takes place within it, as when an athletic tournament offers cash prizes to the competitors. The rewards the participants receive then exceed anything they could have created by themselves in comparable interactions outside the institution. Conversely, one might also restrict access to any alternatives to the institution, leaving participants with no substitutes and no choices.

Whether the enforcers reward participation or punish non-participation, the point is that institutions do work: to catalyze a certain form of cooperation, someone must first make sacrifices to enforce institutional norms. Ex nihilo nihil. To a limited extent it is possible to get new participants to initiate non-participants themselves, but in general a robust institution needs enforcers who are not themselves seeking the same kind of gratification that lures in the primary participants.

Why, then, do these external enforcers go to the trouble to uphold institutions? The answer is typically that institutions do not exist for the sake of their primary participants. The final end of the participants institutionally-facilitated interactions the flourishing of the participants, but the final end of the institution is the flourishing of the community as a whole.

But we should not anthropomorphize “the community”. You can’t write a check out to “The Community”. You’ll never see “the community” come up to the microphone to accept an award. Institutions promote the good of a community by promoting the good of certain of its members. These can be identified, very roughly, with the people who shape the institution, who assent to it, and who strengthen it.

If the institution were bad for its enforcers, they would find the task of maintaining it irksome and they would shirk it. If its effects were neutral, its maintenance would lose its priority, and the enforcers would routinely shirk their most difficult tasks, and in difficult times would shirk even their most routine tasks.

It is possible the enforcers do not benefit from the institution, at least not intrinsically, but are compensated for their trouble by someone else. In this case the ones who distribute the compensation are the true enforcers; even if they do not shape, assent to, or strengthen the institution directly, by withholding compensation from an existing enforcer and offering it to a replacement they can promote their vision of the institution. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

It is also possible that the enforcers — or their paymasters — do not derive any tangible benefit directly from the institution, but rather from the respect, admiration, and gratitude of neighbors who consider the institution good (for someone), and consider the enforcers’ respect for it a mark of their selflessness and public spirit.

In other words, the maintenance of an institution can be good for the parts of the community that contribute to it simply because other parts of the community believe that it is good, simply. In other words, it is a virtue signal. Virtue signals are prone to purity spirals, but if there is a purity spiral over the promotion and the strengthening of an institution… what happens? The enforcers gain status, their neighbors are satisfied, participation in the institution grows, and everyone is happy — at least in the short run.

In the long run, the accuracy of the perception that the institution strengthens the community matters. Ultimately, no society can afford the cost of these status-competitions if they do nothing to strengthen it. Purity spirals are expensive. A purity spiral around a valuable institution is like the vasculature drawing blood and nutrients into a vital organ. A purity spiral around an unsound institution diverts the same resources to a tumor. When two communities come into contact, and into conflict, they exert stress on one another, and the community with more tumors dies.

So the first-order reason to suspect that institutions serve the interests of their communities is that they require the collaboration of a number of enforcers, sometimes a quite large number; in big ways and small, their cooperation testifies to their perception that the failure of the institution would hurt them. The second-order reason: to the extent that this lively personal interest in the institution is commuted to some sort of compensation or honor from others, it implies that the others approve of it. The third-order reason: to the extent that communities value and lavish attention on pointless institutions, they will weaken and collapse.


(Next up, in Part IIc: marriage and the common good.)


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