Status Report: The Dishonest Minority
Three months ago, I announced that I was writing a book on why security exists in human societies. This is basically the book’s thesis statement:
All complex systems contain parasites. In any system of cooperative behavior, an uncooperative strategy will be effective—and the system will tolerate the uncooperatives—as long as they’re not too numerous or too effective. Thus, as a species evolves cooperative behavior, it also evolves a dishonest minority that takes advantage of the honest majority. If individuals within a species have the ability to switch strategies, the dishonest minority will never be reduced to zero. As a result, the species simultaneously evolves two things: 1) security systems to protect itself from this dishonest minority, and 2) deception systems to successfully be parasitic.
Humans evolved along this path. The basic mechanism can be modeled simply. It is in our collective group interest for everyone to cooperate. It is in any given individual’s short-term self interest not to cooperate: to defect, in game theory terms. But if everyone defects, society falls apart. To ensure widespread cooperation and minimal defection, we collectively implement a variety of societal security systems.
Two of these systems evolved in prehistory: morals and reputation. Two others evolved as our social groups became larger and more formal: laws and technical security systems. What these security systems do, effectively, is give individuals incentives to act in the group interest. But none of these systems, with the possible exception of some fanciful science-fiction technologies, can ever bring that dishonest minority down to zero.
In complex modern societies, many complications intrude on this simple model of societal security. Decisions to cooperate or defect are often made by groups of people—governments, corporations, and so on—and there are important differences because of dynamics inside and outside the groups. Much of our societal security is delegated—to the police, for example—and becomes institutionalized; the dynamics of this are also important. Power struggles over who controls the mechanisms of societal security are inherent: “group interest” rapidly devolves to “the king’s interest.” Societal security can become a tool for those in power to remain in power, with the definition of “honest majority” being simply the people who follow the rules.
The term “dishonest minority” is not a moral judgment; it simply describes the minority who does not follow societal norm. Since many societal norms are in fact immoral, sometimes the dishonest minority serves as a catalyst for social change. Societies without a reservoir of people who don’t follow the rules lack an important mechanism for societal evolution. Vibrant societies need a dishonest minority; if society makes its dishonest minority too small, it stifles dissent as well as common crime.
At this point, I have most of a first draft: 75,000 words. The tentative title is still “The Dishonest Minority: Security and its Role in Modern Society.” I have signed a contract with Wiley to deliver a final manuscript in November for February 2012 publication. Writing a book is a process of exploration for me, and the final book will certainly be a little different—and maybe even very different—from what I wrote above. But that’s where I am today.
And it’s why my other writings continue to be sparse.