Incentives of Individualism

There are some childhood studies that offer a useful insight about human nature and society. They indicate certain behaviors that appear to be inherited, rather than learned.

The specific behaviors are a natural response to be helpful and cooperative. Kids, when presented with an opportunity, want to open the door for someone with their hands full or to pick up an object someone drops. They don’t need to be told to do this. This is basic social behavior, without which early societies would never have formed.

These studies, however, demonstrated something even more telling about our present society. If you give kids a reward for good behavior, it actually ends up disincentivizing good behavior. Yet the belief in incentives is the basis of our entire capitalist society. Selfish individuals aren’t born. They are created. It is inevitable that strong communities, civic society, and culture of trust weakens as capitalism takes over more and more aspects of life.

That gave me an insight. There are various theories, Julian Jayne’s bicameralism being the most famous, that individualism as we know it didn’t always exist. What if the development of systems of incentives was a major factor in creating individuals.

This would have been a slow process. Monetary systems were developed in the ancient world. But at that time they would have had little use to the average person. And it was limited to only a few societies. Most of daily living for most people in most societies would still have involved the even more ancient traditions of gift economy and/or barter. It wasn’t until after the collapse of bicameralism (or however one wishes to explain that transition) that monetary systems became more central. It was centuries into the post-bicameral Axial Age before coins began to be minted.

Like writing, the early monetary systems would only have initially and directly effected a small number of people. Think how long it took from the invention of writing to when the majority of most societies were literate, two to three millennia. Barter was the main economic system in some American communities well into the twentieth century. It was in the major cities where these kinds of things took hold first and even there it developed first among the upper classes. Writing and currency did co-develop to some extent, as writing was earliest used for purposes of accounting. And accounting would in ancient societies would only have been a concern for governments and the elite of large-scale business owners and traders.

The trader, in particular, would have been in a position to develop individualistic behavior the earliest. Traders not only dealt most directly with the developing monetary systems, along with writing and accounting, but they also were the people who spent the most time outside of their home communities. This was at a time when most people spent their entire life never leaving the community into which they were born.

So, if my hypothesis is correct, this is where we would want to look for the initial developments of individualism. It’s also in the modern world among businessmen, stockbrokers, etc where we’d want to look for the most extreme behaviors of individualism.

It might be interesting to anthropologically study business management schools and corporations to see how they help further individualize people. Then we might want to consider what happens when a society becomes so individualistic that the social bonds that hold society together begin to fray, as we are now seeing.

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