BATH — Let’s build an economy that produces abundance for everyone without exhausting our resources, craft a working government, engineer socially beneficial organizations, make wise decisions, savor the responsibility that comes with freedom and live with delight, not fear.

It’s possible. Yet it seems impossible, doesn’t it?

American culture has rarely been as pessimistic as it is today. A couple of generations ago, we were putting men on the moon, dramatically improving the fortunes of all Americans, turning historical enemies into allies, fulfilling the promises of democracy, empowering women, increasing the quality and length of our lives, closing ozone holes and eliminating acid rain and beginning to eliminate the threat of nuclear Armageddon.

What changed? If it was perception – “Future Shock” (1970); “The Limits to Growth” (1972); “Greed is good” (1987) – then we did it to ourselves. That’s good, because it demonstrates that the hell into which we’ve been descending isn’t inevitable.

Evolution produced two basic survival strategies. The oldest strategy – “who gets to eat whom” – is called “rational behavior” in economic game theory. You win by making everyone else lose. This has mathematical appeal because you can prove by the numbers that when you compete perfectly you always win or tie, never succumb. Rational choice theory gave us mutually assured destruction – a cripplingly expensive stalemate, but it saved us from nuclear holocaust.

We see the alternative strategy in a nest of ants: countless individuals self-organizing to work together to sustain the colony and each other. Now, imagine that one day, the ants decide that it’s every ant for herself. They stop foraging for and feeding each other and caring for their sisters’ children, and refuse to defend the colony. Moreover, they arm themselves and start aggressively standing their ground against any other ant they imagine might be a threat.

In its initial state, the colony exhibits superrational behavior, enabled by regulatory mechanisms (instinct for ants, civilization for humans) that promote win-win cooperation. The ants’ altered state illustrates a switch to rational behavior.

The argument has compellingly been made that humanity’s overall success comes from our capacity for superrationality. In fact, we’ve been described as the most cooperative animal on the planet.

There is a great deal to commend superrationality, not least that the numbers prove it is more productive – no expensive stalemates. Only two globe-spanning species totally dominate their environmental niche: the Argentine ant and us.

As cooperative as humans can be, context influences whether we behave rationally or superrationally. Whether pooling our resources in the face of disaster, or hoarding wealth to the detriment of society, we often seem slaves to happenstance. Civilization is our way of managing that, but it comes at a price.

For starters, civilization requires investment in relationships and specialization, in education, in talent and skills, in government and in social services. The current pessimism reflects that the future we’re getting lately isn’t worth what we’re paying for it, more like an investment in hell on Earth.

Unfortunately, it’s human nature to hold on to what’s in hand, even when it’s destructive. We are born with graces that can also be curses: our capacities for hot empathy and cold abstraction. They make us lovers, problem-solvers and creators. But they also allow us to march to ideological drums that lead us, lemming-like, to destruction.

The price of an abundant, civilized future is a superrational economic system based on pay-it-forward reciprocity. Fortunately, there is a solid basis in economics for achieving this and a universe full of resources to fund it.

The social price for superrationality is an awakened populace. That’s us, so be awake already. Promote good-faith fair dealing; practice openness, being less wrong rather than more right; don’t trust, verify; don’t assume; avoid absolutes, especially comforting ones. Make sure that discriminating fact from fiction is easy. And understand the difference between “theory” and “hypothesis.”

“Awake” means creating an optimistic future. You could start by looking up “superrationality” in Wikipedia, familiarizing yourself with the economic literature on good-faith fair dealing, and reading up on tit for tat (how to play nicely with people who don’t).

We can live in delight and wonder on this magnificent planet. Or, follow the lemmings into hell.


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