A good society takes it on trust

The Company of Strangers
October 15, 2004

Security at the individual and global level requires solid relationships rather than primitive force, learns Howard Davies

There is a lengthening list of economists, other academics and those whom one might call public intellectuals, who worry about the implications of the growing military and political dominance of the US. Is such dominance compatible with global security? Is there a risk that an overpowerful US might take the view that it can permanently detach itself from international organisations and go its own way?

In his latest book, Paul Krugman argues that this risk is crystallising. He characterises Bush the Younger's America as a revolutionary power, like Jacobin France. In other words, it is a regime that glories in its outlier status and sees the criticisms levied at it by most of the rest of the international community as proof positive that its world view is correct, rather than as a reason to reflect and rethink. Each hostile UN General Assembly resolution serves only to reinforce that sentiment. The fact that, according to recent polls, public opinion in all large countries except the Philippines favours Kerry over Bush is seen by the Bush campaign as further evidence that it is on the right track.

David Starkey has drawn attention to the same phenomenon and pointed to the risks of a hegemonic US that is deaf to the views even of its supposed allies. George Soros is highly exercised about the threat to the world order posed by neoconservatives in Washington DC and to the delicate mechanisms that underpin the global system. His response has been to work hard to remove Bush from office, putting a respectable portion of his considerable fortune behind these efforts. That may or may not prove a successful strategy: as I write, Kerry looks an unlikely winner, but he is not so far down in the polls as to be written off.

While Soros has chosen full frontal opposition to Bush, others believe that continued engagement with the Administration is the best strategy, spinning silken ties that bind them to other countries and organisations. In some cases, such as that of Tony Blair, it may be difficult to see quite what is achieved by this engagement. There is little evidence that US policy has been influenced by his close alliance with the President. The main consequence is simply to guarantee us a ringside seat at every US performance, and an expensive one at that. The notion that the UK may act as a bridge across the Atlantic is hardly plausible when Blair has both feet firmly planted on the western side.

Others have tried a different tack, seeking to persuade the Bush White House that its long-term interests lie in achieving a more constructive and collaborative relationship with other powers. They have taken America's ultimate objectives as given and focused on means not ends. Larry Summers, for example, has argued that while US power is at its zenith, its influence is at its nadir. Furthermore, he maintains that no country should reasonably wish to be in that position, because having to operate exclusively through use of force - political or military - is ultimately a costly strategy. Rebuilding relationships, thus gaining access to softer forms of influence, should be seen as a more sophisticated and cost-effective means of achieving US aims rather than a sign of weakness.

Paul Seabright places himself firmly in that Harvard camp. He is physically based in the University of Toulouse, which will make him instantly suspicious in the land of freedom fries and pepper steaks, but perhaps his All Souls Oxford ancestry may induce someone within the Washington Beltway at least to skim a copy of The Company of Strangers .

The first thing to say about Seabright's "natural history of economic life" is that it would be impossible to submit it to a research assessment exercise panel. With a photograph of a startled gorilla on the front, the immediate temptation in the secretariat would be to push it the way of the natural scientists. But they would soon mark it "return to sender". So the economists would have to take it in. But what would they make of a book without a single sigma? One that quotes from Richard Dawkins, Studs Terkel and Martin Amis as well as from the economists Akerlof and Coase? How would they begin to evaluate an author who talks as much about the interpersonal relationships of chimpanzees as about the theory of the firm? I can see little prospect of successful outcome. So no RAE stars for Seabright, which leaves just one minor point in his favour. He has written a clear, thought-provoking and elegant book.

The principal thesis is straightforward, albeit originally phrased. He argues that in the past 10,000 years or so, mankind has had to adjust to the need to rely on strangers. We know little of the activities, or even motivations, of those on whom we depend for the necessities of our daily lives, but we trust them to deliver. Furthermore we accept, in our regular dealings with people, many petty and unexciting constraints. "When modern man goes out into a city to mingle with strangers, he is bound by a multitude of constraints that prevent him from asserting his palaeolithic personality... without them he will find the market place empty, and the few strangers he ever meets will be cowed and fearful, plotting revenge behind his back for the humiliations he imposes on them to their face(s)."

Furthermore, the constraints that apply in relation to our individual behaviour are replicated at global level. And in an era of globalisation these constraints are more needed than ever. Without them, we would be unable to reach the agreements and cut the deals we need to cope with global warming, pandemics or large-scale migration. This seems essential if what Seabright calls "the great experiment" in liberal politics and liberal markets is to survive. The drama is that the current boss nation, which bears much of the burden of global security, is not wholly persuaded. As Seabright notes, "the United States and its leaders have still to be convinced that the marketplace of nations needs trust-building institutions as profoundly as do the ordinary market places of the modern world". Of course, 9/11 is part of the reason why "a country that has mastered better than any other the transformation of the frontier spirit into the bourgeois virtues should have become so impatient with the demands of bourgeois prudence in its dealings with the rest of the world".

This is not, perhaps, a wholly original observation. But it is powerfully and memorably made. It would be wrong to suggest, however, that Seabright's interests lie primarily in contemporary politics. The route he takes towards this concluding assessment is circuitous. We visit the first farmers who gave up hunting and gathering so as to plant crops, and we consider the impact this momentous development had on relationships between groups. We make side trips to ancient Greece and Rome. We reflect on the organisation of city government, and on how mankind has addressed the fundamental issue of water distribution. (On the whole, he concludes, this is a positive example of collaborative effort for mutual benefit.) We consider the role of families on one hand, friends on the other. We reflect on how different societies have coped with problems of exclusion, unemployment and illness. On all these topics, and more, Seabright has interesting things to say.

The Company of Strangers is a work of synthesis, but none the worse for that. Its range of references is impressively diverse. There will be those, I am sure, who take issue with some of his contentions. For example, I found Seabright's treatment of money and banking somewhat superficial, with an unwise reliance on jejune texts such as James Buchan's Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money . But this is to quibble. The whole is substantially more than the sum of its parts, and I look forward to more missives from southwest France in the future.

Howard Davies is director, London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life

Author - Paul Seabright
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 304
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 691 11821 3

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