People seem unusually polite in coffee houses. Coffee house patrons are often regulars, and social interaction research, launched by the seminal book, The Evolution of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod, 1984, has found that an ‘expectation of future repetitive interaction’ drives cooperative behavior. When people expect to see one another again, they have a stake in getting along, and so they are more civil. What is important it that this civility happens unconsciously. We tend to think that civility and good behavior are learned. Yet, here, a circumstance of human interaction – an expectation of future interaction – evokes civility and good behavior. This is the central idea of communitarianism.
This should have profound implications for our political thinking.
There has always been a folk wisdom that holds that anonymity, living in crowds, fosters crime and uncivil behavior. Think of Kitty Genovese, stabbed to death in New York City, pleading for help while her apartment neighbors did not act. This is the corruption of the city, in contrast to the nobility of small town decency. In The Lord of the Rings, by J. R.R. Tolkien, the moral decency – that literally saves the world – comes from small people form small community life, the shire.
Jane Jacobs, in “Death and Life of Great American Cities” 1961, famously opposed the freeways that would break up New York neighborhoods. She highlighted the communal vitality of small enclaves of interactive, interdependent locations that have ‘eyes on the street’. She saved areas like Greenwich Village from the notorious highway planner Robert Moses. She loved coffee houses.
Physically organizing the architecture of our social interactions such that ‘expectations of future repetitive interaction’ regularly occur would seem to deserve to be an essential element of our political planning. Coffee houses, sidewalks, neighborhood schools, local business, front porches, all may drive civility more effectively than moral education. The social hygiene that is created from the proper scale and pattern of social interaction is likely every bit as fundamental as clean air and water.
If Progressivism increases mass scale in all aspects of our civil life, and breaks up the dynamism and autonomy of small scale communities, and thereby reduces future repetitive social interaction – and Thinkagain believes it may – then Progressivism may be due for an overhaul.
Public schools are no longer neighborhood schools, food is no longer locally produced, health care is slated for national organization. Progressives think of themselves as for small scale autonomy, like Jane Jacobs. Yet, the effects of Progressivism seem more and more to be large scale, and centralized, like Robert Moses.
Commit a communitarian act every day, repetitively interact.
Thinkagain is dedicated to coffee houses and Jane Jacobs.