TL;DR: Social coordination is the degree to which each person’s interests benefit others. In societies with high social coordination, conflict is usually avoided because individuals have a hard time benefiting themselves at the expense of others. More social coordination within a society is always better, but social coordination by itself does not mean that a society is just or prosperous. While social coordination is an idea with rich intellectual history and many names/variants, I believe that many today do not factor social coordination into their understanding of political policy or philosophy.
One of the more common challenges to individualism goes something along the lines of: “Humans are social creatures. Given this, a commitment to individualism is foolish. While society is the aggregate of many individuals, we must put emphasis on groups.”
There are many variations on this question, but all of them come down to a belief that through excessive individualism, society as a whole suffers. I am highly sympathetic to many of these kinds of arguments. Indeed, I think that there are many forms of “naive individualism” that exist today which are highly antisocial. One of the points that I really hope to show in the next couple of months is the apparently paradoxical claim that individualism, in the sense that I most support it, is an extremely social force, while collectivist doctrines masquerading as being prosocial (such as socialism) are actually highly antisocial. This is not, however, my goal in this article. The above is merely a view into things to come and a way to frame this article.
No one can deny that society is essential to our comfort and welfare as humans. Relationships with others are undoubtedly the most important and fulfilling aspect of the lives of most people. Even the most introverted shut-in cannot deny that they benefit from the astounding material wealth only available to them because of modern society. Thus it is in the interest of almost everyone to ensure the continued survival and health of the social order.
It is an unfortunate fact, however, that many people have an incentive to try and manipulate society to favor themselves and their needs. For example, if I could somehow steal from others without anyone knowing, then this would make me materially better off, but it would harm the rest of society. The effect, however, might be so small on society at large that from a monetary perspective it would be in my best interest to perform the theft. If everyone in society believes that they can do this, however, society itself falls apart. This, as I shall discuss in other articles, is a central problem with the modern state and certain aspects of contemporary thought. The necessary takeaway from this is that a society in which each person’s interest is detrimental to the interests of most others, is in a state of permanent fragility. Depending upon how strongly the interests of individuals diverge, society can break apart completely, or become extremely dysfunctional.
This is what defines the problem of social coordination. Society is the result of a large number of individuals interacting and forming relationships between one another. Societies are well coordinated insofar as the desires of each individual benefit, or at least do not harm, the vast majority of all other individuals within the society. For instance: a good parent has interests that are highly aligned with those of their children (whether or not these children realize this). Two neighbors both want to keep the prices of houses in their neighborhood high. It is within the interest of both the businessman and the consumer that a good be made available for sale. -These are all cases of social coordination. What is good for one is good for many others. In an ideal society, the actions that all us would take would do nothing but the greatest good for all others around us. In the worst society imaginable, I would derive only benefit from causing harm to others.
As usual, it is also true that there are different degrees of social coordination. One can poke many holes in the examples above. Children often want to engage in activities that cause short term gain at the expense of long term loss, such as staying up all night or excessive eating. One of the central responsibilities of a good parent is to get children to focus on their longer term welfare while they are still maturing. Someone may want to have loud parties that happens to disturb their neighbors. The businessman and any particular customer benefit inversely depending upon how high the price of a good actually is. Nevertheless, these are all examples of cases of relatively high social coordination between individuals.
This idea has a rich history, ranging from Plato’s perfect city in the Republic, to the Eastern writings of Lao Tzu, and to a lesser extent Confucius. This was a central theme of the enlightenment, particularly in dealing with the structure of a government. Ultimately even something as apparently inharmonious as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan State can be seen as an attempt to form a society in which the only option for individuals was to cooperate peacefully since the alternative was brutal punishment.* In classical economics, and elements of classical liberal politics in general, this alignment was poetically called “The Harmony of the Interests”. The general idea that I am trying to get at here goes by many different names and has many different variants. In a way, social coordination is one of the central focuses of any kind of prescriptive social science.
Social coordination is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a really strong political argument or social view. It may also be at times unclear whether a society has a strong degree of social coordination. For an example, let us look at the system of European Feudalism.
On paper, the European Middle ages had a strong degree of social coordination that centered around three classes. The clergy provided spiritual consolation for society, the knights defended the realm, and and the peasantry was responsible for sustaining itself and the other two estates. On some level all interests were aligned. Feudal lords would not impede their peasants prosperity because this increased their own revenues, avoided revolts, and avoided the wrath of god. The clergy would not become corrupt due to their closeness to faith and the central check of the Vatican. In reality, however, the lords and priests often abused their power over the peasantry. The fear of god was often not a strong enough incentive, despite the deep faith of the age, to prevent abuse by either class. The church became infamously corrupt and at times became primarily a political tool for the pope. Moreover, the knightly class which perceived its purpose primarily as military, and could expand wealth and landholding through conquest, had a strong incentive to engage in never-ending conflict.
Therefore, it is hard to establish at face value whether not a society has a high or low level of social coordination, and it is hard to even have a high degree of certainty before it has been implemented. It is always important to try to consider incentives from many different angles and value systems, always being weary of what might appear superficially sensible to armchair theorists. Nevertheless, we can use the concept of social coordination to show where serious errors are in a political system, and assess the degree to which a system is likely to have higher or lower levels of coordination.
The feudal system would have clearly been suboptimal by our standards even if the above abuses had never been committed. The dominance of the church and the intermingling of the clergy and the state meant that non-Christian minorities were always in a precarious state (even if we write them off as tiny minorities that are too small to affect broader social coordination). From an economic perspective, the system was based entirely on agriculture, which left little room for economic growth. The greatest way to rise in standing and political prestige was usually to buy one’s way into the nobility, rather than by serving one’s fellows through either economic enrichment or genuine political service.
So even if European society had developed a high degree of social coordination, it may well have lacked incentives for modernization, tolerance, and innovation that we consider extremely important. This is to show that while social coordination is always desirable, there are more efficient and just social orders.
This last point will be an extremely important point in my writing on this subject. It seems to me that many modern political advocates pursue policies based on values they often deem to be “just” without considering the implications on social coordination. While these values can often be criticized on their own merit, they often impede social coordination, usually either pitting individuals against one another, or decreasing the degree to which individual interests are shared and harmonious. From certain perspectives this might be a worthy sacrifice, but these policies and philosophies are put forward without the slightest understanding or acknowledgment of social coordination and the importance of aligning the interests of the one with the interests of the many.
*This is something that should be made clear; there are effectively no social orders where interests can be aligned without at least the threat of force. In a society where neither the overwhelming majority of individuals forcefully defend their person and property, nor something akin to a state does it for them, we can expect to see widespread theft and abuse by the unscrupulous elements of society. Only a society of perfect angels could guarantee law and order without any threat of violence.