It’s good to cooperate when everyone is defecting and good to defect when everyone cooperates. Kind of like it’s you vs. the crowd when you try to buy a stock low and sell it high.
In a high trust society, it pays to be the first to break trust and plunder the commons knowing that the full satisfaction of your greed won’t even make a dent.
Once too many people join in the plunder, the payoff plummets as everyone’s defenses go up. Worse, once that downward spiral of mass defection starts, it’s hard to break out of it. We’ve yet to ever see a society recover from decadence and avoid collapse.
Yet the first group that can somehow break out of that negative spiral cleans up and founds the new order. This seems to be what happened with early Christianity. All they had to do was be a group of people who actually cared about each other and backed each other up. Once they got sufficiently established an atomized late-stage popular culture nobody cared to defend was easily swept aside.
Conversely when everyone goes along with the system it pays to be the guy who exploits the herd. In the US Civil War, there were professional enlistment dodgers once large sign-up bonuses became necessary to recruit more troops. While the guy who followed instructions and popular sentiment naively marched into the line of fire expecting glory, the guy who stayed out of the early craze could get paid just to show up and then change identities to do it again. While raking in all that cash, I can only imagine the successful dodger was quite the catch for all the lonely young ladies and found himself living in luxury, getting laid like tile while the other poor schlub was getting his gangrenous leg sawed off. Winners and losers: those who can adjust their survival strategies to changing circumstances and those who get outmaneuvered.
Our own society suffers from far too many defectors and as a result social capital has collapsed. We’re bowling alone and doting on animals to feel some kind of connection in the midst of this economic war of all against all. The unclaimed prize goes to the first organization, whatever it is, that establishes high-trust, reliable social capital for even average people who get trashcanned for falling a few steps behind the pack. This is the service that early Christianity provided and it exploded because the pent up demand for cooperation was immense. Those who got in the faith during its rise and avoided getting martyred got to reap the benefits of family and community while everyone else was still fighting to the death over a dwindling trail of crumbs.
I felt the dots in my head connecting as I read about Darwin’s finches a few years ago. Female preference is elastic because they just select whichever males seem well-fed and prosperous at a given time. Whenever the environment changes, different kinds of males meet with more success and become the most attractive. The present social order heaps money and status on the most flagrant defectors, getting them the best mates as decay nears rock-bottom. Being the best defector is increasingly difficult though because everyone is trying to do it. At some point it’s smarter to look for the early Christians wherever they may be found and sit tight while the cycle winds down. This is pretty much what formerly nihilistic PUAs are doing as they’ve changed their rhetoric almost unanimously to family, nation, and traditional marriage over the last few years.
The story of the finches also made me think of the decline of the middle class. During good times, it pays to be a generalist who can benefit from many different food sources. During bad times, the best survivors are specialists that can access niches others can’t reach. Right now is a boom time for the highly skilled upper middle class as it is for the highly fecund underclasses. Those of merely above average intelligence and disposition have neither the brains or patience to be electrical engineers nor the raw guile and viciousness needed to rule the streets. Now that there’s a drought, they find themselves starving while specialists thrive. The prevailing question is, from what direction do the next rains arrive?
Unlike finches, humans have some ability to shift their strategies and pivot with the times. The human brain arose from nature not to invent science but to participate in a cerebral arms race between humans locked with each other in a collective prisoner’s dilemma with constantly shifting payoffs and losses. The finches have different kinds of beaks for different foods, lions have teeth and claws to kill prey, humans try to win at the great game of musical chairs.