Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Playground Meta-Euvoluntarism

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." 1 Corinthians 13:11

For most folks, our first brush with what passes for law happens on the playground. Much of the cultural cargo borne into adulthood was hauled by the monkey-bar stevedores. We learned rules of fair play, how to bargain, how to establish and protect property rights, and all about the value of alliances. We discover the meaning of the word "consequences" and we hedonically adapt to the miracle of gains from trade. The rules, norms and institutions that govern playtime inform and are informed by the rules norms and institutions in which they are embedded. If you, like me, knew kids who hailed from overseas, you may have confronted similar sorts of clashes I did when rules of law conflicted.

To the extent kids have heard the name "Hobbes", it's more likely to be associated with a stuffed tiger than the author of Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Despite this oversight, I'd have a hard time believing that kids fail to apprehend Tennyson's characterization of nature as red in tooth and claw. It seems to me that the law that governs both established games like Tag, Red Rover or Pickle and ad hoc games similar in form to Calvinball channels Locke and Hume more than Hobbes and Rousseau. This isn't to say that recess law is Athenaic, springing forth from the foreheads of toddlers fully armed with a blowpop and a jelly ball, but neither must kids petition adults to circumscribe hopscotch minutiae.

I think there's a bundle of interesting questions about playground institutions. I think it's fair enough to say that a playground governed by natural law is closer to meta-euvoluntary than one bereft of all nomos. I think it's also fair to say that playground rules are at least partially a function of the rules of the larger society and that the rules of the larger society can be influenced over time as kids draft childhood norms behind them into adulthood. I'm further inclined to believe that unexamined moral intuitions are sticky: notions of fairness or justice or whatever are pretty much the same for the girl of six as the woman of sixty. I then wonder if incrementally meta-euvoluntary playground institutions can produce incrementally meta-euvoluntary grown-up institutions. If so, gradual winnowing of undirected free play might threaten the foundations of liberty. If not, or if the effect can easily be subverted, heavy adult supervision needn't be so much of a problem.

I suppose the question I'd like to test is something like: "do people need to practice Coasean bargaining to be any good at it when they grow up?" This seems like one of those research questions that is easy enough to ask, but perhaps more challenging to conclusively answer.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?