Episode 6: Scapegoats, Sacrifice, and Stable Systems

[Note: I’ve made episodes 1-6 live on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher just to front-load the podcast to get started.  I’ll be sharing individual posts about each episode this week, and then back to the every Monday schedule for new episodes.]

After being intrigued by references to René Girard (including from a seemingly unlikely source in tech founder/investor Peter Thiel) I finally picked up a copy of The Scapegoat and read it.  There was a lot to digest, but one of the primary insights that stuck out to me was the way in which ritualized collective violence can act as a stabilizing force in some societies.  Do not in any way mistake this statement to mean that violence of any sort is good, let alone ritualized mob executions and banishment.  They are terrible.  The insight is that, because they serve some kind of equilibriating purpose as perceived by members of the society, you can’t simply put an end to them through legal decree or forced conversion.

I see the same insight from a totally different approach in the work of economist Peter Leeson.  His work focuses on the unlikely ways in which order can emerge even in the most extreme circumstances, and the often odd or seemingly irrational mechanisms used to generate order – from insect trials to self-immolation.  Again, stability or equilibrium does not mean good.  But it should queue us in to the fact that, if we want social change, we need to understand why perverse practices exist and what function they serve in order to get to the root.

I’ll be bringing Leeson on a future episode to discuss his work and these themes in more detail.  Check out his phenomenal book, Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think (Cambridge Studies in Economics, Choice, and Society).