March 21, 2006

Network Age

While perusing some comments recently at John Robb's blog, I chanced upon a fascinating paper by David Ronfeldt entitled Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution (Rand Corporation, 1996). Ronfeldt's ambition is no less than to formulate a model of past, present, and future societal evolution. He does so by differentiating four different forms of societal interaction:

  1. Tribes or clans (the family sector and other societal realms characterized by kinship ties)
  2. Institutions such as the state (the public sector and other societal realms characterized by organizational hierarchies)
  3. Markets (the private sector and societal realms characterized by competitive, atomistic trading relationships)
  4. Networks such as NGOs (the social sector of civil society and other societal realms characterized by cooperative individual and organizational interconnections)

In general Ronfeldt argues that each of these forms or realms is additive: the earliest human societies were based on kinship ties at the tribal level (he calls these T societies); during the transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural existence, certain societies added the institutional level of interaction, resulting in increased the societal complexity of what he calls T+I societies; during the long-running Industrial Revolution and its precursors, certain societies (especially, he notes, England) added free markets to the mix, resulting in the even greater complexity of T+I+M societies; and in the last 40 years, the shift to an information-driven society has witnessed the beginnings of T+I+M+N societies with strong multi-organizational networks, prominent NGOs, and stronger civil societies, especially in the U.S. and Canada.

A key point of Ronfeldt's essay is that societal evolution (from T to T+I, from T+I to T+I+M, from T+I+M to T+I+M+N) not only increases complexity but increases robustness. There are very few pure T societies left in the world because they were absorbed or superseded by T+I societies. Similarly, T+I societies (the classic authoritarian or absolutist states) have been pushed to the margins by T+I+M societies such as England (Pax Brittanica) and America (Pax Americana) -- though we still have far too many T+I nations in the world, they have been superseded in power and influence. Finallly, Ronfeldt argues that the societies that master the +N transition will set the terms for the next stage of societal evolution and international affairs.

Ronfeldt also emphasizes that each societal form and realm takes advantage of the most modern communications technology of the time. The power of kinship arose with spoken language, institutional hierarchies fed off written language, markets gained their greatest influence with the emergence of electronic communications (I would tie markets more closely to the printed word than he would), and networks are coming into their own with recent information innovations such as the Web, email, IM, blogs, wikis, and the like.

Will the rise of the network lead to the death of the state? Not likely, Ronfeldt says. Part of what happens during the emergence of a new form and realm is that the old forms and realms lose influence in some areas as organizations and individuals defect, but gain strength in their areas of core societal competency. Thus in +M societies the state no longer engaged in banking or trading or production, but the wealth generated by the market led perhaps paradoxically to a stronger state, not a weaker state. Similarly, +N societies will see some realms such as health, welfare, education, and perhaps media dominated by the social sector, but that may only make the public and private sectors stronger in their smaller but more focused realms. If true, these insights provide a challenge to libertarians and classical liberals.

Part of that challenge may be to cease fighting the state on behalf of the market and instead to work toward strengthening civil society. Although Ronfeldt notes that the social sector has to date been exploited best by progressive movements such as environmentalists, there is no reason to think that progressive libertarians cannot get involved in efforts to build productive alternatives to state action in the areas of health, education, media, and even the environment.

Further, Ronfeldt notes several times that the nations of the Anglosphere have been especially effective at combining societal forms into a strong web of interaction (partly, we know, because Anglospheric cultures are characterized by high levels of trust and reciprocity, as well as an openness to forming new relationships). One implication is that cooperating NGOs and other organizational networks have found it easiest to use Anglosphere nations such as the U.K. and the United States as a base. Interestingly, in large measure such NGOs are (perhaps unwittingly) yet another platform from which Western and especially Anglosphere cultures project their power and presence in the world. This model can be extended to build some of the sinews of a network commonwealth within the Anglosphere.

Ronfeldt's paper highlights some of the challenges facing information-rich societies (including the possibility of even greater social stratification and the potential power of "uncivil society" factions such as criminal gangs and terrorists), but also the promise of networked organizations and individuals to tackle complex problems that cannot be easily addressed within the context of existing state and market structures. Societies that master the +N transition will gain a greater ability to cooperate and coordinate with their allies and "sphere-mates" around the world, though at the cost of a greater blurring between domestic and foreign affairs. Although Ronfeldt doesn't quite come out and say "Anglosphere" or "network commonwealth" (after all, his paper quite predates The Anglosphere Challenge), the concepts are in large measure implicit in his analysis, which for that reason is well worth close attention.

(Cross-posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at March 21, 2006 10:24 PM

" cease fighting the state on behalf of the market and instead to work toward strengthening civil society." That should be on a t-shirt. There is no market absent a social framework, and usually a legal framework as well. This is exactly right. It is right out of Tocqueville. Civil society precedes and facilitates a productive, dynamic, voluntaristic economy.

"...the social sector has to date been exploited best by progressive movements such as environmentalists..." Aren't most private businesses in this realm? Businesses are part of civil society. Markets are neighborhoods as much as battlegrounds. Or am I missing something?

" the nations of the Anglosphere have been especially effective at combining societal forms into a strong web of interaction (partly, we know, because Anglospheric cultures are characterized by high levels of trust and reciprocity, as well as an openness to forming new relationships)" You omit the most important thing. The Anglosphere countries have created strong institutional and legally-protected forms to allow the existence of civil society. Alan Macfarlane, relying on the findings of F.W. Maitland, points out the decisive nature of the law of trusts in the development in England of a civil society between the state and the individual. It allowed groups of people to create long-lasting, asset-holding entities that were legally protected from State predation. We have a larger suite of institutional forms to choose from now, but for centuries it was the highly flexible form of the trust that made a civil society above the level of a chess club or dinner group to get organized and flourish.

It the state is to be pushed back to its core competencies, that would be terrific for everyone but dogmatic anti-statists. The Anglosphere has always been about optimal government, not minimal government. All the way back to the Normans it was about strong law enforcement, strong courts, strong protection of civil peace and strong guarantees of property and contract rights. This allows economic development. This requires a state which is at once very strong and limited in scope, not a minimal state. That plus a kick-ass navy and you have got most of the tool kit.

The blurring between domestic and foreign affairs goes way, way back as well. As Walter Russell Mead put it, the American people have always had their own foreign policy, and the government's foreign policy was only one among many overlapping voices. The business community and the churches and various ethnic communities in particular have always maintained strong overseas contacts.

So, even if this guys model is right, the continuities are deeper than your summary suggests.

Posted by: Lex at March 22, 2006 10:24 AM

Yes, his model does not take Anglospheric history into account and for that reason is not as grounded as it could be -- as you say, he misses the continuities. But that's why he needs to read The Anglosphere Challenge. :-) I'm not sure that the laws supporting a strong civil society are the "most important thing" but they *are* important. As we know there is much feedback and influence among law and culture -- I don't think it's all driven by law, and common law is the way it is on these points because people wanted it that way in order to pursue their activities and support their existing forms of life (such as widespread and strong associations). Ronfeldt's (short) paper is just one supporting data point, I think, but of greater interest when combined with our knowledge of Anglosphere law, society, and culture. I never said he had all the answer. :-)

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at March 22, 2006 10:39 AM

What's interesting to me is the fact that the +N phase began (in the Anglosphere at least) almost contemporaneously with the modern market, rather than subsequent to it. Institutions such as the Royal Society and the Lunar Society, in which scientists, entrepreneurs, government official such as Samuel Pepys, political activists and intellectuals mixed, networked, and often wore several hats at once, were central to the emergence of modern society. Is the +N phase even separate from the +M phase?

Posted by: Jim Bennett at March 22, 2006 03:18 PM

I like the part that says each of these forms is additive (T+I+M+N). That suggests to me that something as ancient as the monarchy is not necessarily anachronistic, but institutionally permanent and quite relevant in its own sphere of specialized competence.

A very marvelous post. I thank you for it.

Posted by: The Monarchist at March 22, 2006 04:18 PM

"Royal Society and the Lunar Society" both I am sure organized as trusts. No law of trusts, which was actually equity not common law, there could be no civil society since it would be impossible to accumulate assets like buildings, land, etc. and hold them over time for any collective purpose. Other countries did not have the trust and generally suffered from an impoverished civil society as a result. So, I will agree with Prof. Macfarlane in saying that the law which sustained a civil society which could actually withstand the power of the state and which had assets sufficient to take on large tasks, is THE most important element in the rise of the kind of Anglospheric civil society we have come to know.

Every society has some degree of informal cooperation between people. Macfarlane explains what happened in England in this way:

All civilizations develop temporary, if often weak, versions of this; flower-arranging circles, mutual credit associations, coffee-house cliques. But as soon as any of these gains conspicuous success or begins to accumulate wealth, it tends to be crushed by its rivals. The family reesents the time and emotional attraction of groups of this kind; the Church bans Masonic-type institutions; the state crushes any large-scale organization or meeting of potential subversives. Thus nothing can develop in the interstices between the dominating institutions of kinship, religion and the state.

What is extraordinary and so beautifully described by Maitland is just that development of the myriad of such institutions over time in the rather odd civilization of England. The Trust provided just these features, an enduring or embodied entity larger than the individual, recruitment on choice and merit, toleration by the state, religion and kin, providing a sense of mutual sharing and cooperation in pursuit of some goal. Its fruits, as Maitland showed are to be seen in many fields, in religion, politics, economy and social clubs.

None of this would have happened but for a peculiarity of English legal practice in the equity courts. The legal practice was set up as a tax dodge. It then flowered forth as Macfarlane describes. No one set out to cultivate civil society in England. It just happened. Might something similar have happened anyway? Maybe but I doubt it. It was happenstance. From such unlikely sources do the most important developments in the history of the world arise. The quote is from Macfarlane's Making of the Modern World, which is a monumentally important book, and it is difficult to get a copy at this point. It is in desperate need of an inexpensive reissue.

Posted by: Lex at March 22, 2006 04:38 PM

"There is no reason to think that progressive libertarians cannot get involved in efforts to build productive alternatives to state action in the areas of health, education, media, and even the environment."

A couple of weeks ago I came an organization that seeks to exactly this. It is called FLOW and was founded by Michael Strong:

Posted by: phil at March 23, 2006 06:46 AM

How does Ronfeld's vision compare to that of Martin Van Creveln, who predicts the demise of the State as we know it?

I need to read Ronfeld to find out. But if someone beats me to it, all to the good.

Posted by: Lex at March 23, 2006 09:29 AM

The Lunar Society was never a formal entity, I think. And it's an interesting question as to what the organizational form of the Royal Society was. probably that fact could be Googled in a few minutes, which I'm too lazy to do.

Over the long run, regulatory arbitrage -- the ability to pick and choose from a proliferation of venues and options to shelter private activity -- has shown itself to be the only real self-enforcing mechanism for limiting and undermining bad or explotive government. The proliferation of niches between Church and State in which third institutions could hide created massive opportunities for regulatory arbitrage that were readily available to people of modest menas in medieval England, and launched the proliferation of civil society. (Even as late as the late 18th Century, the autonomy of Scottish universities permitted James Watt to experiment wth steam engines beyond the control of the local guilds.) Without this diersity of venue (and the Trust was a very powerful tool for this) +M+N could never have taken off in England.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at March 23, 2006 05:42 PM

OK, I did the Googling. Looks like the Royal Society was granted a charter early on. But I suspect its assets were held in a trust. It has trustees now, but only has 7% of its funding from its endowment. It is mostly government supported now. The Lunar Society may not have had any formal existence. However there is a reference to the society having a library, which went by lottery to one of the few surviving members at the time it was shut down. So, it was able to accumulate some chattels, at least, as an entity.

Anyway, my main point, which I will stick to, is that England and her daughter polities uniquely provide strong legal protections for civil society entities, starting most importantly with the institution of the trust, and in modern times other types of legally-recognized and protected organizational forms. Without that, any non-state accumulation of assets or gathering of people for any private purpose would get crushed.

Posted by: Lex at March 23, 2006 07:49 PM

Lex: Regarding the fate of the state, Ronfeldt by no means predicts its demise. Indeed, he notes that the rise of +M (market-driven) societies, far from draining all power from the state into the market, took the state out of certain fields (such as trade and banking) but led to a strengthening of the state in its remaining areas. He predicts that the rise of +N (highly networked) societies will, similarly, lead to a shift of power and activity in some areas (e.g., health, environment, welfare, education) from the state to NGOs and the like, but that the state will be further strengthened in its core areas.

Ronfeldt's T+I+M+N approach does not hold that markets did not exist before the rise of modern free-market societies -- we know (and he knows) that markets have existed since the days of cowrie shells as currency. Similarly, he does not claim that networked organizations and the "social sector" did not exist until recent times. My understanding of his argument is that it is only with recent developments in communication technology and the evolution of societal complexity that dense networks of cooperation among NGOs and other organizations has become possible, necessary, and socially powerful in the advanced societies (especially the U.S. and Canada). While I think his argument could benefit from a greater understanding of the role of Anglosphere history in the rise of +M society ("the Exit") and +N society ("the information revolution" or "the third wave"), he doesn't deny the seeds of +N society farther back in history; instead, he is focused on what's happening now and what will happen in the next decades as networks of "social sector" organizations become significant actors on the societal stage in the most advanced, complex societies we know (mainly the Anglosphere). In many ways I see this as quite similar to some of Jim's arguments in The Anglosphere Challenge, albeit without the historical detail (remember, Ronfeldt's essay is only ~40 pages and is focused on different aspects of the same phenomena).

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at March 24, 2006 08:29 PM