Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Underrated Value of Exclusivity

Earlier this week I spent some time tracking down calf 721. (For fun, let’s just call him “Spunky”). This little Angus-Charolais calf had been looking a little rough and thin, and I have been feeding him a bottle of milk replacer morning and night for the past few days. Unlike his herdmates, whose coats are slick and shiny, his coat is a little dirty and dull. He is still spunky, but he was not thriving like his cohorts. After some extra food, he is looking stronger and a little better.

I have been puzzled as to why this little fellow is not getting his needs met. I wondered if his mother perhaps had a fever, which would make her not milk properly. But that was not the case at all. I eventually found out why “Spunky” was not thriving. His mother had plenty of milk, but three calves were nursing her. Two of them were not her own, and they were bigger than Spunky. When it came to competition, Spunky did not have what it took to get after these bigger fellows. And his mother was not doing her job.

Spunky should have had exclusive rights to his mother’s milk, as that is the custom in the animal kingdom. Calves that try to nurse other mothers typically get kicked away. It might seem cruel, as they may be hungry. But the mothers know what they are doing. If they don’t stop the intruders, their own calves lose out. Eventually, Spunky’s mom also apparently lost the sense that her own calf was special. He is now dependent on us to feed him or on some other cows to allow him a nibble here and there.

This story strikes me as an interesting metaphor that may provide some insights into some of the problems in modern society. Exclusivity is a powerful and necessary force to make things work properly. It may seem harsh not to “share” and to have certain things in common, or it may seem unduly rigid to reject an approach that treats some things - like sex, for example - as deserving on special protection. However, the reality is that cruelty and poor results may come from ignoring the power of exclusivity.

It is quite easy to see a direct application for this story when it comes to property rights, as ownership is a powerful force that directs people to take action. The tragedy of the commons is well-known, where everybody can use property and nobody is responsible.

But there may also be a message in social contexts. It is unpopular to speak about problems like out-of-wedlock births, but this force is contributing to poverty rates in a significant way. Other dimensions of the social fabric are affected as well. Promiscuous or disconnected fathers don’t see their children as special – their own – and they may fail to treat women as special as well when sex becomes a nonexclusive activity. This is not so great for women, either, when the reality of the obligations of childcare set in and there is no one there to help.

There are probably other meanings to ponder here. And of course, there is always the possibility that the government may need to intervene – with milk bottle or something similar in hand.

Human beings are special; I do not share the belief that we are animals and that returning to animal nature is a sufficient answer to anything. Our goal should be to rise above the animal nature to achieve something more - that is what civilization is about. Nevertheless, we can surely learn a few things from the world around us. Perhaps the value of exclusivity is under appreciated.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Ed,

In your example, what is the difference between the definition of exclusivity and protectionism?

Protectionism is when one gives others preferential treatment without regarding results. For the cow example, I think we’d agree the cow is granting her calf exclusive rights solely because the calf is her calf. When the mother couldn't care for the calf for whatever reason, weren’t you protecting the calf from the realm of the free market by direct (government) intervention?

When others are not able to compete in the rapidly changing environment, in part a result from globalization, should we teach them how to compete better or should we just give them milk as you did to the calf so they will make it through today?

I suppose we need a little protectionism and competition. This brings about the important decision of determining the right mixture of both to produce optimal results.

Thought I’d share this as its fun to debate using the analogy. Analogies are great as they sometimes transform difficult concepts into simplicity as you have shown with the cow and calf.