The arc of human history has been our struggle to update the inclusive fitness of the kin tribe era with the inclusive stakeholding of the global era. The time has come to change that dialectic.
Inclusive fitness is the biological algorithm that gives each member of a kin village a vested interest, genetically, in the success of all members of a kin tribe—the unit of human sociality for most of human evolution. Genetically speaking, people own 50 percent founder’s stock in their children, 25 percent in their grandkids and cousins, and so on. Kin skin in the game provided the inclusive stakeholding that helped people win as their community won. That shared success promoted community cohesion.
But once the unit of human sociality shifted from kin villages to communities of non-kin, the incentives changed.
Today, we rely on strangers who have an incentive to put their own interests ahead of ours. When those entrusted to serve us don’t have kin skin in the game, exclusive stakeholding ensues. Fake news, fake foods, fake politicians all result from the same underlying cause: low genetic alignment.
Furthermore, when this “malalignment” is combined with competition, a race to the bottom line ensues. If we force one media company to use less clickbait, for example, another will use more to gain market share. If we force one food company to use less sugar, another will use more to fill the void. In a way, the Kardashian culture and high-fructose corn syrup are the same phenomenon—the inevitable outcome of a race to the bottom line, where malalignment meets capitalism.
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But it’s not just institutions versus people. It’s also people against each other. Deep fractures seem to appear daily along every tribal element of human identity. As in some apocalyptic action movies, we hardly know where to step in our day-to-day conversations for fear of falling into some crevasse of bubbling hate that has just opened up.
The tragedy is that these tribal hurrahs might prove as phony as Spam when it first appeared as a poor replacement for meat and, later, as an even worse replacement for a friend’s handwritten letter. If loyalty is a fleeting and tradable commodity, is it still loyalty? Without the kin skin in the game that existed in our original tribes, true loyalty within today’s “tribes” will remain as elusive as it has been since the beginning of the human diaspora 100,000 years ago. Rather than healing the wounds of alienation, today’s tribalism throws salt in them. That’s hardly the type of future anyone would look forward to. Yet an everyone-for-themselves nightmare is exactly what looms as the sun sets on this brief and remarkable interlude known as human history.
This alienation caused by exclusive stakeholding has been going on far longer than you might think. World history has largely been a story of how family values failed to scale as humans globalized. When kingship replaced kinship, sovereigns began ruling over people, instead of on behalf of their people. Ancient republics created to counter these abuses also collapsed, usually due to self-dealing. As republics and empires everywhere toppled under the burden of self-interested corruption, it was perhaps inevitable that the story of a deity who gave his only son to the world emerged to counter the story of kings who gave the world to their sons. But this story also gave way to the same old story of institutional corruption, until Martin Luther’s revolution in 1517.
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Around that time, the idea of a joint-stock company was born. This powerful idea aligned stakeholders the way genes once did for kin tribes. But these companies did not include people in distant lands as stakeholders, which led to imperialism and colonialism. Similarly, companies did not include their workers as shareholders, leading to the schism of capitalism and socialism that continues to this day. Against this backdrop, the emergence of firms that gave stock to their workers was a stunning innovation that would make Silicon Valley the entrepreneurial juggernaut it is today. On the other hand, Silicon Valley did not include users as stakeholders, resulting in yet more upheaval now.
These examples demonstrate a recurring theme: Unless first-order alignment issues are addressed, whack-a-mole solutions to second-order problems will only create new ones. Pete Townshend anthemized this Sisyphean hell of revolutions in Won’t Get Fooled Again: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
Ever since we left the kin-skin-in-the-game era of human evolution, excluded stakeholders have been paying the price—the price of tyranny, slavery, nepotism, nationalism, nativism, imperialism, colonialism, racism, pollution, extractive capitalism, corruption, alienation, loneliness and inequality. Capitalists think socialists extract, and socialists think capitalists extract. Perhaps both would work better through inclusive stakeholding.
The good news is that the solution is hiding in plain sight. We’re at that tap-your-heels-together-three-times moment, when we finally realize that we’ve had the power to change our story all along. Humanity’s natural condition is not independence but interdependence. I think of the struggle for inclusive stakeholding as the first principle of humanity, from which can be derived not only historical understanding but a path to building a better future for everyone. This is very doable.
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To redirect natural inclinations and competition to serve the greater good, our family has launched the Grand Challenge on Inclusive Stakeholding, a social innovation competition intended to nurture new types of social, political and economic institutions in which all people win as all stakeholders win—including those who don’t have a voice, such as the children of the future. Instead of universal basic income, imagine universal basic stakeholding, where we all have a stake in one another’s future.
A couple of examples: Imagine health insurers being rewarded based on the amount people save on healthcare, 10 years down the road. If a proportion of the health savings of that patient over a decade accrues to the original insurer, then the insurer turns into an investor-stakeholder in a client’s health, motivating the insured to encourage preventative health measures. Or imagine teachers being rewarded in token amounts on the blockchain based on their students’ contributions to the world in 10 years down the road. The success of pupils would lift up their all their prior teachers.
The stakes have never been higher. We live in a highly interconnected world and our futures are irrevocably intertwined, both as individuals and as nations. From ecological impact to humanitarian crises to space exploration, we all have a stake in the risks and opportunities arising across the planet. Embracing inclusive stakeholding is our final frontier. Our future depends on it. Instead of a world where history is written by the victors, imagine a world where history is made by helping others win.