Monday, March 07, 2016

Two Views of the World

One of my hobbies, for many years, has been  the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does historical recreation, mostly from the Middle Ages and Renaissance—cooking from medieval cookbooks, telling medieval stories, fighting as a sport with (non-lethal) sword and shield.

A long time ago I noticed an interesting split between two different ways of viewing the organization. One, summarized as “pay to play,” was that participation ought to require membership, payment of annual dues to the national organization. Anyone not willing to bear his share of the burden by doing so ought not to be allowed to attend feasts and tournaments, receive honors, fill offices within the organization.

The SCA runs on volunteer labor. Seen from the other side, “pay to play” meant being unwilling to accept donations of labor unless accompanied by donations of cash. Someone who helped cook a medieval feast for a hundred diners or spent several hours washing dishes and cleaning the hall afterwards was bearing his share of the burden. Someone who paid his annual dues to the national organization and came to every event expecting to be fed and entertained was part of the burden being born. That was my position, argued at some length in a letter I wrote on the subject more than thirty years ago.

I was struck, then and later, by how sharp the division in views was–sharp enough to eventually produce something close to a civil war within the organization. To some people it was obvious that being part of the Society was defined by paying dues and having a membership card. To others it was equally obvious that there was a difference between the SCA Inc., a non-profit chartered in the state of California, and the Society, a social network. The Corporation  might serve a useful function, but membership in it did not define membership in the Society and cash contributions to it made up a tiny fraction of the resources on which the Society ran.

The same division was one of the themes of my first novel, a historical with invented history. An alliance among three polities has, for several decades, been holding off an expansionary empire. The king who created that alliance dies. His son views the world in terms of tables of organization, believes that he can rely on anyone in allegiance to him, can not rely on anyone who is not. He accordingly attempts to convert his father’s allies into subjects, with unfortunate consequences.

Harald, my protagonist, is a prominent figure in one of the allied societies, with no formal authority, no tax revenues, nobody in allegiance to him, but a lot of friends. He views the world as a network of relationships.

The first long chunk of the novel is the conflict between two men and two views of the world. My protagonist’s side is illustrated by the case of Stephen, one of the most powerful of the provincial lords just below the King. Formally he is loyal to the ruler, in practice a friend and ally of Harald. As Harald puts it to a member of the third polity, a  military order that the king is trying to get control over, “you could go north; Stephen's a fine man for failing when it suits him and I can't see him hunting you with any enthusiasm.”

The equivalent, in the SCA, is a quote from someone in the West Kingdom, the oldest of the Society kingdoms:

“The King’s word is law. But if the King orders a pit dug in the middle of the list field, it may take us four months to find a shovel.”

Reigns in the West last for four months.


Anonymous said...

“The King’s word is law. But if the King orders a pit dug in the middle of the list field, it may take us four months to find a shovel.”

That seems kind of like what the Senate is saying about judicial nominees just now. . . .

Anonymous said...

Funny typo: being born. I saw that, and thought of the quip: A socialist sees a newborn as one more mouth to feed. A capitalist sees a newborn as two more hands to work.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous: Both "born" and "borne" are correct for the past participle of "bear."

Anonymous said...

I agree that the past participle of "bear" in the sense of childbirth is "born", but that of "bear" in the sense of endure is usually spelt (ha!) borne. Alas, the clearest example I could find was British:

That said, I am afraid I am taking this very interesting blog post in an unproductive direction.

Anonymous said...

One reason this post has resonance for me is that I volunteer for several Free / Open Source projects. There are many forms of contributions, but without contributors, the project will fail in a hurry.

Jessa Mittleman said...

About 10 years after I largely withdrew from the Society, for a combination of reasons ranging from Real Life to unhappiness with the number of times I had to fix the same problem, I started work at Google. I have told many people that everything I knew about succeeding at Google, I learned in the SCA. Specifically: Although Google has executives who set strategy, allocate resources, and have ultimate authority over our products, in practice it is very much a bottom-up organization in which success depends on convincing people that what you want to do is a better, more interesting project than all the other things they might do. The engineer-hour is the scarcest resource, and each employee has considerable flexibility in how she spends her hours.

In short, the interplay between central authority and de-centralized initiative is very similar. Leaders need not be formally recognized: They achieve prominence and prestige by dint of excellent accomplishments. They develop assets in the form of favors owed and willing collaborators through reaching out to help where they can; and they can call on those contacts for help to make their own work more effective.

FutureNerd said...

A third alternative would be to define whatever contributions or lack of contributions anyone makes as being okay. I'm not saying this is a workable alternative, but it's part of twelve-step groups' "Twelve Traditions" about how they operate.

Basically, it isn't required that a member contribute money or work, but a hat is passed at each meeting, the treasurer makes a report at the monthly business meeting, and the groups try to rotate duties like being secretary or maintaining the coffee supplies. Volunteering is seen as... well to generalize, a necessary part of the point of being there.

Tradition 9 says "AA as such should never be organized." That means there is no equivalent of S.C.A., Inc., nothing that one can officially "belong" to, no way to have "paid one's dues." But there is an office that the members essentially hire to print pamplets and such.

If someone doesn't pull their weight, that's their problem, that's where they are in their path, they aren't yet taking advantage of the full benefit that's available. Obviously actual twelve-step group members are capable of all sorts of attitudes about each other, but the "official" attitude is always hovering there in the background.

There are lots of ways the basic economics, logistics and kind of activity aren't parallel, but the AA model of anarchy is an implicit challenge.

John D. Bell said...

[copied from a comment I left on G+]

What is the largest actual group (# people) you have known that was organized along the "friends and allies" model (and not a formal hierarchy)? How many assets did it command (control of land, $$$, etc.)?

I'm trying to get an idea how big this can get before coordination overhead or primate social ranking contests break it down.

David Friedman said...


There is a sense in which the answer is "eight billion people." There is no world government, so humanity as a whole is structured as a network, not a hierarchy.

Of course, that network includes lots of hierarchies--firms, governments, etc. But then, in my novel, Stephen is a friend of Harald's, but Stephen is also a feudal lord who has people who are obligated to fight for him.

John D. Bell said...

David -

Yes, "humanity as a whole" doesn't have a over-all hierarchy, but I would argue that it doesn't have an over-all goal either.

I guess I wasn't precise enough - what is the largest non-hierarchical group you have known that has a single goal (or a small set of goals that are more-or-less in alignment)?

E.g., the companies I have worked for have explicitly had 'one goal' ("make money by selling cars and trucks"), but internally have had various sub-goals in tension, or sometimes (because those 'primate social ranking contests' got in the way) personal goals that were directly at loggerheads with the nominal over-all goal. So - how big can a group get before these internal issues break it down, without having a strict, formal, enforceable, hierarchy to run it?

David Friedman said...


I don't assume that a network has to have a single goal--Harald's doesn't.

The beauty of voluntary exchange on a market is that it lets people coordinate their activities in pursuit of lots of different goals. The cab driver who drove me to the airport yesterday didn't have the goal of getting me to Hawaii to teach some classes and give a talk, although I did. I didn't have the goal of adding to his income, although he did. I helped him achieve his goal, he helped me achieve mine.

Getting back to my novel ... . One of the pairwise relationships is between Harald and the younger son of the Emperor he has been fighting for the past thirty years or so, another with the son's son. They have different goals. But Harald sees a way of helping achieve his goal by doing something that helps the Prince achieve his, and does.

A network isn't a replacement for a hierarchy, it's a different way of structuring human interactions.