No One Owns Society

(and why that's a problem)

In any sufficiently complex (that is, any human) society, there are the rules, and then there is how things actually happen. This isn't to say that the rules (which are sometimes called "laws") are broken, although that happens often enough in some societies. More interestingly is that, even in societies where the laws are usually followed, knowing all of the laws doesn't tell you a whole lot about how things happen.

When I was a youngster, there was an animated short which appeared on television that purported to say how laws were made in the U.S. It told us about how bills got written, voted on in Congress, and signed by the President. While that is somewhat, approximately true, it doesn't really tell you anything about how laws come to be (which involves special interests, committees, negotiations between House and Senate and White House, campaign donations, etc.).

I don't suggest that the creators of the short should or even could have told the story the way it really happens; that would be a much lengthier, more confusing, and probably disheartening tale for a child to see. But this story is, if not exactly fiction, then at the very leasty guilty of so many omissions as to leave the child less wise than before they saw it. Previously, they knew that they didn't know how the laws were made; after seeing and hearing this folklore, they might believe that they did know.

This may discourage us from trying to discover the truth of the matter. The truth is, laws are decided in more or less the same way any other decision is made in the society in question. What is most different about a decision on what laws to have, relative to any other kind of decision, is that more people are potentially involved, or at least affected.

So, how do decisions get made, then, when multiple people are involved? Generally speaking, we may divide all systems for decision making into two classes: hierarchy and democracy. In other words, either a particular person has the authority to make the decision, or a group of people have to agree on things together (at least by majority vote). In a hierarchy, there may be a group of people lobbying for a particular decision, but ultimately one person determines what the law will be. The flaws of this system are well known, so I won't go into them here.

Less well known are the flaws in a democratic, majority vote or consensus based system. The fiction is that people get together, talk it over, and then everyone votes according to what they think needs to be done. In reality, because some know (or can guess) what the result will be and don't like it, a contest of wills begins.

Part of why the simple fiction is not what normally happens (in laws, or in any other kind of democratic decision making), is that not everyone cares equally about the outcome. If Alice care more than Bob, Caroline, or Doug about the decision in question, then Alice has several options for getting the other three to agree to her view of things.

One option is that Alice can agree to give way to Bob on one question where he cares more than she does about the outcome. A similar agreement between Alice and Caroline can leave Doug, who was previously in a comfortable majority of 3 to 1, now outvoted. If each of four different questions get decided this way, then each of Alice, Bob, Caroline, and Doug may be able to trade their votes on other issues. Instead of having four issues decided according to the majority view, we can have four issues decided by special interests representing only 25% of the total.

This may be objectionable enough (or it may not, perhaps the special interests know in each case what needs to be done better than the uninformed in some cases), but we may have a worse option. Alice can simply wear down her opponents with monomaniacal persistence. She may drag up the issue at every meeting, until Bob and Caroline are ready to vote her way on that issue just to shut her up about it so that they can move on to other things. Alice may become obstructionist on every other issue until she gets her way on the one she cares most about. Alice may simple shout louder in meetings, disdaining all shades of opinion or doubt in favor of a dualist, "with-me-or-against-me" attitude, and try to win the argument that way.

All of these tactics have one thing in common, which is that they sacrifice a common good for victory on one issue. The ability of people of different opinions to speak constructively with one another, is a resource. When Alice resorts to tactics such as these, she is essentially saying, "If you want to continue to have a constructive relationship with me, you have to give way on this issue."

If this kind of thing sounds familiar, it should; you have probably been the target of it at some time in your life. In order to get along with others, we have to be ready to forgive a certain amount of annoyance, because rare is the person who never annoys you. But, we all have a finite patience for this sort of thing. It is as if they have a certain balance in an account in your head; they deposit into it whenever they do something kind or helpful. When they are annoying, they are withdrawing from that account. At some point, they go too far and you begin to consider the person an enemy to be opposed at all costs, but well before that they begin to deplete the reserve of goodwill which they may have built up in the past.

We can think of this as a matrix of individuals, with the intersection of each one having a number in it. This represents the number of annoyances (of some given size) that the first person is willing to tolerate from the second, before they decide to cut off relations with that person.

 How Alice feels about...How Bob feels about...How Caroline feels about...How Doug feels about...
...Alice n/a5 5 0
...Bob 3 n/a3 3
...Caroline5 5 n/a0
...Doug 1 6 1n/a

Note that Alice, in this case, is willing to tolerate 3 annoying things from Bob before declaring him persona non grata, but Bob is willing to tolerate 5 things from Alice. Generally speaking there will be a certain health for the relationship (Alice and Bob get on better than Alice and Doug, who are near to the breaking point), and also a typical amount of patience for each person (Bob is more patient than average, Doug is less tolerant than average).

If we total up all of these numbers, we have a total of 37 (if my arithmetical skills still suffice). What if Alice goes on a tear to get her way in regard to some issue? Perhaps she wants dogs banned from the local park, and Doug is the only dog-owner in the group. Bob and Caroline neither own dogs, nor mind them being in the park, and don't feel particularly strongly one way or the other. At first, they wanted to allow dogs, but with sufficient annoyance (in whatever way), Alice can bring them around to her point of view. It takes two units of annoyance to change Bob's and Caroline's votes on this. Once Bob and Caroline give way and vote as Alice wants, they each get one more point in reserve from Alice (i.e. Alice is grateful to Bob and Caroline). Lastly, Bob and Caroline both lose a point in their reserve of goodwill from Doug, for giving in to Alice's bullying and voting against him and his dog.

 How Alice feels about:How Bob feels about:How Caroline feels about:How Doug feels about:
Alice n/a3 3 -3
Bob 4 n/a3 2
Caroline6 5 n/a-1
Doug 1 6 1n/a

Now the total goodwill in the ABCD society is 30. Moreover, Doug now has passed over the threshold to considering Alice and Caroline as enemies, so instead of 6 functional relationships (Alice-Bob, Alice-Caroline, Alice-Doug, Bob-Caroline, Bob-Doug, Caroline-Doug), we have 4 (Alice-Doug and Caroline-Doug have both dropped below 0).

From the point of view of Bob, he has gone from a net reservoir of good will of (3+3+3=9) to a net reservoir of good will of (4+3+2=9), no change. Similarly, Caroline has a bit more goodwill from Alice and a bit less from Doug, but she's crossed over the threshold to enmity from Doug in this case, so she may have lost out here, but if she didn't know about Doug's shorter fuse she may not have expected that. Alice has gone from a reservoir of goodwill of (5+5+0=10) to (3+3-3=3), a significent drop. Presumably, she valued the banning of dogs in the dogpark enough to make this sacrifice. Doug has lost no goodwill, assuming he doesn't lose his temper after the vote and say things he shouldn't, but he is worse off in that he can now no longer take his dog to the park.

What we have done, is burn goodwill to fuel the furnace of rule-making. Like many rule-making processes, there is a winner and a loser, and it may be that it benefits the winner no more than it costs the loser (e.g. now Alice can use the park without fear of whatever her issue with dogs was, but Doug cannot, so the park is still just about as valuable to the community as before). What is not measured, is that the general goodwill of the ABCD community has decreased.

In some cases, this may be worth it: some rules need to be made/changed/repealed, or other contentious decisions need to be made, and the loss in bruised feelings and grudges created is a cost worth paying. The problem with rule-making in a democracy (whether committee, legislature, town meeting, etc.) is that this loss in goodwill is generally unmeasured. Even if the decision was a net gain for society, we have no metric to determine if the cost was worth it, because the cost is not discovered until the reserves of goodwill have fallen so low that the ability of the society to make decisions breaks down (i.e. most of the numbers in the matrix above go negative). Caroline, for example, may not realize that she has now no prospect of gaining cooperation from Doug on future issues, until she attempts to and finds that he is opposed to her every suggestion.

Probably, everyone involved is aware that the issue caused some friction. Alice, because her positive feelings towards her fellows experienced a net increase, may underestimate the cost, while Doug may overestimate it, but even Bob and Caroline probably have a general uneasy feeling about what the next meeting(s) will be like. The problem is that it's like writing checks against a bank account that you aren't quite sure of the balance of (until a check bounces).

It is a little worse than that, though, because each member of the ABCD society knows only part of the current state of affairs, but they are all able to write checks (or make deposits). Alice knows that her own goodwill towards others went from 9 to 11 (well she doesn't put numbers on it but intuitively she feels it), while she can only guess at the goodwill of others towards her (which went from 10 to 3). Moreover, Bob also is only directly aware of his own feelings of goodwill towards others (which dipped a bit because Alice was so annoying on the dog issue).

Who "owns" a society, long term? Whose bank account are we writing checks against? The missing metric here is a measure of the good will that members of a society feel towards each other (or don't feel). W.E.Deming once famously said, "What gets measured, gets improved." I believe that to be a bit of an overstatement, but I would agree that what doesn't get measured, almost always doesn't get improved. If it is something (like goodwill) unmeasured that can be traded off for something else (like rule changes or other decisions) that is measurable, then it will tend to be sacrificed.

We tend to think of democracy as a superior method of decision making, and perhaps it is. That it is superior, does not mean it is without imperfection, and we would be better off as a society if we could see the cliff approaching before we reached it. This requires a feedback loop. When we write a check to buy something (i.e. we bruised some feelings to arrive at a decision), we need to know how much we spent on it. Better yet would be if we could look at the bank account before writing the check, to see if it will clear.

It seems like this is something that, with sufficient effort, could be done. There are many companies out there who are proficient at conducting randomized surveys of opinion in an efficient manner. The tricky part would be assigning causality: if the civic goodwill in a nation dropped 10%, which decisions taken that year were responsible? It may be easier to do this by comparing the results in different states or cities. The same kind of decision (e.g. to ban smoking in public places, to ban pit bulls, to cut spending or raise taxes) is often made at different times in different places, allowing pollsters with a savvy statistician on hand to determine which kinds of decisions carry which kinds of costs. Moreover, simply asking people whether they have heard about recent decisions (whether at the city, state, or federal level) would probably narrow it down to a relatively small number that could have been responsible. When one is able to compare the degrees of civic goodwill across 50 states or hundreds of cities, one could look at the ones which have the lowest and highest amounts of civic goodwill, and ask why that is (e.g. laws, governing style).

I'm no expert on the subject, but it's worth mentioning here that Ibn Khaldun's use of the term asabiyyah, while it may not be exactly the same as what I'm calling "civic goodwill", is surely not unrelated.

Of course, every President and every Congress will claim that their circumstances were uniquely urgent, and no matter what the cost in divisiveness, their actions were worth it. What doesn't get measured, doesn't get improved. Currently, we don't do any effective job of measuring it, and it certainly isn't getting improved. And lately, as we find our government unable to reach agreement on even the most basic of issues, I am thinking we have already started to overdraw our account.