Discover more from Overcoming Bias
Self-Control Is Slavery
I’ve been pondering 3 related points. 1) Self-Control Is Culture-Control:
It seems to me that … the key change after farming [was] an increased sensitivity to culture, so that social sanctions became better able to push behavior contrary to other inclinations. … This increased sensitivity to the carrots and sticks of culture generally appears to us as greater “self-control”, i.e., as our better resisting immediate inclinations for other purposes. And since we have more self-control in far mode, I suspect an important component of change since farming has been greater inclinations toward and abilities in far mode.
2) Fogel & Engerman’s economic classic analysis of US slavery:
Plantation agriculture based upon slave labor … may have been significantly more efficient than family farming. … The typical slave field-hand may have been more productive than a free, white field-hand. … Slavery was not incompatible with industrial production. … Slave-labor farms were 28 percent more productive than southern free-labor farms and 40 percent more productive than northern free-labor farms. …
Plantation operators strove for a disciplined, specialized and coordinated labor force. Labor was organized into something like the assembly line operations in industry. This involved “driving” the slaves’ efforts to maintain a pace of production. The “drivers” or foremen were slaves themselves. …
Plantations had a much higher rate of labor force participation, two thirds, as compared with a free population, one third. This was achieved by finding productive pursuits for the young and the elderly and maintaining nurseries so that slave women could work.
3) The latest AER on designing work to aid self-control:
The Industrial Revolution involved workers moving from agriculture to manufacturing; from working on their own to working with others in factories; and from flexible work-hours to rigid work-days. … Some work-place arrangements may make self-control problems more severe, while others may ameliorate them. … The firm … can use regular compensation to … make the returns to effort more immediate. Firms can also create disproportionate penalties for certain types of low efforts … so as to create sharp self-control incentives. … Conforming to an externally set pace, however, can decrease these self-control costs. … Workers planting rice-fields often find it helpful to synchronize movements to music or to beats. In industrial production, the assembly line may serve a similar purpose. … An intrinsic competitive drive may make the momentary self exert more effort when surrounded by hard-working coworkers. Young boys run races faster when running alongside another boy than when running alone. …
[Farming] creates difficult self-control problems. First, it involves long time horizons — farmers must tend their land constantly for months before reaping benefits at harvest. These lags can generate suboptimal effort in early stages of production. Financially, farmers may also fail to save enough money out of lumpy harvest payments to make efficient investments during the production cycle, further affecting labor supply returns and output. Second, agriculture often involves self-employment or very small firms. As a result, there are rarely firms or large employers to mitigate the self-control problem. Tasks cannot be structured, compensation altered, or work intensity regulated. Finally, agrarian production by nature is also geographically dispersed, which makes colocation of workers difficult. … This can help explain the observation that work hours appear to be low in modern-day subsistence agriculture. …
In the workshop system, workers rented floor space or machinery in factories, received pure piece rates for output … Clark presents evidence that workers under the workshop system had very unsteady attendance and hours, spent a lot of time socializing at work, and concentrated effort in the latter half of the week leading up to paydays. Clark argues that this led firms to transition to the factory discipline system to solve self-control problems.
OK, now let’s put it all together. Apparently, factory-like methods that greatly increase farming productivity have long been feasible. (First known factory: Venice Arsenal, 1104.) Yet it took slaves to actually implemented such methods in farming. Even after ten thousand years of Malthusian competition, a farming method that could support a much larger population per land area did not displace other methods. (And if factory-fortified foraging was possible, the timescale problem gets much worse.)
The introduction of farming was associated with important new elements, like religion, that encouraged more “self-control,” i.e. sensitivity to social norms. However, those additions were not sufficient to achieve factory-like farming — most humans had too little self-control to make themselves behave that way, and too strong an anti-dominance norm to let rulers enforce such behavior.
This dramatically illustrates the huge self-control innovations that came with industry. School, propaganda, mass media, and who knows what else have greatly changed human nature, enabling a system of industrial submission and control that proud farmers and foragers simply would not tolerate – they would (and did) starve first. In contrast, industry workers had enough self/culture-control to act as only slaves would before – working long hours in harsh alien environments, and showing up on time and doing what they were told.
So what made industry workers so much more willing to increase their self-control, relative to farmers? One guess: the productivity gains from worker self-control were far larger in industry than in farming. Instead of a 50% gain, it might have been a factor of two or more. Self-controlled workers and societies gained a big enough productivity advantage to compensate for lost pride.
Humans are an increasingly self-domesticated species. Foragers could cooperate in non-kin groups of unprecedented size, farmers could enforce norms to induce many behaviors unnatural for foragers, and the schooled humans of industry would willingly obey like enslaved farmers. Our descendants may evolve even stronger self/culture-control of behavior.