This is the type of thing that makes me believe a more libertarian society is possible, despite–or perhaps because of–how small the scale is. It’s also the type of thing that reveals my own professional hazard, seeing political lessons in everything.
My daughter has 2 hours of swim practice immediately after school, followed by a 45 minute break, then by 2 1/2 hours of band practice. That 45 minute break is all the time she has to eat dinner, and it’s not worth rushing home, so initially we were rushing food over to her. Then she told us we didn’t need to, because someone else was bringing her food?
She has 10 teammates who are also in band, meaning they are in the same boat in regards to dinner. So now they have one parent each night bring food for their whole group. My daughter’s not sure how this got started, or who started it, or even whether it started this year or is a continuing tradition. All we know is that the girls have created an order of whose parents bring food when, which means only once or twice during the season do we have to take food over, instead of twice a week.
Without having the words to explain it, they’re engaging in politics to satisfactorily resolve a problem they share in common, and they didn’t need the rule to be imposed from above. The parents didn’t set it up for the kids. No school officials, swim coach, or band director did it. And none of those “superior powers” monitor it. The high school kids organized it and monitor it on their own. There’s a collective action problem here–free-riding is theoretically possible, but they’ve solved that by monitoring who’s contributed, doing what Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for showing that groups do.
I can see two ways this could be screwed up by the superior powers. One, some parents could step in and think it’s their responsibility to manage this, doing no better and depriving the kids of their autonomy. Or some level of government could find a violation of some rule about having licensed food servers, and wreck the whole thing. Neither of those has happened, and maybe neither is likely, but my point is that they’re possible, whereas there doesn’t seem to be any real possibility that intervention from above could actually result in any improvement to the current system.
Those who buy into Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis worry about the future of self-governance because supposedly we’re not engaged in self-organized groups anymore, particularly at a young age (e.g., our kids play baseball in organized leagues where the rules are handed down, rather than playing ‘sand lot’ ball where they collaboratively decide that ‘over Mr. Hanley’s fence is a home run, but the batter has to go get the ball), so that they don’t learn the crucial skills of a self-governing society.
I’ve long thought the argument was specious; not that the skills are unimportant and need to be developed, but that adolescents today aren’t doing it. Maybe my daughter’s group is special (they are swimmers, and swimmers tend to be highly disciplined and organized), but I suspect they’re really not all that unusual.
Well, except that we’re talking about my daughter and her friends. On that grounds they’re special, of course, and I’m rather proud of them.