Friendship Vs. Society

Fast and FuriousMatt Yglesias has some insights into the Fast and Furious films. I’ve only seen the original one, but that’s all that’s really necessary. The film has an interesting theme that I have always found compelling: friendship trumps all. The question the film raises is whether the main character owes more to his friends than he does to his oath of office. Generally, movies either find a way to have it both ways or they ignore the issue altogether. But it’s an important question, “What would you do for your best friend?” Would you help him cover up a murder? A rape? A white lie?

Yglesias presents this in the context of economics. This kind of attitude is most associated with “low trust” societies. If you can’t trust the society at large, it makes sense that you would latch more strongly onto your personal relationships. It also looks like high trust societies grow faster. That’s not surprising. Economic transactions require a certain level of trust. If you know that a product will work as advertised, you will be more likely to buy it. Another thing that should surprise no one is that the level of trust goes down as income inequality goes up. On the simplest level: people become more segregated. What’s also true is that everyone knows that life is unfair; the more unequal it is, the more they see just how unfair it is.

What’s more interesting than these two unremarkable observations is what we get when we combine them: income inequality causes economic growth to slow. You would think that the rich would worry about that. Of course, you would also think the rich would worry about revolution but they never do. There are other reasons why income inequality will cause economic stagnation. For example, a very rich person can only spend so much. And demand is what drives the economy.

I thought this discussion of friendship was interesting for different reasons. When I saw that the government was going after the friends of the Tsarnaev brothers, I was really mixed. On the one hand, I don’t think I would help a friend cover up a murder. On the other, I think our society should applaud friendship. I don’t like the idea of everyone becoming some kind of government robot. That would be a society that I don’t want to live in. I felt the same way when the Unabomber was ratted out by his brother. That’s not to say that I condone murder, but loyalty is a value too. As I said, I accept turning in murderers. But anyone who would turn in a friend for tax evasion is not much of a friend.

The best society is one where strangers can trust each other. But that doesn’t take away from the need for loyalty in our personal relationships. And I don’t think society should celebrate those friends and family members who do place the collective above them. We should have mixed feeling about it. It should be seen as a decision (Even if an easy one!) and not just automatic as though of course everyone turns in his brother when he does something wrong.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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