Can society manage itself? The examples of this happening every day are all around us. We only need the perspective to see why it matters.
The process of deplaning from a crowded flight is another interesting case in point. You have people who have been sitting for hours. The plane lands and pulls up to the gate. The ding sounds to signal that we are free from our seat belts.
Everyone wants off as soon as possible. The impatience is palpable, which is strange if you think about it. What difference could a few minutes make? But so it is.
There are no real enforcers in the deplaning process; not even flight attendants can manage this situation in its details. There are no explicit instructions. All we know is that we need to do something to free ourselves from this crazy metal tube and get on with our lives.
In this process, under crowded conditions, there are certain rules that emerge, even though they are not decided upon by anyone overtly and the norms pertain to randomly assembled strangers. These are the worst conditions for emergence of social norms; there are only 10-15 minutes in which it is allowed to happen. But since it is in everyone’s interest that this little society and activity work well, order does indeed emerge.
The most obvious rule grows out of the physical reality. There is a narrow corridor and the people can only move in one direction. You can’t easily get in front of others. You could rush ahead but that seems to violate some inherent sense of justice, which people just presume to mean “people closer to the exit should go before those further away.”
So you wait your turn, row by row, systematically. Your own responsibilities are narrow: you wait for the person in front of you. What if that person is taking too long? There is a cost to hoping ahead unless you are invited to do so. A major one is that you can come across as rude and you will face glares and stares. Social ostracism is a powerful force even when there is no chance for further social interaction and no other identifiable downside to misbehavior.
For the most part, people comply. Not always of course. In a flight the other day, the couple in front of me, occupying the window and middle seat, did not. They squeezed past the person in the aisle and stepped in front of passengers 5 and 6 rows in front of them. The disapproval of this action was intense from everyone around me. People were mortified, so much so that it struck me as overly scrupulous. I mean, what’s the big deal about waiting an extra 15 seconds? But it’s not about the time; its about the etiquette and the norms. And this reaction on the part of others was a signal to everyone else around me: do not do this.
There is one major exception here. If the person and people in question ask fellow passengers to go ahead because of a possible missed connection, everyone is very happy to allow free passage. In that case, we are being given a chance to show our sympathy and benevolence, and we are pleased to do so. This is what we would want others to do for us were we in this situation.
Here we have two behaviors that are exactly identical in every physical respect. People are essentially cutting in line. But our response to the actions are different based on what we perceive to be the motivations of the line hoppers. It’s amazing how the human mind can alter the meaning of a situation. A simple ask and a good excuse can turn what would otherwise be a burning annoyance into a occasion of charity.
We feel better about ourselves by deferring to people in need. You don’t need mandates, bureaucrats, public service campaigns, much less a massive enforcement mechanism. The desire to do good for others, even when it is not directly to our personal advantage, is a feature of the human personality. There just has to be a compelling reason to do so.
Another condition that allows for an exception to the general rule is a person with a crying baby. That person really needs to step out in front, and everyone is very happy to let the suffering parent get a free pass.
There is also the delicate matter of baggage handling. There are light bags and heavy bags in the overhead compartments, and it can be awkward to pull them down while trying to stay out of the aisle. There is something of a taboo associated with touching other people’s property, even to move it over in the luggage compartment. People tend to ask politely at boarding time: “may I move this over?”
Indeed, the presumption of property rights over baggage on an airplane is indisputable. Forget discussion about redistribution, inequality in possessions, much less the ridiculous notion of socialist ownership over all baggage. On the airline, everyone present, regardless of political ideology, is a firm believer in the absolute security of private property. Not even a seeming emergency can alter it; the pleas of a bagless person for the right to reapportion ownership rights be rejected by one and all.
Anyone who would suddenly enact a fairer way for everyone to distribute baggage property would be shouted down immediately, and probably even tackled. It isn’t just the case that you have to secure your own bag. Everyone present has a strong interest in a social norm that would stop theft, so everyone is willing to be a watcher and enforcer. We don’t need hectoring announcements that “if you see something, say something.” We all know the rules and believe in them out of our own self interest, which is bound up with the interests of everyone else.
At the same time, some people clearly need help to get a large bag down from the compartment. A ritual begins. A stronger and taller person in the vicinity will politely offer help. The person with the large bag agrees to the assistance. The exchange occurs and everyone feels affirmed in this spontaneous act of socially coordinating benevolence.
But note that this is not only about benevolence. Everyone has an interest in speeding up the deplaning process. Informal rules and practices, friendly glances and deferrals, subtle body cues and motions, quiet hand movements, reasonable exceptions and general adoption of norms — all of these contribute to the instant order that emerges in this tight and temporary social microcosm.
What makes it work? Most everyone wants to work because we all want out. There could be chaos. Instead there is order — order without enforcement or overtly stated rules. If this could happen under these implausible conditions, it can happen throughout the rest of society too.
Let me conclude with an observation about something that has always mystified me. As we enter the airport and flying experience, we are constantly bombarded with messages about our bags and their security. Our bags are searched and there is great intensity about the whole matter.
But once we get to the baggage claim after we deplane, it’s a completely different matter. Our bags are thrown out on a carousel with no practical security at all. There are no attempts whatsoever, on the part of any authority, to make sure that people are picking up the right one. Sometimes an agent will feign interest in whether the ticket matches the bag but it’s not authentic.
In principle, anyone could grab anyone’s bag and scurry away. The whole scene looks rather alarming. And yet, I’ve never once heard of this happening. Maybe it does but I’ve never encountered it. People wait for what is theirs and go on their way. It works. Why? Because everyone has a personal interest in making it work. That’s the whole secret to why society can thrive without a state.