Why I am so nice

By and large I am a rather nice person. I am polite, cheerful and easygoing. You would have to make quite an effort to get me to be rude to you. This is not a boast; I am not making a claim to superiority, let alone uniqueness, in this. Most people are nice, friendly, personable. So commonplace is niceness, in fact, that one might wonder whether niceness hasn’t been commanded by some powerful body. It hasn’t been. Nor need it be.

Niceness, as a convention, is a wonderful lesson in how we can live together predominantly peacefully without a third-party ordering it. Our being nice to one another is not the result of a law, not the result of government-threatened violence; it is not because we fear the police knocking on our door in the middle of the night that we are usually pleasant to our fellows. Niceness is a spontaneously emerging equilibrium in social life.

When a man interacts with someone for the first time he can choose either to be pleasant or unpleasant to them. Choosing to be pleasant will most likely lead to them being pleasant to him in return, and, vice versa, they will most likely repay unpleasantness with unpleasantness. In the former case his options for beneficial interaction with this person remain open; in the latter they are severely restricted, if they are not already foreclosed. As no one is an island, the more often a man adopts the “nice” strategy when he meets people, the greater the chances are that he’ll live a fulfilling life. Likewise, the more often a man adopts the “nasty” strategy when he meets people, the greater the chances are that he’ll live a miserable life.

We meet people more than once, of course. Over time reputations are made – and just as importantly, lost – and in many cases our reputations preceed us. Consistently (or at least fairly consistently) adopting a “nice” strategy in our interactions will grease the wheels of social life. If we are widely-known to be a decent sort, more people will be willing to give us the time of day sight unseen, than would do so if we were widely-known to be rude and aloof.

The convention of niceness is reinforced by our treating nice people warmly, rude people coldly. (Sometimes this can border on “shunning”. This is especially common amongst children.) No one has to command this. It is in each individual’s best interest if he lives in a society in which the pleasant outnumber the unpleasant: the more nice people there are, the more opportunities for beneficial interactions there are. Hence, niceness is rewarded, rudeness is punished; by being rewarded it is encouraged, by being punished it is discouraged.

Why, then, is niceness not universal? Whilst it is obviously not the sole culprit, at least part of the blame can be comfortably laid at the door of the state. For what is the state if not a means of disconnecting actions from their natural consequences? In a stateless society where all dealings (in the widest sense) are voluntary, if a man is habitually mean to those around him, he will very soon find himself in a very bad, very lonely situation. On the other hand, in a state-ridden society where he can, via government, compel others to interact with him, what is to stop him being a thoroughly horrible individual? Very little.

With more than a little irony this type of anti-social behaviour, far from receiving the negative reinforcement it would do in a voluntary society, receives a measure of positive reinforcement in the social democracies of today. The fewer people there are who will cooperate with a man voluntarily, the worse off he will become, and the stronger is his claim that others should be forced to deal with him. The existence of redistributive policies (which are not simply a matter of transfers from rich to poor) makes it more viable to adopt a “nasty” strategy in social situations than would otherwise be the case.

Hopefully it goes without saying that the above is an exaggerated way of putting the matter. (You might even call it ‘Nietzschean.’) In real life, men are not motivated solely by narrow self-interest. But it is a good example of how, even if they were, a social order in which cooperation is the norm would emerge without the need for outside help.

Twitter @StrictlyLiberal

Google+ Rocco Bogpaper


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