Chapter 7: HUMAN SOCIETY
As a species, we are social beings who live out our lives in the company of other humans. We organize ourselves into various kinds of social groupings, such as nomadic bands, villages, cities, and countries, in which we work, trade, play, reproduce, and interact in many other ways. Unlike other species, we combine socialization with deliberate changes in social behavior and organization over time. Consequently, the patterns of human society differ from place to place and era to era and across cultures, making the social world a very complex and dynamic environment.
Insight into human behavior comes from many sources. The views presented here are based principally on scientific investigation, but it should also be recognized that literature, drama, history, philosophy, and other nonscientific disciplines contribute significantly to our understanding of ourselves. Social scientists study human behavior from a variety of cultural, political, economic, and psychological perspectives, using both qualitative and quantitative approaches. They look for consistent patterns of individual and social behavior and for scientific explanations of those patterns. In some cases, such patterns may seem obvious once they are pointed out, although they may not have been part of how most people consciously thought about the world. In other cases, the patternsas revealed by scientific investigationmay show people that their long-held beliefs about certain aspects of human behavior are incorrect.
This chapter covers recommendations about human society in terms of individual and group behavior, social organizations, and the processes of social change. It is based on a particular approach to the subject: the sketching of a comprehensible picture of the world that is consistent with the findings of the separate disciplines within the social sciencessuch as anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, and psychologybut without attempting to describe the findings themselves or the underlying methodologies.
The chapter describes seven key aspects of human society: cultural effects on human behavior, the organization and behavior of groups, the processes of social change, social trade-offs, forms of political and economic organization, mechanisms for resolving conflict among groups and individuals, and national and international social systems. Although many of the ideas are relevant to all human societies, this chapter focuses chiefly on the social characteristics of the present-day United States.
Human behavior is affected both by genetic inheritance and by experience. The ways in which people develop are shaped by social experience and circumstances within the context of their inherited genetic potential. The scientific question is just how experience and hereditary potential interact in producing human behavior.
Each person is born into a social and cultural settingfamily, community, social class, language, religionand eventually develops many social connections. The characteristics of a child's social setting affect how he or she learns to think and behave, by means of instruction, rewards and punishment, and example. This setting includes home, school, neighborhood, and also, perhaps, local religious and law enforcement agencies. Then there are also the child's mostly informal interactions with friends, other peers, relatives, and the entertainment and news media. How individuals will respond to all these influences, or even which influence will be the most potent, tends not to be predictable. There is, however, some substantial similarity in how individuals respond to the same pattern of influencesthat is, to being raised in the same culture. Furthermore, culturally induced behavior patterns, such as speech patterns, body language, and forms of humor, become so deeply imbedded in the human mind that they often operate without the individuals themselves being fully aware of them.
Every culture includes a somewhat different web of patterns and meanings: ways of earning a living, systems of trade and government, social roles, religions, traditions in clothing and foods and arts, expectations for behavior, attitudes toward other cultures, and beliefs and values about all of these activities. Within a large society, there may be many groups, with distinctly different subcultures associated with region, ethnic origin, or social class. If a single culture is dominant in a large region, its values may be considered correct and may be promotednot only by families and religious groups but also by schools and governments. Some subcultures may arise among special social categories (such as business executives and criminals), some of which may cross national boundaries (such as musicians and scientists).
Fair or unfair, desirable or undesirable, social distinctions are a salient part of almost every culture. The form of the distinctions varies with place and time, sometimes including rigid castes, sometimes tribal or clan hierarchies, sometimes a more flexible social class. Class distinctions are made chiefly on the basis of wealth, education, and occupation, but they are also likely to be associated with other subcultural differences, such as dress, dialect, and attitudes toward school and work. These economic, political, and cultural distinctions are recognized by almost all members of a societyand resented by some of them.
The class into which people are born affects what language, diet, tastes, and interests they will have as children, and therefore influences how they will perceive the social world. Moreover, class affects what pressures and opportunities people will experience and therefore affects what paths their lives are likely to takeincluding schooling, occupation, marriage, and standard of living. Still, many people live lives very different from the norm for their class.
The ease with which someone can change social class varies greatly with time and place. Throughout most of human history, people have been almost certain to live and die in the class into which they were born. The times of greatest upward mobility have occurred when a society has been undertaking new enterprises (for example, in territory or technology) and thus has needed more people in higher-class occupations. In some parts of the world today, increasing numbers of people are escaping from poverty through economic or educational opportunity, while in other parts, increasing numbers are being impoverished.
What is considered to be acceptable human behavior varies from culture to culture and from time period to time period. Every social group has generally accepted ranges of behavior for its members, with perhaps some specific standards for subgroups, such as adults and children, females and males, artists and athletes. Unusual behaviors may be considered either merely amusing, or distasteful, or punishably criminal. Some normal behavior in one culture may be considered unacceptable in another. For example, aggressively competitive behavior is considered rude in highly cooperative cultures. Conversely, in some subcultures of a highly competitive society, such as that of the United States, a lack of interest in competition may be regarded as being out of step. Although the world has a wide diversity of cultural traditions, there are some kinds of behavior (such as incest, violence against kin, theft, and rape) that are considered unacceptable in almost all of them.
The social consequences considered appropriate for unacceptable behavior also vary widely between, and even within, different societies. Punishment of criminals ranges from fines or humiliation to imprisonment or exile, from beatings or mutilation to execution. The form of appropriate punishment is affected by theories of its purpose to prevent or deter the individual from repeating the crime, or to deter others from committing the crime, or simply to cause suffering for its own sake in retribution. The success of punishment in deterring crime is difficult to study, in part because of ethical limitations on experiments assigning different punishments to similar criminals, and in part because of the difficulty of holding other factors constant.
Technology has long played a major role in human behavior. The high value placed on new technological invention in many parts of the world has led to increasingly rapid and inexpensive communication and travel, which in turn has led to the rapid spread of fashions and ideas in clothing, food, music, and forms of recreation. Books, magazines, radio, and television describe ways to dress, raise children, make money, find happiness, get married, cook, and make love. They also implicitly promote values, aspirations, and priorities by the way they portray the behavior of people such as children, parents, teachers, politicians, and athletes, and the attitudes they display toward violence, sex, minorities, the roles of men and women, and lawfulness.
In addition to belonging to the social and cultural settings into which they are born, people voluntarily join groups based on shared occupations, beliefs, or interests (such as unions, political parties, or clubs). Membership in these groups influences how people think of themselves and how others think of them. These groups impose expectations and rules that make the behavior of members more predictable and that enable each group to function smoothly and retain its identity. The rules may be informal and conveyed by example, such as how to behave at a social gathering, or they may be written rules that are strictly enforced. Formal groups often signal the kind of behavior they favor by means of rewards (such as praise, prizes, or privileges) and punishments (such as threats, fines, or rejection).
Affiliation with any social group, whether one joins it voluntarily or is born into it, brings some advantages of larger numbers: the potential for pooling resources (such as money or labor), concerted effort (such as strikes, boycotts, or voting), and identity and recognition (such as organizations, emblems, or attention from the media). Within each group, the members' attitudes, which often include an image of their group as being superior to others, help ensure cohesion within the group but can also lead to serious conflict with other groups. Attitudes toward other groups are likely to involve stereotypingtreating all members of a group as though they were the same and perceiving in those people's actual behavior only those qualities that fit the observer's preconceptions. Such social prejudice may include blind respect for some categories of people, such as doctors or clergy, as well as blind disrespect for other categories of people who are, say, foreign-born or women.
The behavior of groups cannot be understood solely as the aggregate behavior of individuals. It is not possible, for example, to understand modern warfare by summing up the aggressive tendencies of individuals. A person may behave very differently in a crowdsay, when at a football game, at a religious service, or on a picket linethan when alone or with family members. Several children together may vandalize a building, even though none of them would do it on his or her own. By the same token, an adult will often be more generous and responsive to the needs of others as a member of, say, a club or religious group than he or she would be inclined to be in private. The group situation provides the rewards of companionship and acceptance for going along with the shared action of the group and makes it difficult to assign blame or credit to any one person.
Social organizations may serve many purposes beyond those for which they formally exist. Private clubs that exist ostensibly for recreation are frequently important places for engaging in business transactions; universities that formally exist to promote learning and scholarship may help to promote or to reduce class distinctions; and business and religious organizations often have political and social agendas that go beyond making a profit or ministering to people. In many cases, an unstated purpose of groups is to exclude people in particular categories from their activitiesyet another form of discrimination.
Societies, like species, evolve in directions that are opened or constrained in part by internal forces such as technological developments or political traditions. The conditions of one generation limit and shape the range of possibilities open to the next. On the one hand, each new generation learns the society's cultural forms and thus does not have to reinvent strategies for producing food, handling conflict, educating young people, governing, and so forth. It also learns aspirations for how society can be maintained and improved. On the other hand, each new generation must address unresolved problems from the generation before: tensions that may lead to war, wide-scale drug abuse, poverty and deprivation, racism, and a multitude of private and group grievances. Slavery in the early history of the United States, for example, still has serious consequences for African-Americans and for the U.S. economy, education, health care, and judicial systems in general. Grievances may be relieved just enough to make people tolerate them, or they may overflow into revolution against the structure of the society itself. Many societies continue to perpetuate centuries-old disputes with others over boundaries, religion, and deeply felt beliefs about past wrongs.
Governments generally attempt to engineer social change by means of policies, laws, incentives, or coercion. Sometimes these efforts work effectively and actually make it possible to avoid social conflict. At other times they may precipitate conflict. For example, setting up agricultural communes in the Soviet Union against the farmers' wishes to farm their own private land was achieved only with armed force and the loss of millions of lives. The liberation of slaves in the United States came only as one consequence of a bloody civil war; a hundred years later, elimination of explicit racial segregation was achieved in some places only by use of legislative action, court injunctions, and armed military guardand continues to be a major social issue.
External factorsincluding war, migration, colonial domination, imported ideas, technology or plagues, and natural disastersalso shape the ways in which each society evolves. The outlook of the Soviet Union, for example, is strongly influenced by the devastating losses it suffered in both world wars. The societies of American Indians were ravaged and displaced by the diseases and warfare brought by colonists from Europe. In the United States, forcible importation of Africans and successive waves of immigrants from Europe, Latin America, and Asia have greatly affected the political, economic, and social systems (such as labor, voting blocs, and educational programs), as well as adding to the nation's cultural variety. Natural disasters such as storms or drought can cause failure of crops, bringing hardship and famine, and sometimes migration or revolution.
Convenient communication and transportation also stimulate social change. Groups previously isolated geographically or politically become ever more aware of different ways of thinking, living, and behaving, and sometimes of the existence of vastly different standards of living. Migrations and mass media lead not only to cultural mixing but also to the extinction of some cultures and the rapid evolution of others. Easy worldwide communications and transportation force confrontations of values and expectationssometimes deliberately as propaganda, sometimes just incidentally, as in the pursuit of commercial interests.
The size of the human population, its concentration in particular places, and its pattern of growth are influenced by the physical setting and by many aspects of culture: economics, politics, technology, history, and religion. In response to economic concerns, national governments set very different policiessome to reduce population growth, some to increase it. Some religious groups also take a strong stand on population issues. Leaders of the Roman Catholic church, for example, have long campaigned against birth control, whereas, in recent years, religious leaders of other major faiths have endorsed the use of birth control to restrict family size.
Quite apart from government policy or religious doctrine, many people decide whether to have a child on the basis of practical matters such as the health risk to the mother, the value or cost of a child in economic or social terms, the amount of living space, or a personal feeling of suitability as parents. In some parts of the worldand in poorly educated groups in any countrycouples have little knowledge of, or access to, modern-birth control information and technology. In the United States, the trend toward casual adolescent sexual relations has led to increasing numbers of unexpected and unwanted pregnancies.
In turn, social systems are influenced by populationits size, its rate of change, and its proportions of people with different characteristics (such as age, sex, and language). Great increase in the size of a population requires greater job specialization, new government responsibilities, new kinds of institutions, and the need to marshal a more complex distribution of resources. Population patterns, particularly when they are changing, are also influential in changing social priorities. The greater the variety of subcultures, the more diverse the provisions that have to be made for them. As the size of a social group increases, so may its influence on society. The influence may be through markets (such as young people who, as a group, buy more athletic equipment), voting power (for example, old people are less likely to vote for school bond legislation), or recognition of need by social planners (for example, more mothers who work outside the home will require child-care programs).
Choices among alternative benefits and costs are unavoidable for individuals or for groups. To gain something we want or need, it is usually necessary to give up something we already have, or at least give up an opportunity to have gained something else instead. For example, the more the public spends as a whole on government-funded projects such as highways and schools, the less it can spend on defense (if it has already decided not to increase revenue or debt).
Social trade-offs are not always economic or material. Sometimes they arise from choices between our private rights and the public good: laws concerning cigarette smoking in public places, cleaning up after pets, and highway speed limits, for instance, restrict the individual freedom of some people for the benefit of others. Or choices may arise between esthetics and utility. For example, a proposed large-scale apartment complex may be welcomed by prospective tenants but opposed by people who already live in the neighborhood.
Different people have different ideas of how trade-offs should be made, which can result in compromise or in continuing discord. How different interests are served often depends on the relative amounts of resources or power held by individuals or groups. Peaceful efforts at social change are most successful when the affected people are included in the planning, when information is available from all relevant experts, and when the values and power struggles are clearly understood and incorporated into the decision-making process.
There is often a question of whether a current arrangement should be improved or whether an entirely new arrangement should be invented. On the one hand, repeatedly patching up a troublesome situation may make it just tolerable enough that the large-scale change of the underlying problem is never undertaken. On the other hand, rushing to replace every system that has problems may create more problems than it solves.
It is difficult to compare the potential benefits of social alternatives. One reason is that there is no common measure for different forms of goodfor example, no measure by which wealth and social justice can be compared directly. Another reason is that different groups of people place greatly differing values on even the same kind of social goodfor example, on public education or the minimum wage. In a very large population, value comparisons are further complicated by the fact that a very small percentage of the population can be a large number of people. For example, in a total population of 100 million, a rise in the unemployment rate of only one-hundredth of 1 percent (which some people would consider trivially small) would mean a loss of 10,000 jobs (which other people would consider very serious).
Judgments of consequences in social trade-offs tend to involve other issues as well. One is a distance effect: The farther away in distance or the further away in time the consequences of a decision are, the less importance we are likely to give them. City dwellers, for instance, are less likely to support national crop-support legislation than are farmers, and farmers may not wish to have their federal tax dollars pay for inner-city housing projects. As individuals, we find it difficult to resist an immediate pleasure even if the long-term consequences are likely to be negative, or to endure an immediate discomfort for an eventual benefit. As a society, similarly, we are likely to attach more importance to immediate benefits (such as rapidly using up our oil and mineral deposits) than to long-term consequences (shortages that we or our descendants may suffer later).
The effect of distance in judging social trade-offs is often augmented by uncertainty about whether potential costs and benefits will occur at all. Sometimes it is possible to estimate the probabilities of several possible outcomes of a social decisionfor example, that sexual intercourse without birth control results in pregnancy about one time out of four. If relative value measures can also be placed on all the possible outcomes, the probabilities and value measures can be combined to estimate which alternative would be the best bet. But even when both probabilities and value measures are available, there may be debate about how to put the information together. People may be so afraid of some particular risk, for example, that they insist that it be reduced to as close to zero as possible, regardless of what other benefits or risks are involved.
And finally, decisions about social alternatives are usually complicated by the fact that people are reactive. When a social program is undertaken to achieve some intended effect, the inventiveness of people in promoting or resisting that effect will always add to the uncertainty of the outcome.
In most of the world's countries, national power and authority are allocated to various individuals and groups through politics, usually by means of compromises between conflicting interests. Through politics, governments are elected or appointed, or, in some cases, created by armed force. Governments have the power to make, interpret, and enforce the rules and decisions that determine how countries are run.
The rules that governments make encompass a wide range of human affairs, including commerce, education, marriage, medical care, employment, military service, religion, travel, scientific research, and the exchange of ideas. A national governmentor, in some cases, a state or local governmentis usually given responsibility for services that individuals or private organizations are believed not to be able to perform well themselves. The U.S. Constitution, for example, requires the federal government to perform only a few such functions: the delivery of mail, the taking of the census, the minting of money, and military defense. However, the increasing size and complexity of U.S. society has led to a vast expansion of government activities.
Today, the federal government is directly involved in such areas as education, welfare, civil rights, scientific research, weather prediction, transportation, preservation of national resources such as national parks, and much more. Decisions about the responsibilities that national, state, and local governments should have are negotiated among government officials, who are influenced by their constituencies and by centers of power such as corporations, the military, agricultural interests, and labor unions.
The political and economic systems of nations differ in many ways, including the means of pricing goods and services; the sources of capital for new ventures; government-regulated limits on profits; the collecting, spending, and controlling of money; and the relationships of managers and workers to each other and to government. The political system of a nation is closely intertwined with its economic system, refereeing the economic activity of individuals and groups at every level.
It is useful to think of the economy of a nation as tending toward one or the other of two major theoretical models. At one theoretical extreme is the purely capitalist system, which assumes that free competition produces the best allocation of scarce resources, the greatest productivity and efficiency, and the lowest costs. Decisions about who does what and who gets what are made naturally as consumers and businesses interact in the marketplace, where prices are strongly influenced by how much something costs to make or do and how much people are willing to pay for it. Most enterprises are initiated by individuals or voluntary groups of people. When more resources are needed than are available to any one person (such as to build a factory), they may be obtained from other people, either by taking out loans from banks or by selling ownership shares of the business to other people. High personal motivation to compete requires private ownership of productive resources (such as land, factories, and ships) and minimal government interference with production or trade. According to capitalist theory, individual initiative, talent, and hard work are rewarded with success and wealth, and individual political and economic rights are protected.
At the other theoretical extreme is the purely socialist system, which assumes that the wisest and fairest allocation of resources is achieved through government planning of what is produced and who gets it at what cost. Most enterprises are initiated and financed by the government. All resources of production are owned by the state, on the assumption that private ownership causes greed and leads to the exploitation of workers by owners. According to socialist theory, people contribute their work and talents to society not for personal gain but for the social good; and the government provides benefits for people fairly, on the basis of their relative needs, not their talent and effort. The welfare of the society as a whole is regarded as being more important than the rights of any individuals.
There are, however, no nations with economic systems at either the capitalist or the socialist extreme; rather, the world's countries have at least some elements of both. Such a mixture is understandable in practical terms.
In a purely capitalist system, on the one hand, competition is seldom free because for any one resource, product, or service, a few large corporations or unions tend to monopolize the market and charge more than open competition would allow. Discrimination based on economically irrelevant social attitudes (for example, against minorities and women, in favor of friends and relatives) further distorts the ideal of free competition. And even if the system is efficient, it tends to make some individuals very rich and some very poor. Thus, the United States, for example, tries to limit the extreme effects of its basically capitalist economic system by mean of selective government intervention in the free-market system. This intervention includes tax rates that increase with wealth; unemployment insurance; health insurance; welfare support for the poor; laws that limit the economic power of any one corporation; regulation of trade among the states; government restrictions on unfair advertising, unsafe products, and discriminatory employment; and government subsidization of agriculture and industry.
On the other hand, a purely socialist economy, even though it may be more equitable, tends toward inefficiency by neglecting individual initiative and by trying to plan every detail of the entire national economy. Without some advantages in benefits to motivate people's efforts, productivity tends to be low. And without individuals having the freedom to make decisions on their own, short-term variations in supply and demand are difficult to respond to. Moreover, underground economies spring up to match realities of supply and demand for consumer products. Therefore, many socialist systems allow some measure of open competition and acknowledge the importance of individual initiative and ownership. Most economies throughout the world today are undergoing changesome adopting more capitalist policies and practices, and others adopting more socialist ones.
There is conflict in all human societies, and all societies have systems for regulating it. Conflict between people or groups often arises from competition for resources, power, and status. Family members compete for attention. Individuals compete for jobs and wealth. Nations compete for territory and prestige. Different interest groups compete for influence and the power to make rules. Often the competition is not for resources but for ideasone person or group wants to have the ideas or behavior of another group suppressed, punished, or declared illegal.
Social change can be potent in evoking conflict. Rarely if ever is a proposed social, economic, or political change likely to benefit every component of a social system equally, and so the groups that see themselves as possible losers resist. Mutual animosities and suspicions are aggravated by the inability of both proponents and opponents of any change to predict convincingly what all of the effects will be of making the change or of not making it. Conflict is particularly acute when only a few alternatives exist with no compromise possiblefor example, between surrender and war or between candidate A and candidate B. Even though the issues may be complex and people may not be initially very far apart in their perceptions, the need to decide one way or the other can drive people into extreme positions to support their decision as to which alternative is preferable.
In family groups and small societies, laws are laid down by recognized authorities, such as parents or elders. But almost all groupsfrom university faculties to local scout troopshave formalized procedures for making rules and arbitrating disputes. On a larger scale, government provides mechanisms for dealing with conflict by making laws and administering them. In a democracy, the political system arbitrates social conflict by means of elections. Candidates for office advertise their intentions to make and modify rules, and people vote for whoever they believe has the best combination of intentions and the best chances of effectively carrying them out. But the need to make complex social trade-offs tends to prevent politicians from accomplishing all of their intentions when in office.
The desire for complete freedom to come and go as one pleases, carry weapons, and organize demonstrations may conflict with a desire for public security. The desire for resolute, efficient decision makingin the extreme, a dictatorshipmay conflict with a desire for public participationin the extreme, a democracy in which everyone votes on everything. The creation of laws and policies typically involves elaborate compromises negotiated among diverse interest groups. Small groups of people with special interests that they consider very important may be able to persuade their members to vote on the basis of that single issue and thereby demand concessions from a more diffuse majority.
Even when the majority of the people in a society agree on a social decision, the minority who disagree may have some protection. In the U.S. political system, for example, federal and state governments have constitutions that establish rights for citizens that cannot be changed by elected officials no matter how large a majority supports those officials. Changes in those constitutions usually require super majorities, of two-thirds or three-quarters of all voters, rather than just greater than one-half.
One strategy for political minorities is to join forces, at least temporarily, with other small groups that have partly similar interests. A coalition of small minorities may be able to exert considerable influence. A coalition of minorities may even become a majority, as long as their common interests outweigh their differences.
A similar protection of political rights is provided by the two-house system in the federal legislature and in most state legislatures. In Congress, for instance, the lower house has representation in proportion to population, so that every citizen in the country is equally represented. However, the upper house has exactly two members from every state, regardless of its populationthereby ensuring that the citizens of any state, however tiny, have the same representation as those of any other state, however large.
In addition, societies have developed many informal ways of airing conflict, including debates, strikes, demonstrations, polls, advertisements, and even plays, songs, and cartoons. The mass media provide the free means for (and may even encourage) small groups of people with a grievance to make highly visible public statements. Any of these ways and means may either release tensions and promote compromise or inflame and further polarize differences. The failure to resolve or to moderate conflicts leads to tremendous stress on the social system. Inability or unwillingness to change may result in a higher level of conflict: lawsuits, sabotage, violence, or full-scale revolutions or wars.
Intergroup conflict, lawful or otherwise, does not necessarily end when one segment of society finally manages to effect a decision in its favor. The resisting groups may then launch efforts to reverse, modify, or circumvent the change, and so the conflict persists. Conflict can, however, also solidify group action; both nations and families tend to be more unified during times of crisis. Sometimes group leaders use this knowledge deliberately to provoke conflict with an outside group, thus reducing tensions and consolidating support within their own group.
Nations and cultures are increasingly dependent on one another through international economic systems and shared environmental problems (such as the global effects of nuclear warfare, deforestation, and acid rain). They also learn more about one another through international travel and use of mass media. More and more, the global system is becoming a tightly knit web in which a change in any one part of the web has significant effects on the others. For instance, local conflicts spread beyond their borders to involve other nations; fluctuating oil supplies affect economic productivity, trade balances, interest rates, and employment throughout the world. The wealth, security, and general welfare of almost all nations are interrelated. There is a growing consensus among the leaders of most nations that isolationist policies are no longer sustainable and that such global issues as controlling the spread of nuclear weapons and protecting the world's monetary system from wild fluctuations can be accomplished only by all nations acting in concert.
Nations interact through a wide variety of formal and informal arrangements. Formal ones include diplomatic relations, military and economic alliances, and global organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Unlike national governments, however, global organizations often have only limited authority over their members. Other arrangements include cultural exchanges, the flow of tourists, student exchanges, international trade, and the activities of nongovernment organizations with worldwide membership (such as Amnesty International, anti-hunger campaigns, the Red Cross, and sports organizations).
The wealth of a nation depends on the effort and skills of its workers, its natural resources, and the capital and technology available to it for making the most of those skills and resources. Yet national wealth depends not only on how much a nation can produce for itself but also on the balance between how much its products are sought by other nations and how much of other nations' products it seeks. International trade does not result just from countries lacking certain resources or products, such as oil or various food crops or efficient automobiles. Even if a country can produce everything it needs by itself, it still benefits from trade with other countries. If a country does the things it does most efficiently (in terms of either quality or cost, or both) and sells its products to other nations, such a system theoretically enables all participating countries to come out ahead.
There are, however, many practical influences that distort the economic reality of international trade. For instance, such trade may be thwarted by fear of exploitation by economically or politically more powerful nations, by the desire to protect special groups of workers who would lose out to foreign economic competition, and by the unwillingness to become dependent on foreign countries for certain products that could become unavailable in the case of future conflicts.
Because of increasing international ties, the distinctions between international policy and domestic policy may be unclear in many cases. For example, policies that determine what kinds of cars or clothes we buy, and at what prices, are based on foreign trade and an international balance of payments. Agricultural production at home depends on foreign markets as well as domestic policies. Even though international markets may be to the advantage of all countries, they may be greatly to the disadvantage of particular groups of people within countries. The cheap production of cars in Asian countries, for example, may benefit car buyers all over the world but may also put automakers in other countries out of work. Domestic policies may thus be needed to avoid hardship for such groups; those policies in turn will affect international trade. Nations with strong internal consensus on their own religious or political ideologies may pursue foreign policies that aggressively promote the spread of such ideologies in other countries and undermine groups with competing ideas.
The growing interdependence of world social, economic, and ecological systems makes it difficult to predict the consequences of social decisions. Changes anywhere in the world can have amplified effects elsewhere, with increased benefits to some people and increased costs to others. There is also the possibility of some changes producing instability and uncertainty that are to the disadvantage of all. Worldwide stability may depend on nations establishing more reliable systems of doing business and exchanging information, developing monitoring mechanisms to warn of global catastrophes (such as famine and nuclear war), and reducing the large gap in the standard of living between the richest and the poorest nations. Nations, like all participants in social systems, sometimes find it to their advantage to suffer some short-term losses to achieve the longer-term benefits of a stable world economy.
Copyright © 1989, 1990 by American Association for the Advancement of Science