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The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life

 
How humans grew to trust complete strangers to run the engines of everyday life.
12/20/2004

We don't think about it much, but most of our day-to-day activities including our economic lives are dependent on our trust in complete strangers like seamstresses, bankers, pilots, and builders. Our agreement among strangers and institutions to divide labor has made modern life possible, but it is a remarkable occurrence in the context of human evolution, says author Paul Seabright, a Professor of Economics at the University of Toulouse, France.

In the blink of an evolutionary eye, we evolved from hunter-gatherers who trusted only kin to a species that thinks nothing of putting our faith in strangers to fly us at a height of 40,000 feet over a distance of 10,000 miles.

Seabright traces the biological, anthropological, historical, and psychological happenings that made this possible, such as the ability of humans to use abstract, symbolic thought and communication. "Nature knows no other examples of such complex mutual dependence among strangers," Seabright writes. "A division of labor occurs, it is true, in some other species, such as the social insects, but only among close relatives (the workers in a beehive or an ant colony are sisters)."

Today's markets wouldn't exist if people didn't trust the mechanisms that have evolved to allow them to function. In great detail, Seabright reviews the role of trust and valuation systems that set such things as an acceptable price. Markets function smoothly because the parties involved accept and trust the price as just, despite the reality that price valuations can fluctuate in different contexts. Also, such things as the adoption of agriculture and the development of cities have fostered the need for individuals and groups to work together, and trust has played a key role in making this all work.

Just when we start to accept that this trust is a permanent feature of mankind, the author discusses the tenuousness of it all. If this implicit trust that rules our lives should break down, and Seabright argues it could, many of the economic and organizational frameworks we depend on would break down as well.

"The very talents for cooperation and rational reflection that could provide solutions to our most urgent problems are also the source of our species' terrifying capacity for organized violence between groups. Trust between groups needs as much human ingenuity as trust between individuals."—Ann Cullen

Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments
Introduction
PART I: Tunnel Vision
Chapter 1 Who's In Charge?

Prologue to Part II
PART II: From Murderous Apes to Honorary Friends: How Is Human Cooperation Possible?
Chapter 2 Man and the Risks of Nature
Chapter 3 Murder, Reciprocity, and Trust
Chapter 4 Money and Human Relationships
Chapter 5 Honor among Thieves: Hoarding and Stealing
Chapter 6 Professionalism and Fulfillment in Work and War
Epilogue to Parts I and II

Prologue to Part III
PART III: Unintended Consequences: From Family Bands to Industrial Cities
Chapter 7 The City, from Ancient Athens to Modern Manhattan
Chapter 8 Water: Commodity or Social Institution?
Chapter 9 Prices for Everything?
Chapter 10 Families and Firms
Chapter 11 Knowledge and Symbolism
Chapter 12 Exclusion: Unemployment, Poverty, and Illness
Epilogue to Part III

Prologue to Part IV
Part IV: Collective Action: From Belligerent States to a Marketplace of Nations
Chapter 13 States and Empires
Chapter 14 Globalization and Political Action
Conclusion: How Fragile Is the Great Experiment?
Notes
Bibliography
Index