Why Doesn't Society Just Fall Apart?
Since the days when Plato and Aristotle walked this Earth, philosophers have debated what constitutes the ideal state and, more specifically, what holds societies together. Why doesn’t society just fall apart? How does society function when you know you can’t possibly trust everyone in it? And why aren’t we living in what Thomas Hobbes memorably referred to as a state of constant “war of all against all“?
There is no single or simple answer, says security technologist Bruce Schneier in his enlightening new book, Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. Schneier argues that it is the combination of four types of “societal pressures” that help create and preserve trust within any society:
- Moral pressure: Long-standing values and norms that govern appropriate social behavior. Moral pressure is most effective in smaller groups, Schneier says.
- Reputational pressure: In essence, peer pressure that keeps our behavior in check. It works best in small and mid-sized groups.
- Institutional pressure: The organizational rules, laws, and norms that guide our actions relative to the various groups to which we belong. Usually works best in large-sized groups.
- Security systems: “Mechanisms designed to induce cooperation, prevent defection, induce trust, and compel compliance,” Schneier explains. Security systems can work at a variety of levels.
These societal pressures answer the Hobbesian mystery of why most societies don’t go off the rails and end in anarchic violence. By “dialing in” these societal pressures in varying degrees, trust is generated over time within groups.
Of course, these societal pressures also fail on occasion, Schneier notes. He explores a host of scenarios—in organizations, corporations, and governments—when trust breaks down because defectors seek to evade the norms and rules the society lives by. These defectors are the “liars and outliers” in Schneier’s narrative and his book is an attempt to explain the complex array of incentives and trade-offs that are at work and which lead some humans to “game” systems or evade the norms and rules others follow.
Indeed, Schneier’s book serves as an excellent primer on game theory as he walks readers through complex scenarios such as prisoner’s dilemma, the hawk-dove game, the free-rider problem, the bad apple effect, principle-agent problems, the game of chicken, race to the bottom, capture theory, and more. These problems are all quite familiar to economists, psychologists, and political scientists, who have spent their lives attempting to work through these scenarios. Schneier has provided a great service here by making game theory more accessible to the masses and given it practical application to a host of real-world issues.
The most essential lesson Schneier teaches us is that perfect security is an illusion. We can rely on those four societal pressures in varying mixes to mitigate problems like theft, terrorism, fraud, online harassment, and so on, but it would be foolish and dangerous to believe we can eradicate such problems completely. “There can be too much security,” Schneier explains, because, at some point, constantly expanding security systems and policies will result in rapidly diminishing returns. Trying to eradicate every social pathology would bankrupt us and, worse yet, “too much security system pressure lands you in a police state,” he correctly notes.
Is more law the solution to building trust or security in society? The answer is highly context-dependent, of course. But Schneier notes that laws don’t always have their intended effect, can have many loopholes, oftentimes prove expensive or even impossible to enforce, can be applied inconsistently, and simply don’t stop some defectors. One reason many laws fail to increase security or trust, he notes, is because they aim to outlaw behavior that many in the group consider entirely legitimate.
That’s a lesson our country’s lawmakers should take to heart. In recent decades, there has been an explosion of offenses labeled as federal crimes in the United States, yet it is unclear whether that has made us more safe and secure. “Over the past three decades,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “the U.S. has steadily added to the federal rule book through new criminal statutes and regulations that carry criminal penalties. Combined with beefed-up enforcement, that has led to a 70% jump in the number of pending federal criminal cases in the past decade—to over 76,000, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.” That’s the result of the estimated 4,500 federal crimes on the books today, which the Journal notes is up from the three crimes found in the U.S. Constitution (treason, piracy and counterfeiting).
Schneier’s framework is particularly useful when addressing a variety of security dilemmas in the field of information policy. “Parasites are all over the Internet,” he notes, and “new technologies, new innovations, and new ideas increase the scope of defection in several dimensions.” Whether its spam, malware attacks, data theft, copyright piracy, or cybersecurity, the defectors have a first-mover advantage in that “they get to try the new attack first.”
The Net and new digital networks and technologies have created a never-ending cat-and-mouse game: “It’s a race between the ability to deceive and the ability to detect deception,” Schneier notes. Again, there are no silver-bullet solutions because “this process never ends.” As he correctly concludes, we must accept the fact that “security is a process, not a product.”
Despite these challenges, Schneier reminds us that there is cause for optimism. Humans adapt better to social change than they sometimes realize, usually by tweaking the four societal pressures Schneier identifies until a new balance emerges. While liars and outliers will always exist, society will march on.