Social Science 101: Three Ways to Relate to Other People

Many years ago, in a book I’ve lost along the way (I believe it was A Primer on Social Dynamics), Kenneth Boulding described three basic ways in which a person, in the quest to get what he seeks, can approach other people. He can, as it were, say to them.

  1. Do something nice for me, and I’ll do something nice for you.
  2. Do something nice for me, or I’ll do something nasty to you.
  3. Do something nice for me because of who I am.

The first approach is that of peaceful, mutually beneficial exchange, of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” of positive reciprocity. It is the method by which we conduct the bulk of our economic affairs.

The second approach is that of coercion, of threats to harm others unless they do as we wish, regardless of their own preferences. This is, among other things, the realm of government as we know it. When we say government, we say violence or threats of violence against all who refuse to comply with the rulers’ dictates.

The third approach is that of personal-identity relationships. One person says to another, do what I want you to do because of who I am and who you are—because, for example, I am your father or your teacher or your kinsman.

Boulding argued that all social systems are a blend of these three types of interaction among its individual members. Part of the difficulty of understanding how societies operate arises from the complex ways in which these three types of relationship become entangled with one another and how the nature of this complexity changes over time.

Boulding was an unusually broad-gauge thinker. For him, interdisciplinary thinking came easily. But for most contemporary social scientists, it comes not at all. Most economists think about how markets work, about exchange, and about all of the good and bad consequences the operation of markets may bring about. Most political scientists think about government and politics (the quest for possession or control of coercive power), and about all of the desirable and undesirable consequences of political actions. Identity relations tend to fall within the disciplinary boundaries of psychologists, for the most part. This narrow scholarly specialization has both benefits and costs. However, because professional fame and fortune flow mainly to the most outstanding specialists, the brightest people tend to specialize narrowly. There is a reason why hardly anyone outside a particular subfield of economics knows anything about the work of each year’s Nobel laureate in economics. If the labor economist knows little or nothing about monetary theory or international trade, even less does the average economist know about political science or psychology.

One area in which I have found a broader appreciation, along the lines of Boulding’s three approaches, to be essential has been in my study of ideology. This concept, developed most fully by psychologists, philosophers, and political scientists, plays a fundamental role in my explanation of the growth of government in the United States during the past century or so. My thesis is sometimes described as a “crisis theory,” but I have been at pains to explain that national emergencies would not have played out as they did had fundamental ideological changes not occurred beforehand as they did. National emergencies give rise to spurts of growth in government’s size, scope, and power that are not fully rescinded afterward—that is, they have a “ratchet effect”—only in the context of a widely entrenched collectivist ideology.

Modern collectivist ideology in the United States (and probably in many other countries, as well) is infused with another ideology, namely, nationalism. This ideology has been developing in the West for centuries, but it reached its most consequential and destructive heights only in the twentieth century, when German (international) socialists marched off by the millions to die for the fatherland in World War I, and Americans ostensibly devoted to individual liberty marched off by the millions to fight and die in the U.S. state’s foreign wars.

One might say that these men acted as they did simply because they were drafted or threatened with a draft, but that claim must be placed in the wider context of these men’s submission and involuntary service. Until recent decades, very few men fought because the military paid better than their civilian alternative, but many private contractors came forward to equip and arm these men for fighting only because they found the prospective payoff attractive. The draftees faced a choice between army and prison, so coercion certainly played a vital part in inducing them to report for military service as ordered. Yet many more might have evaded or avoided the draft had their identities been different. Many considered themselves to be, above all, Germans or Americans, and as such they felt that they should obey the national government’s draft call. To do otherwise would be to betray their very self-identity, not to mention the hostility and ostracism they might expect to elicit from family members, friends, and neighbors psychologically wedded to the same nationalism. Thus, the creation and supply of massive armies illustrate well how exchange, coercion, and ideology/identity factors combine and interact in bringing about a definite social outcome.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
Posts by Robert Higgs | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst