We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

On Friendship

One of the first things I was told on being diagnosed with lung cancer was ‘you are going to need your friends’. That was said to me by the doctor who diagnosed me and the point is that it was true. I now have a small but superb group of close friends.

Neither by nature nor by nurture I haven’t been good at friendship. My parents, like many parents, thought they were doing a good job raising me then, particularly better than many of my contemporaries.

They did not believe in extravagant entertainment, they believed there were more important things in life. They told me that and I thought that was true. As a result I considered myself as a superior person. Why couldn’t others see that? But others didn’t see and said so and made my life a misery.

Like all parents they had the virtues of their vices and vices of their virtues. Swings and roundabouts, all the money they didn’t spend on extravagant entertainment, a quarter of that is mine, which makes my life easier.

As the years went by I realised my contemporaries were much better at running their lives than I was. At some point I had to ask the question – if I am so superior why am I so miserable? Clearly, I am not running my life as well as I thought I was.

As the years went by, I also realised they knew about friendship and I didn’t. And now I realise that my parents didn’t tell me how to do friendship. I had to work it out for myself. I was in my 20s when my attitude enabled me to meet people as friends.

There are two kinds of friends – there are people who enjoy the same things as you do and there are people with whom it goes deeper than that. You help them. And the view I arrived at was rooted in economics which I was getting to grips with at the time. My method of making friends, which seemed to have worked, has been based on easily done favours but for people on the receiving end these have been a major source of comfort.

The trick is not to go crazy or part with resources you can’t afford when helping people but if you got the resources you could spare and they would benefit from, then go ahead.

It’s a lot like early stages of a trade when you are looking to make a deal where you’d be willing to pay more and they’d be willing to sell for less, so both parties gain.

And then forget about it, assume you don’t have any rights and see how things go. Spend the effort noticing what other things you could do.

This didn’t come naturally to me, it was like a fear of life and working out how to live.

This is not objective knowledge, just a set of rules that I arrived at and it would appear that they worked for me. Am I the only libertarian that has gone through this sort of process? I suspect not. Which is why I am writing this.

You are often a good teacher of things you had to struggle to work out. All the best sports coaches are the ones to whom it didn’t come naturally. Contrast the football coach, Jack Charlton, and his more naturally gifted brother, Bobby Charlton. So much so it’s rather rare that brilliant sportsmen become good coaches.

The ones who have had to struggle and discover the process for themselves, explicitly and self-consciously, when faced with a problem can pass that knowledge on. This is what I did.

If someone’s a natural, the problem somehow solves itself in their head and they don’t really have a process of getting there. Then they face a challenge of having to explain how they did it.

Because I had to think about how to make friends, maybe these thoughts and other recollections like them will be useful for some.

14 comments to On Friendship

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    “And then forget about it, assume you don’t have any rights and see how things go. Spend the effort noticing what other things you could do.” I found this line beautiful, and yet I cannot say that my experience of learning to “do” friendship has been particularly close to the process you describe here. Which doesn’t invalidate anything you said in the slightest of course, all it means is my experience was different.

    “You are often a good teacher of things you had to struggle to work out.” This, on the other hand, resonates with my experience perfectly. When I was at Oxford I assume that all of the people who gave the lectures I attended had to be pretty good at physics or they wouldn’t have got the job in the first place. But a few of them were more than that, they were the absolute world leaders in their speciality; the men (it was usually men) who literally “wrote the book”. There was a rough inverse correlation between the eminence of the lecturer and the comprehensibility of his lectures. By Oxford standards I wasn’t very good at physics so I needed all the help I could get.

    Your 2003 article in your Education Blog about the musical education of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin slightly contradicts what you, and I, have just said about education. Or does it? Education is a complicated business.

    I hope my comments on education do not end up diverting people away from your comments about friendship.

  • The Jannie

    My position is that I’ve reached a social equilibrium: I find that those I have disappointed are roughly equal in number to those who have disappointed me. So, with exceptions I could amply represent with the fingers of one hand I find it’s easier not to bother with “friends” any more.

  • Natalie is naturally good at friendship.

    A school essay written about me by my elder sister when I was 10 describes me as very ready to help those around without thought of self – IF my often lost-in-thought self chanced to notice that they needed it, which was very far from always the case.

    The ‘often lost-in-thought’ also implied a certain lack of seeming to need friends. I recall that when I went to secondary school my primary school friends simply ceased to be friends – even those that were at the same secondary school as I was. It was not that we disliked each other in the least. It was just that active friendship – seeing each other often, talking about things, etc. – somehow quietly did not survive the change in social context. In secondary school, ‘friend’ and ‘fellow hobbyist’ often overlapped for me – and exactly the same thing happened after I left secondary school. All the friends I’ve kept up with date from after I celebrated my 20th birthday.

    Some are born libertarians, some achieve libertarianism and some have being libertarian thrust upon them. From Brian’s description, I’m guessing he was born a libertarian, even if he was a good deal older before he knew this about himself. I think it was slower with me – but there again, perhaps it was always on the cards. According to one theory, an extrovert is someone who gains energy when with other people and loses it when alone, whereas an introvert expends energy when with other people and regains it when alone – definitions which can have very little overlap with common usage of these terms. Just as people who oppose mask lockdowns probably include an above average number of those who hate wearing the mask or find not seeing faces unsettling, and people who oppose vax mandates may include those who dislike having a needle stuck into them even more than most, so libertarians may include fewer than average of those who do not merely like company but need it.

  • bobby b

    I’ve always thought that there was a rather large Venn overlap between libertarians and people somewhere (low) on the autism spectrum. (I’ll include myself in that, just so it’s clear I’m not making fun.)

    Low-level autism leaves one much more self-oriented and outward-buffered and more prone to adopting philosophies that strengthen individual power and security – such as libertarianism.

    The cocooned sense of identity characteristic of many low-level autistics makes it harder to develop non-transactionally-centered friendships. What Mr. Micklethwait describes above as the basis for friendships strikes me as transaction-based – and such friendships can fade more easily than others.

    They’re just as real and sincere as non-transactional friendships – but they do depend on the shared interests remaining shared in order to survive.

  • Snorri Godhi

    A few scattered thoughts. More might come to mind tomorrow.

    — I found it difficult to make friends before i was about 14 or 15 years old. Then, before the end of high school, i made what i still think are my closest friends. 3 of them are surgeons, and 2 are lawyers. So i get free medical and legal advice.

    The mother of 2 of the surgeons (who were also my flatmates at university) told me that i’ll never find other friends like those i made in high school. I did not believe her at the time. I was wrong. But that might be because i am not good at making friends.

    — After high school, what most improved my social skills:

    * in the 1980s: reading How to Win Friends and Influence People, and the next year Winning the Games People Play.

    * in the late 1990s: reading some of the Sagas of Icelanders.
    This is relevant to what bobby wrote about the connection between libertarianism and mild autism, maybe i’ll expand tomorrow.

    * in the 2010s: changing diet. This is also related to mild autism, since cutting down carbs seems to reduce autistic symptoms, and cutting down seed oils seems to reduce aggression and self-harm.

  • Reading

    What Brian Micklethwait describes above as the basis for friendships strikes me as transaction-based (bobby b, September 25, 2021 at 6:41 pm

    versus

    “And then forget about it, assume you don’t have any rights and see how things go.” (Brian Micklethwait, OP, quoted by Natalie Solent, September 24, 2021 at 11:30, who then added on her own behalf) “I found this line beautiful, and yet I cannot say that my experience of learning to “do” friendship has been particularly close to the process you describe here.”

    makes me think that Brian was describing his conscious rejection of what may previously been have been a transactional view of friendship or may previously have been a failure to recognise the value of friends (which might have arisen from a prior idea that friendships were transactional) in favour of a consciously non-transactional view of friendship.

    As with Natalie, so with me, it’s not how I ever reasoned about friendship. From as soon as I ever thought about it, I saw the ideal was to “love your best friends as yourself” – a formulation which includes plenty of room for what Burke calls “the energy of enlightened affection” in alerting friends in untroubled circumstances to faults or errors (as I should ideally notice my own) but a quite different behaviour when “a friend with frailties is facing implacable enemies” (Burke again).

  • David Roberts

    Brian this blog post caused me to listen to your discussions with Patrick Crozier on the Industrial Revolution. I am also interested in this topic and have also read about half of Deirdre McCloskey’s three books. Have you read The Weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. I found it provides further insights into the why and how of the Industrial Revolution.

  • Davjd Roberts

    Further to my previous comment, for those not familiar with Joseph Henrich’s book my best understanding of his thesis is that the Catholic Church’s undermining, over centuries, of the extended patriarchal family, led to people in Northern Europe having an individual mindset rather than a clannish mindset. Making them uniquely different from people in the rest of the world both now and from any people in the past. This mindset being a major factor in enabling the “improvements” of the Industrial Revolution to happen.

  • David Roberts

    Further to my previous comment for those not familiar with Joseph Henrich’s book my best understanding of his thesis is that the Catholic Church’s undermining, over centuries, of the extended patriarchal family, led to people in Northern Europe having an individual mindset rather than a clannish mindset. Making them uniquely different from people in the rest of the world both now and from any people in the past. This mindset being a major factor in enabling the “improvements” of the Industrial Revolution to happen.

  • Paul Marks

    Brian – when I lived in London you were always very hospitable to me (and I can be a very difficult person – very difficult indeed), I think your skills at fellowship (at least akin to friendship) are very good indeed.

    I am also very fortunate in having very close friends.

    Without them I would remain in this decaying house – essentially only leaving it to go to work meetings. And I would remain here till the end.

    It is my friends who drag me out – at their great expense. Both of money and of time – and effort.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Yesterday i wrote that the Sagas of Icelanders are relevant to what bobby wrote:

    Low-level autism leaves one much more self-oriented and outward-buffered and more prone to adopting philosophies that strengthen individual power and security – such as libertarianism.

    I have heard this claim before and, looking inside, am inclined to believe it.

    But … what is the extreme of libertarianism? Market anarchism, i should think. And what better historical example of market anarchism than saga-age Iceland?

    And yet, thinking about it, i doubt that market anarchism, at least in its Viking form, would work for even mildly autistic people. That is because it is evident from the Sagas that networking was essential, not just for prosperity but for survival. It was necessary to have friends who would avenge you if you were to be killed — so that nobody would kill you in the first place. (Of course, you would also assume the obligation of avenging your friends; so you had to pick friends carefully.)

  • Fraser Orr

    At some point I had to ask the question – if I am so superior why am I so miserable?

    This comment resonated with me very much Brian. I think it applies more broadly than friendship, but is perhaps most important in friendship, since the foundation of happiness is largely in the human relationships we have.

    I think about this a lot in the world we are more and more living in. A world that seems to have gone completely mad. So many of the people I know are pro-vax, anti-climate-change, Trump-was-the-devil, crt-critics-are-racist type of people, and you have to think about how to handle that. There is an argument that someone has to stand the line, stand up for the truth, be the voice calling in the wilderness. But it doesn’t make for a very happy life. Jeremiah may have been right, was he not a happy man. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Friendships, in my experience are far more based on listening that talking.

    I have often thought about this, and whether you can have a deep relationship with someone when there is that elephant in the room. But based on my experience a core observation is that life is about a great deal more than politics and the news. They are loud and insistent “listen to me” demanding our attention to assert their own importance. But the truth is that relationships are almost entirely nothing to do with these things. They are about shared experiences, mutual support, knowing they have your back as you have theirs. And for you, Brian, supporting you at this difficult time in your life.

    I don’t know you, except through your work, so I am not your friend — no doubt a greater loss to me than to you. However, as a virtual friend I wish you peace and comfort, and most of all beloved friends at this stage in your life.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    I’m a damn good judge of people.

    I’ve never met you Brian, but I’ve read many of your writings over many years. I can tell that you are a very genuine, thoughtful, kind, and loyal person. I know you are those four things.

    And you have opened up many minds to many fresh ideas and interesting perspectives.

    G-d Bless.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>