Humans have a natural propensity to trust non-kin, even strangers. We do it so often, so naturally, that we don’t even realize how remarkable it is. But except for a few simplistic counterexamples, it’s unique among life on this planet. Because we are intelligently calculating and value reciprocity (that is, fairness), we know that humans will be honest and nice: not for any immediate personal gain, but because that’s how they are. We also know that doesn’t work perfectly; most people will be dishonest some of the time, and some people will be dishonest most of the time. How does society — the honest majority — prevent the dishonest minority from taking over, or ruining society for everyone? How is the dishonest minority kept in check? The answer is security — in particular, something I’m calling societal security.
I want to divide security into two types. The first is individual security. It’s basic. It’s direct. It’s what normally comes to mind when we think of security. It’s cops vs. robbers, terrorists vs. the TSA, Internet worms vs. firewalls. And this sort of security is as old as life itself or — more precisely — as old as predation. And humans have brought an incredible level of sophistication to individual security.
Societal security is different. At the tactical level, it also involves attacks, countermeasures, and entire security systems. But instead of A vs. B, or even Group A vs. Group B, it’s Group A vs. members of Group A. It’s security for individuals within a group from members of that group. It’s how Group A protects itself from the dishonest minority within Group A. And it’s where security really gets interesting.
There are many types — I might try to estimate the number someday — of societal security systems that enforce our trust of non-kin. They’re things like laws prohibiting murder, taxes, traffic laws, pollution control laws, religious intolerance, Mafia codes of silence, and moral codes. They enable us to build a society that the dishonest minority can’t exploit and destroy. Originally, these security systems were informal. But as society got more complex, the systems became more formalized, and eventually were embedded into technologies.
James Madison famously wrote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Government is just the beginning of what wouldn’t be necessary. Currency, that paper stuff that’s deliberately made hard to counterfeit, wouldn’t be necessary, as people could just keep track of how much money they had. Angels never cheat, so nothing more would be required. Door locks, and any barrier that isn’t designed to protect against accidents, wouldn’t be necessary, since angels never go where they’re not supposed to go. Police forces wouldn’t be necessary. Armies: I suppose that’s debatable. Would angels — not the fallen ones — ever go to war against one another? I’d like to think they would be able to resolve their differences peacefully. If people were angels, every security measure that isn’t designed to be effective against accident, animals, forgetfulness, or legitimate differences between scrupulously honest angels could be dispensed with.
Security isn’t just a tax on the honest; it’s a very expensive tax on the honest. It’s the most expensive tax we pay, regardless of the country we live in. If people were angels, just think of the savings!
It wasn’t always like this. Security — especially societal security — used to be cheap. It used to be an incidental cost of society.
In a primitive society, informal systems are generally good enough. When you’re living in a small community, and objects are both scarce and hard to make, it’s pretty easy to deal with the problem of theft. If Alice loses a bowl, and at the same time, Bob shows up with an identical bowl, everyone knows Bob stole it from Alice, and the community can then punish Bob as it sees fit. But as communities get larger, as social ties weaken and anonymity increases, this informal system of theft prevention — detection and punishment leading to deterrence — fails. As communities get more technological and as the things people might want to steal get more interchangeable and harder to identify, it also fails. In short, as our ancestors made the move from small family groups to larger groups of unrelated families, and then to a modern form of society, the informal societal security systems started failing and more formal systems had to be invented to take their place. We needed to put license plates on cars and audit people’s tax returns.
We had no choice. Anything larger than a very primitive society couldn’t exist without societal security.
I’m writing a book about societal security. I will discuss human psychology: how we make security trade-offs, why we routinely trust non-kin (an evolutionary puzzle, to be sure), how the majority of us are honest, and that a minority of us are dishonest. That dishonest minority are the free riders of societal systems, and security is how we protect society from them. I will model the fundamental trade-off of societal security — individual self-interest vs. societal group interest — as a group prisoner’s dilemma problem, and use that metaphor to examine the basic mechanics of societal security. A lot falls out of this: free riders, the Tragedy of the Commons, the subjectivity of both morals and risk trade-offs.
Using this model, I will explore the security systems that protect — and fail to protect — market economics, corporations and other organizations, and a variety of national systems. I think there’s a lot we can learn about security by applying the prisoner’s dilemma model, and I’ve only recently started. Finally, I want to discuss modern changes to our millennia-old systems of societal security. The Information Age has changed a number of paradigms, and it’s not clear that our old security systems are working properly now or will work in the future. I’ve got a lot of work to do yet, and the final book might look nothing like this short outline. That sort of thing happens.
Tentative title: The Dishonest Minority: Security and its Role in Modern Society. I’ve written several books on the how of security. This book is about the why of security.
I expect to finish my first draft before Summer. Throughout 2011, expect to see bits from the book here. They might not make sense as a coherent whole at first — especially because I don’t write books in strict order — but by the time the book is published, it’ll all be part of a coherent and (hopefully) compelling narrative.
And if I write fewer extended blog posts and essays in the coming year, you’ll know why.
Posted on February 15, 2011 at 5:43 AM •