Tag Archives: Hypocrisy

Honest Putdowns

What do people want? Surely one thing they want is to not be insulted or put down by others. Yet if you ask people what personal features they most aspire to improve, the features they pick have no correlation with the features used in the putdowns around them! Yet putdown features have strong correlations with the features used in praise, and with the features people say they care most what others think of them. In this post, I’ll describe and interpret these new results, concluding that putdowns are our best guide to what really counts for status; aspirations are deluded, and not to be trusted.

So let’s start. Recently on Twitter I asked people for the damning descriptors that most lower folks’ status in their world. I then collect 32 such putdowns, identified the key human feature to which each referred, and then taxed the patience of my Twitter followers by posting five sets of 24 polls, with each poll comparing four of these 32 features. (Each feature appears in exactly 3 polls in each set.)

Each poll set corresponds to a different choice criteria. For the first criteria, Putdowns, I asked which feature was most often used for putdowns in their world. The next three criteria are: Praise asks which feature is most used for praise or admiration, Aspirations asks which you most aspire to improve in yourself, and ImageSeek asks for which you care most what others think of you. The last criteria TryLookBad asks for which feature (e.g., fart rate) it is most plausibly has an issue of it looking bad to try hard.

For each criteria, I fit (via min squared error) poll % responses to a simple model wherein some % of responses are random, and the rest are in proportion to the relative (positive) “priority” of each feature. The following table shows, for each criteria, the average number of responses per poll (Ave Poll N), the average root mean square error (RMSE in %) of its model in estimating poll % responses, and correlations between its prioritizes and priorities of other criteria. The correlations in red have t-stats of over 4.

Note that TryBadLook seems to have just failed as a poll question, with large errors and weak correlations; many just misunderstood it. Praise and ImageSeek are quite strongly correlated with each other and are similarly correlated with Putdowns, though only Praise is weakly correlated (t-stat 1.37) with Aspirations.

The most striking result, shown in bold, is that priorities for Putdowns and Aspirations are uncorrelated! You might think that since people don’t like to be insulted, they’d aspire more to look better on vulnerable features. But no. To help explore this puzzle, here are the best fit relative priorities for all 32 features and five questions, sorted by the difference between Aspirations and Putdowns priorities. (The % priorities for each criteria add to 100%.)

The pro-Aspiration top of the list has features like wealth, creative, brave, and articulate, that impress observers even if observers don’t value them as much. And it has features like productive and effort, which we’d like to convince others are a high priority for us. I do not at all believe that these two features are actually most people’s highest priority for improvement.

At the pro-Putdowns bottom of the list are features like menacing, biased, sanity, pleasant, and honest, which people see as important in others but not worth of improving in themselves. Plausibly, people convince others that they are not the type of folks at risk of ranking poorly on such features, so there is little need to work at them. Or, admitting that they are working on them would admit they have problems with them. It seems that people are also reluctant to admit they might have a problem with insufficient smarts.

In the middle of the list are features, like breadth, curious, professional, and generous, that most people pretend to care more about than they actually do. They are neither damning enough to be worth more putdowns, nor valued enough to be worth more aspiration. Note that features like liked and attractive plausibly matter less in putdowns because audiences for putdowns don’t like to admit that they care about them as much as they do. Not also that in another poll, respondents said 3-to-1 that criticism influences reputations more than does praise, with a majority saying it does so far more.

As these interpretations of the PutdownsAspirations differences mostly blame Aspirations for being less than honest, I conclude that the priorities of Putdowns are a more accurate measure of the true determinants of status than are the other measures above. Praise and ImageSeek are closer than Aspirations, but they are also polluted, Praise by the tendency to flatter people on the features on they want to be praised, and ImageSeek by our delusions regarding what failures are plausible for us.

Putdowns show what features really determine status, and aspirations can’t be trusted, as we care a lot more about status than we care to admit.

Yes of course it would be nice to check that these results hold for larger poll pools, and to see how they might vary with different subcultures.

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Dominance Explains Paternalism

My Ph.D. is in formal political theory, but I’ve come to realize that it is usually best to think of political behavior not as some different kind of thing, but instead as an extension of or variation on ordinary behavior. This seems to me especially true for paternalism, which I’ve spend much effort pondering. I did a game theory analysis of it for my job talk long ago, and Bryan Caplan just reviewed what seems to be a nice book puzzling over “behavioral” explanations. But on reflection a key explanation seems pretty simple.

In our personal lives, we all know that some of the people around us are more “control freaks”; they push harder for control over what they and their associates do. First they push to control their own lives, then they push for more control of shared context and choices, like which restaurant a group goes to, and finally they push for control over the lives of others. Such as by nagging and berating others re what to eat or wear, or with whom to associate. Or by becoming official leaders and authorities, with formal power to make people do what they say.

I just did two polls that say that most of us think that this control freak pressure tends to hurt associates, and also that control freaks tend more to be “do-gooders”, who talk more about making the world better, and more give that rationale for things they do:

Dominance seems to me the obvious interpretation here. Like most animals, humans strive to dominate each other, in order to rise in the local “pecking order”. And control over ourselves and others not only brings many direct benefits, it is widely taken as one of the strongest signs of dominance and non-submission. But unlike other animals, humans have norms against overt dominance and submission, and norms promoting pro-social behavior, that helps others. So we do push to dominate, but we pretend that we are actually just trying to help. And as usual, we are typically not consciously aware of our hypocrisy. In our mind, we are mainly aware of how they are doing the wrong things, and how they would be so much better off if only we could make them do things our way.

It is not just individuals who try to dominate to gain status; groups coordinate to dominate together as well. For example, parents coordinate to dominate their kids. So we push for our groups to have autonomy, and also control over other groups. And so in politics, where our main motive is to show loyalty to our allies, we each push for our political coalitions to have more self-control, and more control over other groups. So when there is an option for “regulators” or other authorities to take more control over ordinary lives, we tend to support that when we see those authorities as part of our coalition, and those “helped” as part of rival coalitions. Else we may resist.

Of course we actually do often need leaders to make central decisions that effect many others. And people do sometimes make bad decisions that can be improved via pressures from others around them. So dominance isn’t the only cause of leadership or paternalism. This is another example of a key principle: people can only successfully pretend to have motive X to cover real motive Y if sometimes X really is a substantial motive. “The dog ate my homework” works better as an excuse than “The dragon ate my homework.” For a cover to work, it has to be sufficiently plausible. So all the motives we pretend to have really do apply to some people at some times; just not nearly as often as we suggest.

So the claim is not that paternalism or dominant leaders can never be appropriate. Instead, the claim is that there’s a strong tendency to try to justify other more selfish and harmful behaviors via such needs. So we need to hold a much higher standard on leadership than “we should do whatever leaders say because we need leaders.” And we need to hold a higher standard on paternalism than “you should do what regulators say because they are authorities.” Leaders and authorities should be accountable to make their choices actually help via more than a mere dominance struggle for power to grab such positions.

In small firms, leaders are often given rewards that depend on the overall success of those firms. And subordinates who feel they are treated badly may well leave. Together, these can greatly temper leader temptations to use powers of their dominant positions to seek to gain status over their subordinates, relative to actually helping their groups. And in the distant past, in small groups within very war-like areas, dominant leaders faced related outside threats of military competition, and of subordinates running away to other nearby areas.

But today in large mostly-peaceful nations, political leaders tend to lack these other disciplines to temper their tyranny. Which is why it becomes so important today to find other ways to hold political leaders and authorities accountable, to limit their arbitrary dominance. Such as via elections, law, and property rights. I’ve tried to explore new methods, such as futarchy and vouching. But until they are fielded we should keep the old ways, and hold our leaders and authorities to much higher standards than “because I said so”.

In our society today, paternalistic authorities often claim that they are disciplined not so much by profit, voters, or law, but by “science”. You see, they only make people do things when “science” says that is for the best. Having seen how such “science” actually works in these contexts, I’m relatively skeptical of this as an effective discipline today. Too often, this is just a way to justify applying the widespread opinions of social classes and coalitions with which regulators ally.

Added 1p: Teaching kids to play a musical instrument is a striking example of paternalism. Even though data doesn’t suggest that it improves discipline or other academic performance, many passionately want to force this on not only their own kids, but also the kids of others, even those who feel strongly that they don’t want to play. Though most adults enjoy listening to music, few of them choose to play instruments, especially among those who were forced.

Yet people argue that we must force all kids to play so that they can enjoy music as adults and be more attractive as mates, or so that we can find the few good musicians, or so that we can increase the supply of music. Which seem pretty laughable arguments. More plausibly people identify with musicians and cultures that respect them, and so want to force others to respect them as well, especially kids whose status contributes to their own personal status.

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Why Big Implicit Deals?

It takes some effort to formally write, review, and sign contracts. And to have courts enforce them. So it makes sense to not bother for deals that are too small, or that are observed and repeated enough for reputation or repeated play incentives to be sufficient. But we have a few big deals in life where these don’t apply, and yet we still don’t tend to write explicit formal contracts, nor allow negotiated exceptions. 

For example, when getting married, joining a religion, joining a profession, or becoming a citizen. We tend to talk about such things as if they were deals, especially when criticizing folks who seem to have reneged. But we aren’t very formal or clear about what exactly one is agreeing to in such cases, and we discourage the negotiation of variations on standard deals. Marriage prenups are frowned on, and often not enforced by courts. Even though people sometimes pray “God, please, if you’ll do this, then I’ll do that,” theologians offer little hope for such deals. And professions and states almost never allow negotiated alterations to their standard deals.

Yes, these can be complex relations, and it is hard for explicit contracts to cover all relevant cases or details. But that is also true for business deals, where we do typically make explicit, if far from complete, contracts. Yes, by forgoing formal contracts we can signal confidence in our shared good will and emotional inclinations to make good on our promises. But that is also true about business deals. 

Yes, implicit deals better support hypocrisy, wherein we pretend to promise things that we probably won’t deliver. But there is much hypocrisy in business too. Yes, by preferring standardized conformist deals, we tend to avoid nonconformists, who on average are more error-prone and less capable. But that is also true in business.

The biggest difference I see between typical business and other deals is that business relations often have a lot more contextual variation that can be usefully addressed via explicit negotiated contract terms. There are so very many kinds of business deals for so many different situations. In contrast, marriages are more alike; the couples I see making explicit marriage contracts are those with unusual tastes or situations. Religions, professions, and states have less need of differing deals for differing members, and they fear some secretly getting better deals than others.

Thus it makes sense that it is mainly in business relations that we usually pay the many real costs to create formal explicit contracts. Thus people who want to disrespect, hurt and tax business can more safely achieve that via adjusting contract law, without risking much harm to these other types of deals, for which they have more respect. 

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Dreamtime Social Games

Ten years ago, I posted one of my most popular essays: “This is the Dreamtime.” In it, I argued that, because we are rich,

Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

Today I want to talk about dreamtime social games.

For at least a million years, our ancestors wandered the Earth in small bands of 20-50 people. These groups were so big that they ran out of food if they stayed in one place, which is why they wandered. But such groups were big and smart enough to spread individual risks well, and to be relative safe from predators.

So in good times at least, the main environment that mattered to our forager ancestors was each other. That is, they succeeded or failed mostly based on winning social games. Those who achieved higher status in their group gained more food, protection, lovers, and kids. And so, while foragers pretended that they were all equal, they actually spent much of their time and energy trying to win such status games. They tried to look impressive, to join respected alliances, to undermine rival alliances, and so on. Usually in the context of grand impractical leisure and play.

As I described recently, status is usually based on a wide range of clues regarding one’s impressiveness, and the relative weight on these clues does vary across cultures. But there are many generic clues that tend to be important in most all cultures, including strength, courage, intelligence, wit, art, loyalty, social support etc.

When an ability was important for survival in a local environment, cultural selection tended to encourage societies to put more weight on that ability in local status ratings, especially when their society felt under threat. So given famine, hunters gain status, given war warriors gain status, and when searching for a new home explorers gain status.

But when the local environment seemed less threatening, humans have tended to revert back to a more standard human social game, focused on less clearly useful abilities. And the more secure a society, and the longer it has felt secure, the more strongly it reverts. So across history the social worlds of comfortable elites have been remarkably similar. In the social worlds such as Versailles, Tales of Genji, or Google today, we see less emphasis on abilities that help win in larger harsher world, or that protect this smaller world from larger worlds, and more emphasis on complex internal politics based on beauty, wit, abstract ideas, artistic tastes, political factions, and who likes who.

That is, as people feel safer, local status metrics and social institutions drift toward emphasizing likability over effectiveness, popularity and impressiveness over useful accomplishment, and art and design over engineering. And as our world has been getting richer and safer for many centuries now, our culture has long been moving toward emphasizing such forager values and attitudes. (Though crises like wars often push us back temporarily.)

“Liberals” tend to have moved further on this path than “conservatives”, as indicated by typical jobs:

jobs that lean conservative … [are] where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. … Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them. … Jobs that lean liberal… [have] small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success … [or] people who talk well.

Also, “conservative” attitudes toward marriage have focused on raising kids and on a division of labor in production, while “liberal” attitudes have focused on sex, romance, and sharing leisure activities.

Rather than acknowledging that our status priorities change as we feel safer, humans often give lip service to valuing useful outcomes, while actually more valuing the usual social game criteria. So we pretend to go to school to learn useful class material, but we actually gain prestige while learning little that is useful. We pretend that we pick lawyers who win cases, yet don’t bother to publish track records and mainly pick lawyers based on institutional prestige. We pretend we pick doctors to improve health, but also don’t publish track records and mainly pick via institutional prestige, and don’t notice that there’s little correlation between health and medicine. We pretend to invest in hedge funds to gain higher returns, but really gain status via association with impressive fund managers, and pay via lower average returns.

I recently realized that, alas, my desire to move our institutions more toward “paying for results” is at odds with this strong social trend. Our institutions could be much more effective at getting us the things we say we want out of them, but we seem mostly content to let them be run by the usual social status games. We put high status people in change and give them a lot of discretion, as long as they give lip service to our usual practical goals. It feels to most people like a loss in collective status if they let their institutions actually focus too much on results.

A focus on results would probably result in the rise to power of less impressive looking people who manage to get more useful things done. That is what we’ve seen when firms have adopted prediction markets. At first firms hope that such markets may help them identify the best informed employees. But are are disappointed to learn that winners tend not to look socially impressive, but are more nerdy difficult inarticulate contrarians. Not the sort they actually want to promote.

Paying more for results would feel to most people like having to invite less suave and lower class engineers or apartment sups to your swanky parties because they are useful as associates. Or having to switch from dating hip hunky Tinder dudes to reliable practical guys with steady jobs. In status terms, that all feels less like admiring prestige and more like submitting to domination, which is a forager no-no. Paying for results is the sort of thing that poor practical people have to do, not rich prestigious folks like you.

Of course our society is full of social situations where practical people get enough rewards to keep them doing practical things. So that the world actually works. People sometimes try to kill such things, but then they suffer badly and learn to stop. But most folks who express interest in social reforms seem to care more about projecting their grand hopes and ideals, relative to making stuff work better. Strong emotional support for efficiency-driven reform must come from those who have deeply felt the sting of inefficiency. Perhaps regarding crime?

Ordinary human intuitions work well for playing the usual social status games. You can just rely on standard intuitions re who you like and are impressed by, and who you should say what to. In contrast, figuring out how to actually and effectively pay for results is far more complex, and depends more on the details of your world. So good solutions there are unlikely to be well described by simple slogans, and are not optimized for showing off one’s good values. Which, alas, seems another big obstacle to creating better institutions.

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How Idealists Aid Cheaters

Humans have long used norms to great advantage to coordinate behavior. Each norm requires or prohibits certain behavior in certain situations, and the norm system requires that others who notice norm violations call attention to those violations and coordinate to discourage or punish them.

This system is powerful, but not infinitely so. If a small enough group of people notice a minor enough norm violation, and are friendly enough with each other and with the violator, they often coordinate instead to not enforce the norm, and yet pretend that they did so. That is, they let cheaters get away with it.

To encourage norm enforcement, our social systems make many choices of how many people typically see each behavior or its signs. We pair up police in squad cars, and decide how far away in the police organizational structure sits internal affairs. Many kinds of work is double-checked by others, sometimes from independent agencies. Schools declare honor-codes that justify light checking. At times, we “measure twice and cut once.”

These choices of how much to check are naturally tied to our estimates of how strongly people tend to enforce norms. If even small groups who observe violations will typically enforce them, we don’t need to check as much or as carefully, or to punish as much when we catch cheaters. But if large diverse groups commonly manage to coordinate to evade norm enforcement, then we need frequent checks by diverse people who are widely separated organizationally, and we need to punish cheaters more when we catch them.

I’ve been reading the book Moral Mazes for the last few months; it is excellent, but also depressing, which is why it takes so long to read. It makes a strong case, through many detailed examples, that in typical business organizations, norms are actually enforced far less than members pretend. The typical level of checking is in fact far too little to effectively enforce common norms, such as against self-dealing, bribery, accounting lies, fair evaluation of employees, and treating similar customers differently. Combining this data with other things I know, I’m convinced that this applies not only in business, but in human behavior more generally.

We often argue about this key parameter of how hard or necessary it is to enforce norms. Cynics tend to say that it is hard and necessary, while idealists tend to say that it is easy and unnecessary. This data suggests that cynics tend more to be right, even as idealists tend to win our social arguments.

One reason idealists tend to win arguments is that they impugn the character and motives of cynics. They suggest that cynics can more easily see opportunities for cheating because cynics in fact intend to and do cheat more, or that cynics are losers who seek to make excuses for their failures, by blaming the cheating of others. Idealists also tend to say what while other groups may have norm enforcement problems, our group is better, which suggests that cynics are disloyal to our group.

Norm enforcement is expensive, but worth it if we have good social norms, that discourage harmful behaviors. Yet if we under-estimate how hard norms are to enforce, we won’t check enough, and cheaters will get away with cheating, canceling much of the benefit of the norm. People who privately know this fact will gain by cheating often, as they know they can get away with it. Conversely, people who trust norm enforcement to work will be cheated on, and lose.

When confronted with data, idealists often argue, successfully, that it is good if people tend to overestimate the effectiveness of norm enforcement, as this will make them obey norms more, to everyone’s benefit. They give this as a reason to teach this overestimate in schools and in our standard public speeches. And so that is what societies tend to do. Which benefits those who, even if they give lip service to this claim in public, are privately selfish enough to know it is a lie, and are willing to cheat on the larger pool of gullible victims that this policy creates.

That is, idealists aid cheaters.

Added 26Aug: In this post, I intended to define the words “idealist” and “cynic” in terms of how hard or necessary it is to enforce norms. The use of those words has distracted many. Not sure what are better words though.

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Paternalism Is About Status

… children, whom he finds delightful and remarkably self-sufficient from the age of 4. He chalks this up to the fact that they are constantly lied to, can go anywhere and in their first years of life are given pretty much anything they please. If the baby wants the butcher knife, the baby gets the butcher knife. This novel approach may not sound like appropriate parenting, but Kulick observes that the children acquire their self-sufficiency by learning to seek out their own answers and by carefully navigating their surroundings at an early age. … the only villagers whom he’s ever seen beat their children are the ones who left to attend Catholic school. (more)

Bofi forager parenting is quite permissive and indulgent by Western standards. Children spend more time in close physical contact with parents, and are rarely directed or punished by parents. Children are allowed to play with knives, machete, and campfires without the warnings or interventions of parents; this permissive patently style has been described among other forager groups as well. (more)

Much of the literature on paternalism (including my paper) focuses on justifying it: how much can a person A be helped by allowing a person B to prohibit or require particular actions in particular situations? Such as parents today often try to do with their children. Most of this literature focuses on various deviations from simple rational agent models, but my paper shows that this is not necessary; B can help A even when both are fully rational. All it takes is for B to sometimes know things that A does not.

However, this focus on justification distracts from efforts to explain the actual variation in paternalism that we see around us. Sometimes third parties endorse and support the ability of B to prohibit or require actions by A, and sometimes third parties oppose and discourage such actions. How can we best explain which happens where and when?

First let me set aside situations where A authorizes B to, at some future date, limit or require actions by A. People usually justify this in terms of self-control, i.e., where A today disagrees with future A’s preferences. To me this isn’t real paternalism, which I see as more essentially about the extra info that B may hold.

Okay, let’s start with a quick survey of some of the main observed correlates of paternalism. Continue reading "Paternalism Is About Status" »

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Advice Wiki

People often give advice to others; less often, they request advice from others. And much of this advice is remarkably bad. For example, such as the advice to “never settle” in pursuing your career dreams.

When A takes advice from B, that is often seen as raising the status of B and lowering that of A. As a result, people often resist listening to advice, they ask for advice as a way to flatter and submit, and they give advice as a way to assert their status and goodness. For example, advisors often tell others to do what they did, as a way to affirm that they have good morals, and achieved good outcomes via good choices.

These hidden motives understandably detract from the average quality of advice as a guide to action. And the larger is this quality reduction, the more potential there is for creating value via alternative advice institutions. I’ve previously suggested using decision markets for advice in many contexts. In this post, I want to explore a simpler/cheaper approach: a wiki full of advice polls. (This is like something I proposed in 2013.)

Imagine a website where you could browse a space of decision contexts, connected to each other by the subset relation. For example under “picking a career plan after high school”, there’s “picking a college attendance plan” and under that there’s “picking a college” and “picking a major”. For each decision context, people can submit proposed decision advice, such as “go to the highest ranked college you can get into” for “pick a college”. You and anyone could then vote to say which advice they endorse in which contexts, and you see the current voter distribution over advice opinion.

Assume participants can be anonymous if they so choose, but can also be labelled with their credentials. Assume that they can change their votes at anytime, and that the record of each vote notes which options were available at the time. From such voting records, we might see not just the overall distribution of opinion regarding some kind of decision, but also how that distribution varies with quality indicators, such as how much success a person has achieved in related life areas. One might also see how advice varies with level of abstraction in the decision space; is specific advice different from general advice?

Of course such poll results aren’t plausibly as accurate as those resulting from decision markets, at least given the same level of participation. But they should also be much easier to produce, and so might attract far more participation. The worse are our usual sources of advice, the higher the chance that these polls could offer better advice. Compared to asking your friends and family, these distributions of advice less suffer from particular people pushing particular agenda, and anonymous advice may suffer less from efforts to show off. At least it might be worth a try.

Added 1Aug: Note that decision context can include features of the decision maker, and that decision advice can include decision functions, which map features of the decision context to particular decisions.

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Beware Nggwal

Consider the fact that this was a long standing social equilibrium:

During an undetermined time period preceding European contact, a gargantuan, humanoid spirit-God conquered parts of the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. … Nggwal was the tutelary spirit for a number of Sepik horticulturalist societies, where males of various patriclans were united in elaborate cult systems including initiation grades and ritual secrecy, devoted to following the whims of this commanding entity. …

a way of maintaining the authority of the older men over the women and children; it is a system directed against the women and children, … In some tribes, a woman who accidentally sees the [costumed spirit or the sacred paraphernalia] is killed. … it is often the responsibility of the women to provide for his subsistence … During the [secret] cult’s feasts, it is the senior members who claim the mantle of Nggwal while consuming the pork for themselves. …

During the proper ritual seasons, Ilahita Arapesh men would wear [ritual masks/costumes], and personify various spirits. … move about begging small gifts of food, salt, tobacco or betelnut. They cannot speak, but indicate their wishes with various conventional gestures, …
Despite the playful, Halloween-like aspects of this practice … 10% of the male masks portrayed [violent spirits] , and they were associated with the commission of ritually sanctioned murder. These murders committed by the violent spirits were always attributed to Nggwal.

The costumes of the violent spirits would gain specific insignia after committing each killing, … “Word goes out that Nggwal has “swallowed” another victim; the killer remains technically anonymous, even though most Nggwal members know, or have a strong inkling of, his identity.” … are universally feared, and nothing can vacate a hamlet so quickly as one of these spooks materializing out of the gloom of the surrounding jungle. … Nggwal benefits some people at the expense of others. Individuals of the highest initiation level within the Tambaran cult have increased status for themselves and their respective clans, and they have exclusive access to the pork of the secret feasts that is ostensibly consumed by Nggwal. The women and children are dominated severely by Nggwal and the other Tambaran cult spirits, and the young male initiates must endure severe dysphoric rituals to rise within the cult. (more)

So in these societies, top members of secret societies could, by wearing certain masks, literally get away with murder. These societies weren’t lawless; had these men committed murder without the masks, they would have been prosecuted and punished.

Apparently many societies have had such divisions between an official legal system that was supposed to fairly punish anyone for hurting others, along side less visible but quite real systems whereby some elites could far more easily get away with murder. Has this actually been the usual case in history?

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Why Crime Discretion?

Our criminal law system gives discretion to many actors, in effect, pardon criminals, vary their punishment. Police officers and their bosses can choose not to arrest, or to charge with a lower crime, prosecutors and their bosses can choose not to prosecute, to prosecute for a lower crime, or to settle on a lower crime, judges and juries can choose not to convict and to make mild or severe sentences, and governors and presidents can pardon them, and prisons can parole them.

If you were the victim of a crime, you might be disturbed to see that so many people can in effect pardon the criminal who hurt you. Also, as these parties are paid far less to deal with that criminal than how much that criminal could suffer, you could reasonably be worried about bribes and other forms of bias and corruption. Even if you think there should be some discretion in the system, you might think that should be limited more, such as to only the judge. Why do we have so much discretion in our system?

To find out, I did this Twitter poll:

I also did two other polls, the same except “speeding” was replaced by “trespassing” and “in general”. In all three polls, by a roughly 3-1 ratio respondents thought that discretion would favor them personally. And in all cases, there is a substantial correlation between thinking that correlation benefits you and that it benefits society. However, for speeding, which is the case where they should have the most personal knowledge on the consequences of discretion, they were split evenly, about 1-1, on if discretion helps cut net social harm. And in the other two cases, where they personally know much less, they guessed about 3-2 that discretion cut net social harm.

To me, the obvious interpretation here is this: the main reason most people favor crime law discretion is that they expect to personally benefit from it. They are willing to presume that it benefits society in areas they don’t know much about, but they admit that it doesn’t in the areas they know best. This seems analogous to people estimating much higher accuracy for media reports in areas they don’t know about, compared to areas in which they’ve seen how media coverage compares to personal knowledge.

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Why Weakly Enforced Rules?

While some argue that we should change our laws to open our borders, it is more common for pro-immigrant folks to argue for weaker enforcement of anti-immigration laws. They want fewer government agencies to be authorized to help enforcement, fewer resources to go into finding violators, and weaker punishment of violators. Similar things happen regarding prostitution and adultery; many complain about enforcement of such laws, and yet don’t support eliminating them.

The recently celebrated “criminal justice reform” didn’t make fewer things illegal, or substitute more efficient forms of punishment (eg torture, exile) for less efficient prison. It mainly just reduces jail sentence durations. When I probed supporters, they confirmed they didn’t want fewer things illegal or more efficient enforcement.

The policing reforms that many want are not to substitute more cost-effective enforcers such as bounty hunters, or stronger punishments against police misconduct, but to instead just have police do less: pull over fewer drivers, investigate fewer suspects, etc.

When I claim that stronger norm enforcement is a big advantage of legalized blackmail, many people say that’s exactly the problem; they want less enforcement of common norms. For example, Scott Sumner:

Great literature and great films often turn people violating society’s norms into sympathetic characters, especially when they are ground down by “the machine”. I suspect that the almost universal public opposition to legalizing blackmail reflects society’s view (subconscious to be sure) that enforcing these norms (especially for non-criminal activities) requires a “light touch”, and that turning shaming into an highly profitable industry will do more harm than good. It will turn society into a mean, backstabbing culture. The people hurt most will be sensitive good people who made a mistake, not callous gang members who don’t care if others think they are evil.

On the surface, all of these positions seems puzzling to me; if a norm or law isn’t worth enforcing well, why not eliminate it? Some possible explanations:

  1. People like the symbolism of being against things they don’t really want to stop. It is more about wanting to look like the sort of person who doesn’t fully approve of such things.
  2. Having more rules that are only weakly enforced allows the usual systems more ways to arbitrarily punish some folks via selective enforcement. You might like this if you share such system’s tastes re who to arbitrarily punish. Or if you want to signal submission to authorities who want to use such power.
  3. If these things were actually legal and licit, people might sometimes publicly suggest that you are engaging in them. But if they are illicit or illegal, there’s a norm against accusing someone of doing them without substantial evidence. So if you want to discourage others from lightly accusing you of such things, you may want those activities to be officially disapproved, even if you don’t actually want to discourage them.
  4. We mainly want these norms and laws to help us deal with some disliked “criminal class” out there, a class that we don’t actually interact with much. So when we see real cases in our familiar word, they seem like they are not in that class, and thus we don’t want our norms or laws to apply to them. We only want less enforcement for folks in our world.
  5. What else?

Added 26Feb: I clearly didn’t communicate well in this post, as many commenters and this responding post saw me as arguing that all punishment, conditional on being caught and convicted, should either be zero or max extreme (eg death). Yes of course it is often reasonable to use intermediate punishments.

But enforcement also includes a chance of being caught, not just a degree of punishment, and there are issues of the cost-effectiveness of the processes to catch and punish people. There are many who want less punishment if caught, and less chance of catching, for most all offenses, and don’t want more cost effective catching or punishment, for fear that this might lead to more catching or punishing. To me, this seems hard to explain via just thinking that we’ve overestimated the optimal punishment level for some particular offenses.

Added 3Mar: A striking example is how in WWI recruits were supposed to be age 19 or older, but it was easy to lie and get in at younger ages, and most everyone knew of someone who had done this. We tsk tsk about child soldiers elsewhere, but don’t seem much ashamed of our own.

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