What do the genetics of a Bengal Cat and the evolution of economics have in common?

The United States is caught up in the hysterical frenzy of politics right now. Being the ratings whores they are, the media couldn’t have asked for a better scenario. They have a reality television show they can run twenty-four hours a day covering ad nauseam. Every mundane action and reaction, every tic and response is documented and analyzed, manufacturing an endless supply of so-called experts along the way. Yet absent from any discourse is whether any the candidates are actually qualified for the job. All that matters is the triviality of the hour by hour play-by-play of the Super Bowl of politics.

As if the spectacle of the election isn’t enough, the circus extends to those already in office. The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Scalia has raised the bar of dysfunction to unbelievable new heights as the Republican Senate majority has declared they will refuse to even considered any replacement President Obama nominates. Add this to the other 250+ federal judge openings in limbo.

All hail those who we continue to elect to represent our best interests. (he says cynically).

Awful as this all is, the majority of the voting populace still actually believes who they elect will make a difference in their lives. Somehow the pie-in-the-sky campaign promises will magically become reality and years of economic and social trends, and personal career decisions will suddenly vanish with the election of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Each has their own personal mix of elixirs, totems, chants and phallic substitutes they use to induce us into the coma of cerebral stupor absent of all sense of personal self-determination. Rather than act for ourselves we look for an autocrat that will make things as they once were in “the good old days” … or least how we fallaciously thought they were.

The result of this political cock-fight (pun intended) is a misplaced, erroneous view of economic theories. By looking at governance through a dichotomous filter, we equate one party with one theory and the other with another. Republicans religiously worship the unfettered market rule approach, simplistically attributed to Adam Smith; and Democrats with “the state is the answer to all that ails us” position of Thomas Hobbs. We then further this divide by adding in the polarizing toxicity of the “no compromise” positions of virtually all candidates no matter the party or campaign – federal, state or local.

“Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We have blinded ourselves to other options of economic thought … to other alternatives of civil participation and governance.

Commons cloud

Elinor Ostrom

In 2009, American Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for “her analysis of economic governance of the commons.” Ostrom’s work was so far outside the economic norm that she was considered a rebel. Had it not been for her prodigious meticulous research over thirty years and several continents, her work would have been summarily dismissed. But fortunately for all of us, it wasn’t; and because of it … we have another option.

Ostrom emphasized the role of public choice on decisions influencing the production of public goods and services. It’s this research into peer-to-peer governance that has shed light on an alternative way of looking at our society and how we mange it.

Elinor Ostrom mounted a remarkable challenge to the mainstream views in economics and political science. As she described it herself, her work is a systematic attempt to transcend the basic dichotomy of modern political economy.

On the one hand, there is the tradition defined by Adam Smith‘s theory of social order. Smith and his intellectual descendants focused on the pattern of order and the positive consequences emerging out of the independent actions of individuals pursuing their own interests within a given system of rules. That tradition where the study of markets—the competition among producers and consumers of pure private goods leading to a better allocation of resources—occupied a preeminent place.

On the other hand, there is the tradition rooted in Thomas Hobbes’ theory of social order. From that perspective, individual actors pursuing their own interests and trying to maximize their welfare lead inevitably to chaos and conflict. From that is derived the necessity of a single center of power imposing order. In Hobbes’ view, social order is the creation of the unique “Leviathan,” which wields the monopoly power to make and enforce law. Self-organized and independent individuals thus have nothing to do with making order. Most modern theories of “The State” have their origins in Hobbes’ vision of Leviathan.

In Ostrom’s view, the theorists in both traditions managed to keep not only the theories of market and state alienated from each other, they also managed to keep the basic visions of the two separated. Smith’s concept of market order was considered applicable for all private goods while Hobbes’s conception of the single center of power and decision applied for all collective goods. But what if the domains of modern political-economic life could not be understood or organized by relying only on the concepts of markets or states? What if we need “a richer set of policy formulations” than just “the” market or “the” state? Answering that challenge is probably the best way to see Ostrom’s work on governance and common pool resources: It’s an empirically based contribution to a larger and bolder attempt to build an alternative to the basic dichotomy of modern political economy, an effort to find an alternative to the conceptions derived from Smith and Hobbes.

“The presence of order in the world,” Ostrom writes, “is largely dependent upon the theories used to understand the world. We are not limited, however, to only the conceptions of order derived from the work of Smith and Hobbes.” We need a theory that “offers an alternative that can be used to analyze and prescribe a variety of institutional arrangements to match the extensive variety of collective goods in the world.” In response to that need, Ostrom has explored a new domain of the complex institutional reality of social life—the rich institutional arrangements that are neither states nor markets. These are for-profit or not-for-profit entities that produce collective goods for “collective consumption units.” Examples of such “consumption units” abound. They are small and large, multi-purpose or just focused on one good or service: suburban municipalities, neighborhood organizations, condominiums, churches, voluntary associations, or informal entities like those solving the common-pool resources dilemmas studied and documented by Ostrom around the world. They could be seen as a “third sector” related to but different from both “the state” and “the market.” (Elinor Ostrom on the Market, the State, and the Third Sector)

Ostrom showed us there is another way, an alternative. She showed us given the opportunity we can govern ourself. We can do it not through representatives and easily manipulated surrogates – but through our communities and groups we ourselves form. And not only can we do this, but it even might be more in order with our inherent human nature.

David Hume and the ‘Spontaneous Order’

18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume theorized that people are inherently good. What if rather than religiously following the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (proponent of all-encompassing government) and his pessimistic views of humanity with personal self-interest being the root of all our actions … we looked instead to Hume. He believed we were born with the virtues of benevolence, trust and commitment. This ‘spontaneous order’ did not need to be enforced by a greater overarching power or institution of human or theological making., but rather would be individually and collectively be more efficient and ordered on its own.

The idea of spontaneous order comes from the Scottish Enlightenment, and in particular David Hume (also Adam Smith) who, famously, argued against Thomas Hobbes’ assumption that, without some Leviathan ruling over us (keeping us “all in awe”), we would end up in a hideous State of Nature in which life would be “nasty, brutish and short.” Hume’s counter-argument was that, in the absence of a system of centralized command, conventions emerge that minimize conflict and organize social activities (including production) in a manner that is most conducive to the Good Life.

Steadily, these conventions acquire a moral dimension (i.e. there is a transition from the belief that others will follow the established conventions to the belief that others sought to follow them), they become more evolutionarily stable and, in the end, function as the glue that allows society to be ordered and efficient albeit without any centralized, formal, hierarchy. In short, ‘spontaneous order’ emerges in the absence of authoritarian hierarchies. (Yanis Varoufakis)

While Elinor Ostrom demonstrated certain aspects of society work well when run by the community in a peer-to-peer fashion (outreach programs, clean-up efforts, mentoring programs, etc.) – others need more of a hierarchical arrangement. Larger societal groupings such as countries, states and even cities need set hierarchies to administer functions that a neighborhood community itself can’t provide … such as an airport, a mass transit system or a national defense system.

Hume also saw the need for this two-pronged civic governance. One of the basis of Hume’s philosophy was his interpretation of justice and classification of virtues; which he divided into natural and artificial.

In the Treatise, Hume emphasizes the distinction between the natural and artificial virtues. The natural virtues—being humane, kind and charitable—are character traits and patterns of behavior that human beings would exhibit in their natural condition, even if there were no social order. The artificial virtues— respecting people’s property rights, fidelity in keeping promises and contracts, and allegiance to government— are dispositions based on social practices and institutions that arise from conventions.

Hume believes that nature has supplied us with many motives—parental love, benevolence, and generosity—that make it possible for us to live together peacefully in small societies based on kinship relations. One of his important insights is that nature has not provided us with all the motives we need to live together peacefully in large societies. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Distilling down Hume into layman’s terms, we can extrapolate this dual system of justice (or governance) by creating a 2016 evolution of civic participation. His “natural virtues” can be managed via Ostrom’s view of the commons or the community. Only instead of public lands and common areas we should equate the “commons” to the well-being of the community and all the factors that contribute to it, such as physical, cerebral (avenues to self-actualization) and spiritual health.

On the other side, we can look at Hume’s “artificial virtues” relating to those needing to be governed in a more traditional way via our system of hierarchical representative government, or at least a way we could envision it was designed to work, absent of our current state of dysfunctional ineptitude and “awfulness.”


“Orion” and hybrid civic participation.

“The opportunity today is in new relational forms that don’t mimic the governance models of industrial, hierarchical firms.” Esko Kilpi

Last fall my daughter and her partner Christina got a new cat. One of their previous two, Macy, ran away (and unfortunately whatever her fate might have been, we’ll never know). While Alex was in Montana visiting and picking me up for my annual California two month hiatus, Christina surprised her with a new kitten. Orion is a Bengal Cat.

A Bengal Cat is a domestic cat breed developed to evoke the feline denizens of the jungle such as leopardsocelots, margays and clouded leopards. Bengal Cats were developed by the selective breeding of domestic cats crossed then backcrossed and backcrossed once more with hybrids from the Asian leopard cat (ALC), Prionailurus bengalensis and domestic cat, with the goal of creating a confident, healthy and friendly cat with a highly contrasted and vividly marked coat. Wikipedia

Orion is highly active and highly intelligent. This makes him fun to live with, but he can sometimes be challenging. Orion is a confident, talkative, friendly cat who is always alert; in summary – he’s engaged. Nothing escapes his notice.

Metaphorically speaking, I couldn’t help but see the uncanny connection Orion has with David Hume’s solution to civic society. The domestic house cat side of him being our conventional hierarchical political system. No matter the flavor of democracy and competence, they all operate roughly the same in a traditional top-down fashion.  The responsiveness of the those elected will sometimes be better than others. In cat terms; it’s like him laying on the back of the couch as you read this with the computer on your lap. For the most part he just chills and lets you do your work.

But rather than just accept unresponsive dysfunction as a political given (or the lethargic behavior of you house cat), I urge us to strive for better and push our elected servants to a higher ideal. The ideal I envision is Transpartisanship thoroughly articulated by Michael Ostrolenk. Transpartisanship encompasses the idea that all systems are inextricably interconnected and that successful outcomes can best be reached through inclusive, genuine, and respectful cooperation. It can best be described as always searching for common ground, where – “There are no real enemies … only future allies.”

Transpartisanship acknowledges the validity of truths across a range of political perspectives and seeks to synthesize them into an inclusive, pragmatic whole beyond typical political dualities. In practice, transpartisan solutions emerge out of a new kind of public conversation that moves beyond polarization by applying proven methods of facilitated dialogue, deliberation and conflict resolution. In this way it is possible to achieve the ideal of a democratic republic by integrating the values of a democracy — freedom, equality, and a regard for the common good, with the values of a republic — order, responsibility and security. (Joseph McCormick)

Now for Orion’s wild side, the other side of the hybrid – the Asian Leopard Cat. I associate this wild side to the peer-to-peer community based civic society that Elinor Ostrom believed in and advocated for. Coincidentally, this is reminiscent of the nuances and structure of past reputation and trust based nomadic societies. This side of the Bengal is more likely to spend his days prowling the jungle hunting for prey, swimming in streams and climbing trees rather than lounging on the couch. You and your neighbors don’t have time to lounge around. You can’t wait for politicians to act. The things that affect you, have to be dealt with. Decisions have to be made; plans of action laid out – and these plans implemented.

A peer-to-peer system of civic organization takes work though, work not otherwise needed when we obey mindlessly like sheep. We must make special efforts to understand the concerns of our neighbors and fellow civic participants and collaborators. Empathy must be at the forefront of our discourse; and our “Middle Ring” must be what we lean on for support in absence of our traditional forms of government. Diversity and inclusion can’t just be “something we consider,” but a given.

Elinor Ostrom showed us that with an engaged populace an alternative is possible. She argued for diverse, democratic participation and ecological sustainability. This is a long way from the narrow assumptions of dichotomous mainstream economics. She used detailed research methods to show how we could do better; helping us to move away from an economy that is based on top down command, inequality and corporate control. She was a pragmatic radical; we can all learn from her lead and put her work to practice. Ideally governance of the community by the people through the Middle Ring and Front Porch gatherings (including both “natural” and “virtual” responsibilities) … will replace hierarchy in as many situations as operationally possible. Those that can’t must be governed by commonalities held accountable via cooperation. (derived from openDemocracy UK)

They say only experienced cat owners should own a Bengal. So should there be a similar warning when attempting a peer-to-peer system of civic governance. Only if you’re willing to be fully engaged, “get your hands dirty” and actually do the work … should you commit.

But if you are … join me in merging the metaphorical “wild cat” with our genetics of societal domestication to create a foundation of self-sustainability and active participation for the betterment of all members of our society. This hybrid – so aptly named Orion … is what Community 3.0 is all about.


If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.


You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+.

7 thoughts on “What do the genetics of a Bengal Cat and the evolution of economics have in common?

  1. Great and thought-provoking blog as always.

    I am deliberately apolitical and areligious for this very reason. My preferences are highly contextually interdependent. I think this transpartisanship movement you speak about is starting to emerge in religion with some religious leaders shaking hands, recognising that it is not a competition but a collaboration in meeting as many communities as possible with higher-level messages that help bring peace & balance to ecosystems.

    I think the danger is that we can look to seek out hybrids too soon when we have not yet fully understood the new/wild. It is key to ensure the new/wild is strong enough in comparison with the old/tame. Otherwise we end up with something beautiful but characterless, and possibly with a significant identity crisis!

    1. I agree, I believe it can be tempting to jump on board with something often just because it’s exciting and new. Understanding what qualities you are striving for is probably the most important part of this, without a goal or plan of action we are making change for the sake of change, and not for the sake of the overall purpose. Bengals are very unique cats, and with that uniqueness there are new challenges and obstacles, just this morning Orion broke my coffee mug while playing with his kitten (I was not thrilled by this but wasn’t surprised). Identifying the desirable characteristics of any project is definitely the best way to achieve the end goal, and on that same note I believe it’s important to unbiasedly address the flaws and inherent issues you are bound to have when incorporating an additional set of elements. With a stronger, more agile and energetic cat comes a whole new level of engagement, but also a lot more work to make everything fit together properly, and occasionally you just have to expect that a mug is going to get broken 🙂

    2. Excellent comment Heidi. I had Alexandria comment as well, since Orion is her cat. Her experiences a year into the process with him further backs up my initial metaphor. As a citizenry we can choose to stay in our comfort zone and complain as life around us descends further into the abyss of Dante’s Hell. Expecting others, qualified or not, to show us the way to where we want to go is not a pragmatic solution. With the election bearing down on us it’s easy to say we’ve done our part by voting and putting up signs in our yards. But regardless of the outcome, it’ll still be us having to clean up the mess when the circus leaves town.

      If we don’t at least try a little self-determination … what’s the point. It’s like modern day philosopher, Lil Wayne once so rightly proclaimed – “Everybody Dies But Not Everybody Lives!!” Let’s go out and change some things and do some living.

  2. Respectfully, it’s Thomas Hobbes, with an “e” in there.

    The article itself raises some important issues; the question becomes, will the necessary changes arrive in time, or does the system have to collapse into complete dysfunction before the systemic problems are finally addressed? Place your bets. As H.G. Wells famously wrote, “History is a race between education and catastrophe”. Cheers,

    1. Thanks for pointing out my typo. I do know it’s Hobbes with an ‘e’ – I just missed on one of three times I mentioned him 🙂 But seriously thanks.

      I’m an optimist so I have to believe we still have time. If I didn’t think we did I wouldn’t have spent the last four years concocting an alternative, which I summarized above. Fortunately we live in time where information spreads at breakneck speed. Let’s hope what spreads are the “good ideas” that will enable us to curtail “catastrophe” famously mentioned above.

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