Friday, August 13, 2010

Reciprocity, Boyo, Is the Key to All Relationships*

I was filled with a sense of wonder when I read P.J. O'Rourke despair that no one under the age of 30 could understand that not all that long ago boys had long discussions about which cars were the best. That brought back memories of discussions at cub scout meetings and sleepovers that I hadn't remembered in years. Back then, families had automobile loyalties that led to Seminole/Gator type discussions. It went without comment that the Byrons (across the street, over one house) were Episcoplians; the fact the they were Democrats was the source of some whispering. But what really got the juices flowing was they were a fudamentalist Ford family (Fix or Repair Daily). The Halsteads drove Oldsmobiles. Neither of my grandfathers, to my knowledge, ever drove anything but a Chrysler product (Grandad Mobbs insisted that only a Plymouth Fury had a trunk worth talking about). I was always disadvantaged by my parents awkward selection of Ramblers, until in 1967 they purchased a GM-patented metal-flaked green Pontiac Catalina, to my mind the second most awesome car they ever owned (the copper and creme 1957 Chevy Bel-Air hard-top convertible still takes the prize).

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but I'm sure that 10 year old boys today have something similar to argue about. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of this, but it's a reflection of some basic human tendency towards kinship or tribal identities. Several of the authors in Moral Markets discussed so-called "evolutionary" tendencies towards reciprocity and cooperation in small groups. One stumbling block that we kept having in the discussions was the transition to market values when you aren't trading just with people who live in the same elementary school district or have the same tatoos.

Another problem with kinship and tribal reciprocity is there is no doubt that Biblically it is, standing alone, morally insufficient. Tribal cooperation and reciprocity can be the source of great evil. Warfare is an example of a massive success of in-group cooperation and the suppression of free-riding. Unfortunately, I find that I still have a knee-jerk reaction to stereotype people by the kind of cars they drive. But, reaping what I sow, what if everyone judged me by the boring, practical un-trendy Hyundai that I drive? (OK, even a stopped clock is correct twice a day). If it isn't cars, don't Americans still have a propensity to judge people by their jobs, their cell phones, their clothes, their zip-code? If morality is merely reciprocity among our kin group, it's not enough. (One of the features of the marketplace is that it tends to dampen tribal identities and cooperation that stops at the village gate. Think of that the next time someone makes the argument that we have a moral obligation to "Buy Locally." What would Jesus have said about a Judean campaign to establish justice by refusing to "import" food from the Samaritans?)

Jesus' preachings are a repeated warning against cooperation that is merely reciprocity or love that stops that the zip code boundary. And left to our own devices we are very good at defining and observing group boundaries. My friend Brad Hansen has been posting portions of his sermons on Jonah, which is a screed against tribal restrictions on God's mercy. It's right there in the middle of the prophets of the God who was, in so many ways, defined as the God of Israel. Once again, we see that Jesus came not to overturn the Law and the Prophets, but to complete them.

* The title is from the movie L. A. Confidential. The speaker is inspector Dudley Smith as he is beating information out of Sid Hudgens.

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