Review: Why Warriors Lie Down and Die

51uvfeh9d2lI read an interview once in which Napoleon Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo thought of him–why did they think he had come to live with them?

“To learn how to be human,” he replied.

I didn’t read Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die because I have any hope of helping the Yolngu people, (I don’t live in Australia, for starters) but in hopes of learning something universal. People like to play the blame game–it’s all whites’ fault, it’s all Aborigines’ fault–but there are broken communities and dying people everywhere, and understanding one community may give us insight into the others.

For example, US life expectancy has been declining:

A baby born in 2017 is expected to live to be 78.6 years old, which is down from 78.7 the year before, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The last three years represent the longest consecutive decline in the American lifespan at birth since the period between 1915 and 1918, which included World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, events that killed many millions worldwide.

Declining? In the developed world?

While there’s no single cause for the decline in the U.S., a report by the CDC highlights three factors contributing to the decline:

Drug overdoses…

Liver disease…

Suicide…

Not to mention heart disease, stroke, and all of the usual suspects.

Most causes of death can be divided roughly into the diseases of poverty (infection, malnutrition, parasites, etc,) and the diseases of abundance (heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, etc). In developing countries, people tend to die of the former; in developed countries, the latter. There are a few exceptions–Costa Ricans enjoy good health because they have beaten back the diseases of poverty without becoming rich enough to die of obesity; Japan enjoys high standards of living, but has retained enough of its traditional eating habits to also not develop too many modern diseases (so far). 

The poor of many developed countries, however, often don’t get to enjoy much of the wealth, but still get hammered with the diseases. This is true in Australia and the US, and is the cause of much consternation–the average Aborigine or poor white would probably be healthier if they moved to poor country like Costa Rica and ate like the locals.

When Trudgen first moved to Arnhem Land (the traditional Yolngu area) in the 70s, the situation wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. People were going to school, graduating, and getting jobs. Communities had elders and hope for the future.

He left for eight years, then returned in the 80s to find a community that had been destroyed, with skyrocketing unemployment, hopelessness, drug use, disease, and death:

So my return to work with the Yolngu after eight years away was marked by the stark reality of what had become “normal” life in Arnhem Land. The people were dying at a horrific rate, more than five times the national average. And they were dying of disease that they had not seen before, disease that were considered to be those of affluent society: heart attack, strokes, diabetes, cancer.

What went wrong?

Trudgen points out that the variety of normal explanations offered for the abysmal state of Aboriginal communities in the 80s don’t make sense in light of their relatively good condition a mere decade before. People didn’t suddenly get dumb, lazy, or violent. Rather:

… I discovered that the communities in Arnhem Land had changed. The people’s freedom to direct their own lives had been almost completely eroded.

How do people end up out of control of their own lives? The author discusses several things affecting the Yolngu in particular.

The biggest of these is language–English is not their first language, and for some not even their 4th or 5th. (According to Wikipedia, even today, most Yolngu do not speak English as their first language.) Trudgen explains that since Yolngu is a small, obscure language, at least as of when he was writing, no English-to-Yolngu dictionaries existed to help speakers look up the meaning of unfamiliar words like “tumor” or “mortgage.” (And this was before the widespread adoption of the internet.)

Imagine trying to conduct your affairs when every interaction with someone more powerful than yourself, from the bureaucrats at the DMV to the doctors at the hospital, was conducted in a language you didn’t speak very well, without the benefit of a dictionary or a translator. Trudgen writes that the Aborigines would actually like to learn how to protect their health, avoid dying from cancer and heart disease, etc, but the information on how to do these things doesn’t exist in their language. (He reminds us that it took a couple hundred years for the knowledge of things like “germs” to travel from scientists to regular people in our culture, and we all speak the same language.)

Both in Arnhem Land and without, people often overestimate how much other people know. For example, in a case Trudgen facilitated as a translator, a doctor thought his patient understood his explanation that due to diabetes, only 2% of his kidneys were functioning, but the patient didn’t actually understand enough English to make sense of the diagnosis–not to mention, as the author points out, that Yolngu culture doesn’t have the concept of “percents.” After translation, the man (who’d been seeing doctors for his kidneys for years without understanding what they were saying) finally understood and started treating his problems.

Those of us outside of Yolngu Land don’t have quite this level of difficulty interacting with medical professionals, but language still influences our lives in many ways. We have high and low class accents and dialects, not to mention an absurd quantity of verbal signaling and flexing, like sharing one’s pronouns in a presidential debate.

People everywhere also suffer from the condition of knowing a lot less than others assume they know. Every survey of common knowledge shocks us, yet again, with how dumb the common man is–and then we forget that we have ever seen such a survey and are equally shocked all over again when the next one comes out. (I think about this a lot while teaching.)

I think most people tend to remember information if they either use it regularly (like the code I use for formatting these posts) or if it’s valued/used in their culture (I know about the Kardashians despite never having tried to learn about them simply because people talk about them all of the time). If people talked about quantum physics the way we talk about superheroes, a lot more people would have posters of Niels Bohr.

For the Yolngu, there’s a problem that a lot of information simply isn’t available in their language. They were literally stone-age hunter-gatherers less than a century ago and are trying to catch up on a couple thousand years of learning. For us, the difficulty is more of access–I have a couple of relatives who are doctors, so if someone in my family gets sick, I call a relative first for advice before heading to the more expensive options. But if you don’t have any doctors among your friends/family, then you don’t have this option.

There are probably a lot of cases where people are stymied because they don’t know how to even begin to solve their problems.

Trudgen wants to solve this problem by having much more extensive language training for everyone in the area, white and Yolngu, and also by extending educational programs to the adults, so that the entire culture can be infused with knowledge.

After language difficulties, the other biggest impediment to living the good life, in Trudgen’s view, is… the welfare state:

Welfare and the dependency it creates is the worst form of violence. It has created a living hell.

Before the arrival of the white people, he notes, Aborigines survived perfectly fine on their own. The locals fished, hunted, gathered, and probably did some yam-based horticulture. They farmed pearls and traded them with Macassans from modern-day Indonesia for rice, and traded with tribes in the interior of Australia for other products. They even had their own legal system, similar to many of the others we have read about. Their lives were simple, yes. Their huts were not very tall, and they certainly didn’t have cellphones or penicillin, but they ran their own lives and those who made it out of infancy survived just fine.

Today, their lives are dominated at every turn by government institutions, welfare included. Children were once educated by their parents and the tribe at large. Now they are educated by white teachers at government run schools. People used to hunt and gather their own food, now they buy food at the supermarket with their welfare cheques. A man once built his own house; now such a house would be demolished because it doesn’t meet the building code requirements. Even Aborigine men trained as skilled housebuilders have been replaced by white builders, because the state decided that it needed to build houses faster.

Every program designed to “help” the Yolngu risks taking away yet one more piece of their sovereignty and ability to run their own lives. Trudgen complains of plans to build preschools in the area–to quote roughly, “they say the schools will be staffed with local Yolngu, but Yolngu don’t have the right credentials to qualify for such jobs. In a few years, Yolngu mothers will have even been pushed out of the role of caring for their own little children. What purpose will they have left in life?”

I just checked, and 88% of indigenous Australian children are now enrolled in preschool.

Or as the author puts it:

In fact, every attempt to solve the [malnutrition] problem with outside ideas has sent the malnutrition rates higher. Welfare-type programs simply send the people into greater depths of dependency, which increases feelings of confusion and hopelessness. Old people as well as children are not being cared for.

During 1999 the children received a free breakfast at the school and some people were talking about giving them free lunches as well. So now the government feeds the people’s children, as well as build their houses and provides all levels of welfare for them. What is there left for them to do but go ff and drink kava or gamble?

And ultimately:

… where the people have lost control, the men are dead or dying.

Incidentally, here is an article on loneliness in American suburbia.

Everything here is compounded by the habit of modern governments to make everything illegal; complicated; or require three permits, two environmental impact studies, and 17 licenses before you can break ground. As Joel Salatin pens, “Everything I want to do is Illegal.”

Aborigines used to build their own houses, and whether they were good or not, they lived in them. (In fact, all groups of people are competent at building their own shelters.)

Then government came and declared that these houses were no good, they weren’t up to code, and the Aborigines had to be trained to build houses the white way. So the Aborigines learned, and began building “modern” houses.

Whether they were good at it or not, they had jobs and people had houses.

Then the government decided that the Aborigine builders weren’t building houses fast enough, so they brought in the army and threw up a bunch of pre-fab houses.

Now the taxpayers pay for whites to go to Yolngu land and build houses for the Aborigines. The aborigines who used to build the houses are out of a job and on welfare, while the money for the houses goes into the pockets of outsiders.

Yes, the houses get built faster, but it’s hard to say that this is “better” than just letting the locals build their own houses.

The same process has happened in other industries. Even trash collection in Yolngu areas is now done by newcomers. At every turn, it seems, the Yolngu are either pushed out of jobs because they weren’t as fast or efficient or had the right certificates and credentials, or because they just didn’t speak enough English.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes, Harlem

The story of the fishing industry was also and adventure in bad decision-making.

Originally, simplifying a bit for the sake of time, each fisherman (or perhaps a small group of fishermen) had his own boat, and caught as many fish as he wanted and sold the rest to a fishing organization run by the local mission. This was clear and straightforward: men owned their own catches and could do what they wanted with them. The area was a net exporter of fish and the locals made a decent living.

Then the government decided the mission system was no good, and turned everything over to “communal councils.” This was a great big mess.

Trudgen points out that the councils aren’t consistent with existing Yolngu laws/governing norms. They already had elders and governing bodies which the government didn’t recognize, so the government effectively created an illegitimate government and set it in conflict with the existing one, in the name of democracy, with shades of every failed attempt to impose democracy on a foreign country.

The councils didn’t work because 1. they didn’t have real authority, and 2. communism always fails.

In this case, the council decided to get a loan to “develop” the fishing industry, but before they could get a loan, the bank sent out an efficiency expert who looked at all of the little boats and declared that it would be much more efficient if they just used one big boat.

So the council bought a big boat and burned the little boats in the middle of the night so no one could use them anymore.

Now “ownership” of the boat was all confused. Men were not clearly working to catch their own fish on their own boat, they were part of a big crew on a big boat with a boss. The boss had to be someone with the correct licenses and whatnot to be allowed to run a big boat, and of course he had to pay his employees, which probably gets you into Australian tax law, liability law, insurance law, etc. In short, the boss wasn’t a local Yolngu because the Yolngu didn’t have the right credentials to run the boat, so the fishermen now had to work for an outsider, and it was no longer clear which part of their catch was “theirs” and which part was the boss’s.

The fishing industry quickly fell apart and the area became a net importer of fish.

These councils set up by the government to run local affairs failed repeatedly, much to the distress of the locals–but Trudgen notes that collectivism didn’t work for the USSR, either.

One constant impression I got from the book is that multiculturalism is hard. Even without language issues, people from different cultures have different ideas about what it means to be respectful, polite, honest, or timely. Different ideas about what causes disease, or whether Coca Cola ads are a trustworthy source of nutrition advice. (If they aren’t, then why does the government allow them to be on the air?) 

Which gets me to one of my recurrent themes, which Trudgen touches on: society lies. All the time. Those of us who know society lies and all of the rules and meta-rules surrounding the lying are reasonably well equipped to deal with it, but those of us who don’t know the rules usually get screwed by them.

As Wesley Yang puts it in The Souls of Yellow Folk:

“Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

The idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking–where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense–is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice.

It’s not just Asians. Poor people, rural people, nerds, outsiders in general know only the explicitly taught rules, not the rules about breaking rules–and suffer for it.

And I think society lies in part because it serves the powerful. People lie about their age, their looks, their intelligence, how they got ahead and how they think you should apply for a job. Coca Cola lies about the healthiness of its product because it wants to sell more Coke, and the Aborigines believe it because they have very little experience with foods that taste good but aren’t good for you. Out in nature, in the traditional Aboriginal diet, sweet foods like fruits and berries were always good for you.

And these little lies are usually portrayed as “in your best interest,” but I’m far from convinced that they are.

People have been talking about UBI lately, at least the Yang Gang types. And I like Yang, at least as presidential candidates go. But we should be careful about whether more welfare is really the panacea we think it is.

The Yolngu have welfare already, and it doesn’t seem to be helping. At least, it doesn’t seem to make them happy. My conclusion from reading the book obviously isn’t that the Yolngu need more welfare or more programs. It’s that they need control over their own lives and communities. For that, they need something like Amish–a system of internal organization sufficient to feed themselves, deal with the outside world, and get it to back off.

Of course, I don’t know if that would actually work for the Yolngu in particular, but the Amish seem a reasonable model for solving many of modernity’s current problems.

A Bit of Dissent on rational actors and organizations

Anthropologists and economists often try to figure out why large-scale systems (tribes, corporations, societies, etc.) operate the way they do. Why does this tribe have polygamy and that tribe polyandry? Why do these people tattoo themselves all over and those people abhor tattoos? What is “business casual” and why do I have to wear it? Why are we at war with Eastasia?

The general presumption is that even when societies do things look irrational, they have some hidden logic that actually makes them good or adaptive–we just have to figure out what it is.

Here’s an example:

Here are researchers asking if people get complicated all-over body tattoos because it’s an “honest signal” of enhanced immune response? (IMO, this is a silly idea, but rather than go off on a tangent I’ll save the longer discussion for the end of the post.)

By contrast, we fully admit that individual behavior is often wrong, irrational, stupid, or outright crazy. Individuals make mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes.

So when people do things that don’t make much sense, we are quick to write them off:  people are dumb. They do dumb shit.

I would like to offer a dissenting view. I think people are, most of the time, reasonably intelligent and competent. They make mistakes, but if you look at how we have evolved and learned to think and react to the world, most of our mistakes make a kind of sense–they’re often just misplaced heuristics.

By contrast, the collective behavior of groups and organizations is often irrational and stupid, and the only thing that keeps them going is either humans inside doing their best despite their organizations, or society having been constructed in such a way that it is extremely difficult to get people to stop doing stupid things.

Let’s take war. Most people say they are opposed to war, or they don’t like war, or they prefer peace. Many people say that world peace is an admirable goal. Most people who’ve thought at all about WWI say it was a dumb and pointless war. Many wars look dumb and pointless.

Ask people whose countries are actually involved in a war, and many of them, perhaps most, will assert that they want peace (it’s just those bastards on the other side who are making it difficult).

If everyone wants peace, why do we have wars?

Because “it’s complicated.”

Systems are complicated and it can be very hard for people, even well-meaning ones who mostly agree on what ought to be done, to reign them in and pull an entire society away from the brink. It is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a machine gun that walking toward one is a bad idea, yet the commanders in WWI kept ordering wave after wave of men to charge the guns; tens of thousands of men were mowed down every day during the Battle of the Somme. This went on for months. Over a million people died, and in the end the Allies gained a whole 6 miles of territory. The battle didn’t stop because the commanders wised up to the stupidity of charging at machine guns, but because the weather was too cold to continue.

It sickens me just thinking about it.

And then everyone decided that WWI was such a riot, they should hold a sequel!

In sum, humans are usually competent enough to run their own lives and only occasionally need interventions by their friends and families. After all, most of us are descended from people who were competent enough to make it to adulthood and find a partner willing to reproduce with them, so at least we have that going for us, genetically.

By contrast, organizations go awry all the time. Anyone who has been to the DMV (or worse, the VA) probably has stories to tell. Societies do lots of good things, like get food from farms to the supermarket, where I can buy it, and it makes sure I have electricity and heat so I can cook my foot, but societies also do lots of stupid things, like invade Iraq. 

Stupid systems are a much bigger problem than stupid individuals. Stupid are usually only a danger to themselves. Even the most successful terrorists (that I know of) have only killed a few thousand people. Stupid systems, by contrast, can kill millions of people.

From an anthropology perspective, the implication is that sometimes when we see societies doing things that don’t make sense, maybe they actually don’t make sense. Not because the people involved are necessarily stupid, but because groups can get stuck in stupid ruts.

 

Tattooing: the article would be sounder if the authors just said that tattooing appears to be protective against disease. It doesn’t need to signal anything; if it keeps people alive in a rough environment, that alone is enough to make the behavior persist.

Interestingly, here’s a guy’s story of dealing with eczema his whole life, then getting a tattoo and the eczema clearing up:

At 23, I eventually got my right arm tattooed—a glorious, multicolored, three-quarter-length traditional Japanese piece composed predominantly of geishas and flowers. …

After it was done, my eczema did start to clear up — not just on the skin that was tattooed, but everywhere. That led me to believe that it would have improved anyway as I got older. I had such a positive experience, I got the other arm done a couple years later. So, yeah, fuck eczema.

Maybe the tattoo did have an effect on his immune system.

But there are plenty of places outside of Polynesia where people also face high disease burdens, but don’t have massive, body-spanning tattoos. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has high rates of disease and the locals have certainly heard of tattoos, but they haven’t adopted Maori style full-body decoration.

It’s hard to come up with a sensible answer for why some cultures adopted tattoos and some didn’t besides “they wanted to.”

(Note: I’m not calling tattooing stupid.)

 

 

An Historian of Science Discovers the “Light Switch”

Historian and philosopher Emma Houston interrogates the science of electricity and light bulbs

The light switch was at the center of Houston’s first big foray into the history of electricity and lights. The story told in introductory electrical engineering textbooks is relatively simple: flipping the switch up turns the lights “on”; flipping the switch down turns the lights “off.” Whether a switch is in the on or off position has for for decades been seen as an expression of a light bulb’s “true” state or of “light itself.” It is the job of a science historian to discover where these stories come from, and why.

Houston’s doctoral dissertation, published in 2004 as Light Itself: The Search for On and Off in the Electric Circuit does just this, tracing the history of the idea that electromagnetic radiation is turned “on” and “off” by switches found on the wall. Early in the twentieth century, she shows, it was controversial to refer to “light switches” because sometimes electricians accidentally wired around them when installing lights.

But the fact that switches are visible, (unlike electricity) made them useful for enough to two groups of engineers–those building electrical circuits, and those working to untangle the role of electricity in light generation–that the association between switches and light solidified for decades.

Associating “light” with the “light switch,” writes Richardson, has serious consequences, as when engineers tried to develop a “super flashlight” that used two light switches and multiple batteries.

The “super flashlight” was finally abandoned in the development stage when engineers decided it was simpler to use bigger batteries, but in Light Itself, Houston argues that it made the light switch the star of electrical engineering in a way that still reverberates. She points to engineers like Professor Book, whose research focused for decades on using light switches to design home lighting plans. Such a focus was not inevitable, Houston argues: from the 1920s through the 50s, based on evidence in lasers, researchers saw buttons as drivers of light output.

It turns out that “light switches” do not actually cause bulbs to emit electromagnetic radiation. Engineers now understand that light, produced by incandescent bulbs as well as LEDs and compact fluorescents, is the result of numerous interconnected capacitors, resistors, power sources, and wire circuits that all work together. So called “light switches” do not cause light at all–they merely open and close light circuits, allowing electricity to flow (or not) to the bulbs.

But in an interview, Professor Book disagrees with Houston’s account. In Houston’s history, the super flashlight looms large in later researchers’ decision to focus on the switch, but Professor Book responds that research on the super flashlight “did not interest me, it did not impress me, it did not look like the the foundations of a path forward.” Building circuits around the light switch, he says, was not inspired by the popular image of a super bright flashlight with two switches, but “was simply the easiest way to design practical lighting for people’s houses” and that “flipping the switch does actually turn the lights on and off.”

Houston responds that of course we can’t expect actual engineers to know what inspired them or their fields, which is why we need science historians like herself to suss out what was really motivating them.

Author’s note: Professor Houston has degrees in philosophy and literature, but oddly, none in engineering or physics.

This parody is thanks to Harvard Magazine’s The Science of Sex: Historian and Philosopher Sarah Richardson Interrogates the Science of Sex and Gender.

 

 

 

 

Legal Conclusions

I was going to write another post about Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, but it turns out that about half the book is bibliography and endnotes. There are several chapters of conclusion, but not much new worth highlighting.

The authors’ main point, I suppose, is that there are many different but still functional  legal systems; I have a slightly different theory, that legal systems, whatever their form, adjust to the needs and characters of the people using them. Of course, I also suspect that legal systems often “work” because people route around them.

This is an interesting thread on how the US legal system treats people merely accused of crimes, many of whom are, of course, innocent:

RTWT.

Responding to crime requires balancing between punishments harsh enough to deter serious crime, and soft enough to make people willing to report crimes.

There are a variety of disputes that break out between people that need solving but don’t rise to the level of wanting the other guy in prison–take many disputes between relatives.

There are also crimes that people don’t think the police prosecute adequately, and so have taken to prosecuting by other means–take college rape tribunals.

Beyond just “there are many valid legal systems,” I think the authors of LSVDFO would also like to propose that we can have effective legal systems that aren’t run by the state–and that perhaps such systems could be more effective than our current one.

Opinions?

And since LSVDFO is over, what would you like to read next?

The Autism Matrix

Just a thought this morning, but I think the “autism spectrum” would be better characterized as a “matrix” with intelligence running along one axis and impairment on the other.

We can divide this into four useful quadrants, representing high IQ & high impairment, high IQ & low impairment, low IQ & high impairment, and low IQ and low impairment.

Of course these are not entirely unrelated measures–the impairment that causes autism can also cause low IQ, but it makes a functional distinction because different quadrants suffer different challenges and limitations.

The traditional distinction was between “autism” and “asperger’s,” with asperger’s generally reserved for the smarter, higher functioning kids. Asperger’s has been dropped as a diagnosis due to this distinction being not the most useful–there are high-functioning dumb kids with autism and low-functioning smart kids. (And adults.)

Just a little thought.

The Dangers of Being Kind

I recently had a conversation with someone who seemed entirely motivated by kindness and also entirely, dangerously wrong.

The subject was prisons, and more specifically the treatment of prisoners:

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve read a few books on prisons, crime, and legal systems. My opinion of the American legal system is that it is kind of terrifying; it usually catches the right person, but not always; unscrupulous people absolutely can use it to destroy your life.

Prisoners can be divided into roughly three groups:

  1. People who shouldn’t be there (innocent, or their sentences are absurd for their crimes)
  2. People who should be there, but feel genuine remorse
  3. Criminal psychopaths

Some prisoners shouldn’t be there at all, some should be treated better than they currently are and given more support for reintegration to the non-prison world, and some should be tortured to death.

Over in real life, I try hard to be kind to others. I hand out cookies and hot cider on cold days to the neighborhood kids, volunteer with the homeless, and feel bad about eating animals.

But kindness requires… policing. Children cannot play on the playground if it’s full of homeless druggies. Homeless shelters cannot help if they are full of strung-out druggies, either. Even eating “free range” chickens requires that farmers raising chickens in batteries be prevented from slapping a fraudulent “free range” sticker on their meat.

Kindness alone is insufficient for creating a “kind” world. Many people are not nice people and will take advantage of or harm others if given the chance. Being “kind” to such people simply allows them to harm others.

My interlocutor in the conversation about the “trans” inmate basically argued that taxpayers should fund cross-sex hormone therapy for a man who raped/tortured/murdered a family (raped and murdered their kid, too), because it is medical care that prevents pain and suffering.

This argument is flawed on two grounds. The first is obvious: the entire point of prisons is to cause suffering. Prison isn’t fun; if it were fun, people would want to be there. Prison has to be unpleasant in order to function as any sort of deterrent, and we do actually want to deter people from committing crime. (In this case, the fellow should suffer to death, but that’s irrelevant, since the death penalty isn’t on the table in Connecticut.)

This doesn’t mean that I want to torture all of the prisoners–see above–but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that punishment is an part of what prisons are for.

The second flaw is the matter of obligation. We may not wish to cause further harm to an inmate–having determined that prison is sufficient already–but that does not obligate us to relieve suffering that we didn’t cause in the first place.

This is a very common conversation in the car: “Mom! I forgot my toy! We have to go back!”

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to go back. You had half an hour to get ready, so you had plenty of time to get Mr. Fuzzy before we left. Hopefully you’ll plan ahead better next time.”

Yes, kiddo is going to cry, but he’s old enough to remember Mr. Fuzzy; it’s not everyone else in the car’s job to fix his mistake.

The fact that someone wants to undergo a sex change does not mean they need to; they may be unhappy because they cannot, but there are 2.3 million other people in prison who are also unhappy because there are things they cannot do. There are people who will never attend their children’s birthday parties; men whose wives will leave them; women whose sick and aging parents will die without saying good-bye.

Life is filled with tragedies; there is nothing special about wanting to be a girl that it sets it above the others and obligates tax payers to pay for it.

I am fine with paying for actual life-saving medical care, up to a point–diabetics in prison shouldn’t be denied insulin, for example. But wanting to be a girl is not an emergency. It’s a luxury, and once you’ve torture murdered a few people, you don’t get luxuries anymore.

To this is replied that I am, in some way, denying the inmate’s humanity, or perhaps drawing lines in the sand that could get shifted in difficult cases to cause harm to someone I do not want harmed, etc. The idea that we should not decide a trivially easy case because someday a more difficult case may come along is obvious nonsense, and “humanity” in this context is meaningless. I wouldn’t torture a dog, even though they aren’t human. I think it is immoral to kill or mistreat great apes, elephants, and dolphins.

Dolphins don’t torture humans to death.

If we are going to remember that someone is a human, we should remember his victims. They were humans; he is merely a member of Homo sapiens, a distinction he neither earned nor made meaningful.

There are several sleights of hand, here. The first is the exchange of causing harm and preventing harm. We may have an obligation not to cause harm, but we lack one to prevent harm. The second is the classification of sex hormones as necessary medical care. It is not; no one dies from not undergoing HRT. The third was characterizing a denial of medical care as a human rights violation. Human rights, you know, the things the UN decided were important after the Holocaust.

Put these three sleights together, and wanting to spend my money on my own children instead of on sex hormones for a murderer is equivalent to shoveling people into ovens.

I don’t think most of these sleights my interlocutor made were intentional–rather, I think she (or he) is a very kind person who has been effectively deceived by others who prey on her niceness.

Step one in fixing this sort of problem is to realize that kindness cannot exist in a vacuum: predators have to be stopped or children will be murdered, and we do this via coercion, which is, yes, painful. Step two is realizing that money (and resources) is limited, and that spending it on one thing requires not spending it on something else. Once we realize that, we have a quick and easy morality test: would sane people take money from their children in order to spend it on this?

In this case, normal people find the idea abhorrent: no loving parent would deprive their children in order to provide a murderer with luxuries.

If your “kindness” leads to acting abhorrently, it isn’t really kindness.

Athenian Law: Not actually so crazy

Welcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different From Ours. Sorry for the slight delay; we’ve been recovering from Halloween. Today we’ll be discussing Athenian law.

Athens is famous for being the inspirational democracy, though the extent to which it was actually a democracy is a tad overstated by modern standards–we’re not sure exactly how many people lived in ancient Athens, but the majority of them, probably a supermajority, could not vote. Only male citizens could vote; the population also contained, (aside from women) a large number of “resident aliens” who were free, but not citizens, and plenty of slaves.

Only the child of two current citizens was a citizen, and it was rare for foreigners to be awarded citizenship. Men often had one regular wife, who was a citizen and whose children would therefore enjoy the rights of citizenship, and a concubine or two who were aliens or slaves and whose children, likewise, would be aliens or slaves.

The obvious issue with this system is that the non-citizen population is likely to grow faster than the citizen population, but citizenship carries with it too many benefits to be given away lightly.

The less obvious issue is that people often fell in love with people from other social castes and wanted them for primary spouses, not secondary spouses. This theme shows up a lot in Greek plays, in which star-crossed lovers from across social castes face doom until, at the climax, it’s revealed that there was a mix-up at one of their births and the beloved is actually an Athenian citizen and the marriage can go forward. (Or at least this is a major plot point in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, an American play of the 1960s.)

The benefits of being a male Athenian citizen included the right to marry another Athenian citizen, vote in the assembly (Athens was a direct democracy, not a representative one,) serve on a jury, (juries were huge, often 200 to 500 people,) serve as a magistrate, be a paid arbiter, and own property.

Resident aliens (called “metics”) were not slaves, but generally couldn’t participate in the government or own land They could prosecute some legal cases and had to have a citizen “sponsor.” Exceptions existed.

Slaves were, well, slaves. Slavery sucked.

Debt slavery was abolished as part of the reforms of Solon about two hundred years before the start of the period being discussed, so most slaves were either prisoners taken in war or the descendants of such. … A slave’s owner could sue to collect damages for an injury to his slave and could be sued for damages done by his slave. He was not free to kill his slave but was free to beat him.

One wonders who would bother to prosecute the case of a slave who died under mysterious circumstances whose owner claims he didn’t kill him.

Slaves worked the typical gamut of jobs, from servant to farm laborers to silver miners.

It occurs to me that we tend to read about ancient Athens through people who generally held it in high regard; we don’t have many of the original legal documents from the Athenian legal system (we have, however, various speeches that people gave arguing their court cases, which often contained descriptions of relevant laws,) or much in the way of records made by Athenian non-citizens; I can’t recall even having read anything written by a Spartan, who might offer a countering opinion on the quality of Athenian government. Imagine if we were in a similar position with respect to the US–the US fell, most of our texts were destroyed, a Dark Age ensued, and a thousand years later, people began digging up American artifacts and decided the US must have been a pretty happening place; people began learning Ancient English and reading American novels and philosophers in school. Now another thousand years pass, and you’re trying to piece together the American legal system from old Perry Mason episodes and a thousand years of scholarship… and we would have about the situation we now have with ancient Athens.

[This ends our customary disclaimer about the difficulties of understanding a two thousand+ year old legal system with very few surviving primary source documents.]

Jury trials must have taken up a lot of Athenian time:

Each year, 6,000 jurors were selected by lot from those who volunteered; the only qualification was being a male citizen and at least 30 years old. … If we accept an estimate of 30,000 for the total number of adult male citizens, at any one time about a fifth of them were on the jury panel.

These cases had between 200-500 jurors each; Athenians must have loved trials (which is probably why they went to the effort of getting professional speech writers to compose their legal orations, some of which were popular enough to be preserved down to the present day).

Interestingly:

Witnesses gave their testimony in writing in advance; during the trial, their only contribution was to confirm that it was indeed theirs.

This implies that a lot of people were literate–or else there were scribes for the purpose. Either way, Athenian society clearly was pretty literate, which always prompts the question: why? We can’t credit the state of things at this point for having created themselves, so what did cause the flourishing of Athenian learning and culture?

The testimony of slaves, however, sounds pretty awful:

The evidence of slaves was admissible only if given under torture and only if the owner permitted it.

The Athenians had public and private cases; any male citizen could prosecute a private case, and for many cases the prosecutor received a large fraction of the resulting fine, providing an incentive for ordinary citizens to take on cases–but to protect against malicious prosecution, if a fifth of jurors failed to vote for him, he could be fined and barred from bringing future suits.

We worry about police planting drugs on a suspect in the process of search; the Athenians worried about a private party planting his own property on someone in order to accuse him of stealing it. They had a simple solution. The accuser was allowed to sear the house where he suspected his stolen property was hidden. But he had to do it naked.

The Athenians believed in a kind of contagious ritual pollution called miasma. The threat of contagion meant that murderers had to be exiled or kept out of the courts and temples:

In one case we know of, a defendant charged with murder claimed that the only reason for the charge was to keep him from showing up in another court to prosecute a different case.

Belief in miasma also resulted in the objects used in murders being ritually exiled.

So I tried to look up “The State of California vs 88 Ford Truck” and failed, but I did find the excitingly titled United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls:

United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls, 413 F. Supp. 1281 (D. Wisc. 1976), is a 1976 United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin decision regarding a requested order from the United States government to seize and destroy a shipment of approximately 50,000 sets of clacker balls under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act because children could hit themselves with the balls.[1][2]

The form of the styling of this case — the defendant being an object, rather than a legal person — is because this is a jurisdiction in rem (power over objects) case, rather than the more familiar in personam (over persons) case.

So they destroyed the clacker balls because children could hit themselves with them.

There are then some rules of family life/inheritance which are pretty standard fare. Adoption was legal, but like becoming a citizen, seems a bit onerous. Only males could inherit property, but were required to support the surviving womenfolk of the family.

If a man died with a daughter but no male descendants she would be required to marry the nearest male relative, outside of the narrow limits of the incest rules, who would have her.

Okay, that seems kind of bad for the children, but not too awful…

If already married she was required to divorce her husband.

What? This makes marrying a gal who has no brothers an awfully bad deal!

Finally, the authors examine the production of “public goods”, which were simply assigned every so often to local rich people:

If you were one of the richest Athenians, every two years you were obliged to produce a public good. The relevant magistrate would tell you which one.

It seems like a system that, despite its obvious flaws, worked pretty well so long as the population of Athens stayed small enough.

What did you think? Thankfully ancient Greece is a very well-studied place, so hopefully some of you are experts on the era and have some great insights to share.

Take care and enjoy the weekend.

Man the Wanderer

One of the most distinctive things about humans is how widely spread our species is. Few species that have not hitched a ride with us have managed to spread so far and wide.  Men armed with stone tools built boats and settled the furthest islands, from Hawaii to New Zealand; men sewed hides of mammoth skin and built shelters out of snow to survive in the arctic. We live in deserts and swamps, mountains and valleys, and have thrived nearly everywhere we’ve gone.

And–until recently–our ability to travel far and wide resulted in a plethora of human species. Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all lived around the same time, alongside Homo naledi (South Africa), Homo heidelbergensis (Africa), H. Floresiensis (Island of Flores, Indonesia), and H. luzonensis (from the island of Luzon, Philippines.)

Those aren’t even all the varieties of human that have existed, people who looked and behaved much like us. There were others, some older, some whose bones we haven’t found, yet, but whose DNA shows up in modern humans.

1024px-carte_hachereaux
Map of the distribution of Middle Pleistocene (Acheulean) cleaver finds (Wikipedia)

The first out of Africa event occurred about 1.8 million years ago, when Homo erectus hefted his achulean handaxe and headed north. He seems to have thrived in Asia, arriving in China a mere 100,000 years later, and Indonesia 50,000 years after that. It took a fair bit longer–another 250,000 years–for erectus to arrive in Spain, and he had trouble crossing the mountains into the rest of Europe (it was probably too cold for him.)

This was before widespread use of fire (about one million years ago) and clothes (about 170,000 years ago) allowed humans to spread much further–one of the oldest known sewing needles was wielded not by Homo sapiens, but by our cousins the Denisovans, in Siberia.

But what motivated us? Why did we spread so far?

Before the invention of agriculture, most humans must have been nomadic, at least part of the year. Our stone tools let us be hunters–despite our puny size–and we probably followed our prey, and when we ran out or couldn’t find the animals we sought, we moved on in search of more.

Did being smart let us expand our initial range out of Africa, or did expanding our range as we followed game make us smarter? Probably both; early Homo erectuses skulls had volumes around 850 cubic centimeters, but by the time erectus reached Indonesia, his skull had grown to 1,100 CCs. But erectus did not persist–he was replaced by later waves of humans who emerged from Africa with much more advanced tools.

Settling down must have been quite the change–we moderns find moving stressful, but our ancestors probably found staying put strange and difficult. Perhaps they planted, then wandered off for a few months until their crops ripened.

Even today, I think there’s still some urge to wander left in us. Somewhere between 15 and 25 we get the urge to get out of Dodge, to seek our fortunes (and spouses) somewhere far from home.

We gotta roam.

What does a good legal system look like?

51ta-us7crlWelcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, by Leeson, Skarbek, and Friedman. Today we’ll be finishing up with feud law (short wrap-up chapter) and looking at English law of the 1700s.

The application of English law, as described by the authors, cannot help but make the reader wonder how on earth England managed to function at all (as, indeed, I often wonder about the US, laboring under the execress of US law). The suggest that somehow it managed, despite its shortcomings. I suggest that the English people managed, despite the imposition of a terrible system upon them, simply because the English are the sorts of folks who are accustomed to dealing patiently with bad systems.

Any attempt to generalize English economic, scientific, literary, or scientific success via imitating their legal system may therefore be imitating the wrong thing, though this may be true for all legal systems.

But let us back up a step and ask what makes a good legal system in the first place?

Obviously it must do justice, but this is a tautology; what is justice?

A good legal system:

  1. Discourages or prevents future misdeeds.
  2. Compensates the victims

People may object here that a good legal system should also punish evil-doers. People (myself included) have a deep desire to punish the wicked, but this is not the purpose of the justice system, but its means.

Let us analogize to eating. Why do we eat? What purpose does putting a sandwich in my mouth serve?

We can say that we eat because it is pleasurable just as seeing a murderer punished makes us glad, but this does not explain why eating sandwiches makes us happy and eating sawdust does not. The mere act of putting food-like substances in our mouths and swallowing them is not pleasurable, nor do even the most dedicated gourmands among us seek to create whole dishes of ersatz food simply to simulate the experience of eating. Flavor is nice, but it serves a more important purpose: nutrition. We eat to deliver calories and nutrients to our bodies.

Indeed, we do all sorts of things that “feel good,” because they help keep us alive and propagate our genes. Evolution has geared us to find staying alive pleasurable and dying unpleasurable.

Similarly, we desire to punish the wicked because it accomplishes the two goals stated above: it prevents or deters them from committing future crime, and it (sometimes) recompenses the victim.

(Note: I will use the word “criminal” here to refer to “person who has committed what is generally regarded as an evil act by their community,” but of course sometimes things are officially crimes that people don’t actually consider wrong, and vice versa, sometimes things are not illegal that people believe ought to be.)

Number 1, encouraging or preventing future misdeeds, is generally accomplished by physically preventing criminals from further action by imprisoning, exiling, or executing them, and by frightening potential criminals into not offending via the threat of being caught and imprisoned, exiled, executed, tortured, etc.

Number 2, compensation, is achieved by returning stolen property or forcing the criminal (or their criminal insurance group, if you’re in Somalia,) to pay a fine or labor in place of a fine.

We may add two more requirements to our ideal system:

3. It does not punish the innocent, nor place undue burden upon innocent people,
4. It is equally accessible to all classes of people.

Any legal system that causes harm to innocent people would of course become itself criminal.  A system that favors certain classes of people over others–say, by not prosecuting murderers who only kill poor people–obviously doesn’t achieve justice. Such a system also impairs economic activity by limiting people to doing business with partners they can find ways to enforce contracts on.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to measure whether a system actually does any of the above. Crime may go up or down for reasons entirely divorced from the legal system, like the installation of surveillance cameras or a change in demographics. We can compare victimization reports to incarceration rates, but that only tells us about crimes punished, not crimes deterred.

At any rate, with this in mind, let’s plunge into the work, starting with Feuds:

We have now seen a number of societies in which law enforcement was private and decentralized. That pattern, although strange to us, is historically common. It seems likely that in many, perhaps most, societies it was the original legal system on top of which later systems were constructed. I call it feud law.

Feud law is simple and straightforward: if you harm me, then I threaten to harm you until you pay damages. If you don’t pay, you hurt.

The authors list four requirements for Feud law systems to work:

First, threats need to only be effective for correcting wrongs, not as extortion.
Second, I have to be able to actually carry out my threats.
Third, the system has to work for everyone (see my #4).
Fourth, feuds must end. They can’t just go on forever.

It is interesting that the Somali system effectively has no legislature (neither does the Comanche). I suspect that for many groups–especially nomads–this was historically true, due to the nature of their existences and low population densities. In the development of law, it appears that judges came first; legislators and law-givers came second.

The authors then talk about the evolutionary origins of vengeance, which as discussed, is useful strategy:

That you will revenge yourself against anyone who wrongs you, even at considerable cost to yourself, is a reason not to wrong you.

The person who can enforce vengeance against others is strong; the person who cannot is a wimp:

Being known as a wimp lowers your status. It also marks you as a safe target for future wrongs.

The authors are fond of the idea that feud systems can work out for the good of everyone, even wimps, the weak, and poor people, if other people can gain status by taking on their cases for them. This hinges on people not deciding that “taking on cases for poor people is low-status,” “I’d rather take on this much easier case over here,” “I really just don’t care about your problems.”

From all of my reading about historical, decentralized, feud and feud-like legal systems, I must say that I am not convinced that any of them do a particularly good job. For starters, it is rather difficult to end a feud if the other guy is still pissed about. Second, the “money” paid out in feud systems is often taken from relatives (or others in your feud-insurance group,) which puts strain on a bunch of innocent people. Third, the “money” is often not money at all, but women and children, who become effectively slaves. (Think back to the child Okonkwo murdered in Things Fall Apart., because someone in the child’s village had murdered someone in Okonkwo’s village. Obviously the just solution is to… take someone’s innocent child and chop him up with machetes. Well, that is a solution that deters future crime, yes, but it fails on point three, because it harms someone who is innocent.)

… a number of existing legal systems show evidence of having been built on top of pre-existing feud systems.

The clearest example is Anglo-American common law. It evolved out of Anglo-Saxon law. Anglo-Saxon law, at least prior to its final century, was essentially Icelandic law plus a king. The king claimed that some offenses were violations of the king’s peace, hence that offenders owed damages to both him and the victim. Expand that approach enough and eventually the exception swallows the rule, converting all crimes into offenses against the crown alone.

We’ll be looking at the hard to believe it worked, if it did, English law in a bit.

The authors note that just because feuding is no longer the official legal way to deal with one’s problems, it still remains a very instinctive way, and the way folks who don’t have other legal options (like drug dealers) punish folks who’ve done them wrong:

Much of the crime in a modern society can be interpreted as private enforcement. A retaliatory killing in the course of a conflict among urban gangs is one example, a husband who discovers another man in bed with his wife and shoots him another.

It’d be interesting to see some data on this.

There is a summary of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, which I will leave to you to read.

On to merry old England.

The two most striking anomalies are the institutions for prosecuting offenders and the range of punishments.

Prosecution was, in essence, private. There were no police, DAs, or taxpayer-supported Constables, but you could hire your own:

A victim of a crime who wanted a constable to undertake any substantial effort in order to apprehend the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of doing so. … Any Englishman could prosecute a crime… It was up to him to file charges with the local magistrate, present evidence to the grand jury, [etc].

The English were opposed to the idea of a professional police force on the grounds that such a thing was “French” and “tyrannical.” (As the authors point out, though, it is the French system that went down in the flames of Revolution and the English system that persisted, so… maybe the English were on to something.)

This system of people prosecuting crimes themselves was, as you might have guessed, a pain in the butt. Poor or busy people who’d suffered a crime generally didn’t have the resources necessary to bring a case to trial, so the government decided to fix things by offering rewards for the conviction of serious crimes.

Naturally, criminals started framing innocent people just to collect the fines:

The most famous of the resulting scandals involved the McDaniel gang who, when one of hteir plots miscarried and they were themselves tried, turned out to have been responsible over a period of about six years for the transportation of two men and the hanging of six and to have received a total of 1,200 pounds in state rewards.

Paid police were introduced in London in 1829, and later to the rest of England.

The authors then note that the strange thing is that this system functioned at all, though I suspect it functioned mostly despite itself, due to the character of the English people and community-level mechanisms such as reputation and social standing.

The other oddity of English law at the time (at least from a modern perspective) is the relative lack of intermediate punishments. Criminals could be hanged, banished, sold into slavery in a foreign country, or pardoned. The moderate punishment of a few years’ imprisonment was rare, most likely because it would have required the building of expensive physical infrastructure (prisons) and staffing them with paid jailers, and the English were obviously leery of putting any taxpayer money into their criminal justice system.

The prisons of the eighteenth century, when they existed, were pretty awful. (I have posted about prisons before.) Rat-infested, unheated, unventilated (though sometimes there were massive cracks in the walls that made them far too ventilated,) no toilets; in general, if you went to prison, there was a good chance you would die there.

As for the offenses themselves, the British had an interesting way of raising their overall IQ:

“Benefit of clergy” originated as a legal rule permitting clerics charged with capital offenses to have their cases transferred to a church court, which did not impose capital punishment. “Cleric” came to be defined as anyone who could read…

Clergyable offenses were offenses for which, absent benefit of clergy, the punishment was death. Manslaughter, for example, was a clergyable felony.

It sounds like this started as the church exerting independent power and claiming the right to punish its own, separate from the secular authorities, with the government potentially going along with it because people who could read were too few and far between to hang, and gradually evolved as literacy spread.

Once the British developed good boats and colonies, they realized they could just get rid of their annoying criminals. At first, they sold them into slavery, though the book shies away from calling it that:

Transportation was by private merchants. A merchant who wished to transport a felon was required to pay the sheriff “a price per head…” After transporting the felon to the New World, the merchant could sell him into indentured servitude…

Merchants made good profits on young, healthy people who’d make good slaves, but old or useless prisoners couldn’t be sold for much and so languished in holding cells.

Transportation became rarer because the receiving colonies began passing laws against it–for some reason respectable folks in Virginia and Maryland didn’t want the English dumping a bunch of criminals into their communities.

Eventually the government decided that instead of selling prisoners to the merchants, they’d get rid of more prisoners if they paid the merchants to take them. They were still sold into slavery on the other side of their journey, however.

As Wikipedia put it:

In England in the 17th and 18th centuries criminal justice was severe, later termed the Bloody Code. This was due to both the particularly large number of offences which were punishable by execution, (usually by hanging), and to the limited choice of sentences available to judges for convicted criminals. With modifications to the traditional Benefit of clergy, which originally exempted only clergymen from civil law, it developed into a legal fiction by which many common offenders of “clergyable” offenses were extended the privilege to avoid execution.[10] Many offenders were pardoned as it was considered unreasonable to execute them for relatively minor offences, but under the rule of law, it was equally unreasonable for them to escape punishment entirely. With the development of colonies, transportation was introduced as an alternative punishment, although legally it was considered a condition of a pardon, rather than a sentence in itself.[11] …

During the Commonwealth, Cromwell overcame the popular prejudice against subjecting Christians to slavery or selling them into foreign parts, and initiated group transportation of military[14] and civilian prisoners.[15] With the Restoration, the penal transportation system and the number of people subjected to it, started to change inexorably between 1660 and 1720, with transportation replacing the simple discharge of clergyable felons after branding the thumb. Alternatively, under the second act dealing with Moss-trooper brigands on the Scottish border, offenders had their benefit of clergy taken away, or otherwise at the judge’s discretion, were to be transported to America, “there to remaine and not to returne”.[16][17]

Probably some of my great-great-ancestors in there.

The Transportation of convicts to Australia is well-known, but plenty of American colonists started out the same way. I don’t know how many were transported–Wikipedia gives estimates between 50,000 and 120,000 for North America and 162,000 for Australia.

The Encyclopedia Virginia has an interesting paragraph contrasting Indentured, Convict, and Slave labor: 

Indentured servants voluntarily entered into the master-servant arrangement for a specified number of years (between five and seven), made the decision themselves to go to the colonies, and had to be given a freedom fee, clothes, and seeds at the end of their service. Thus, it was more economical for some planters to purchase British felons who also served for seven years in most cases, but who did not have to be paid at the end of their term of labor. The purchase price of convicts was also lower than that of indentured white and enslaved African laborers. Late in the colonial period, a male enslaved person cost between £35 and £44. Most male convicts sold for less than £13 and the women for £7 to £10. Even semiskilled convicts could be purchased for £7 to £14 and skilled felons for £15 to £25. A final inducement for buying convicts came from the fact that because they were already outlaws from society’s rules, they could more easily be exploited.

The transportation of convicts to the US basically stopped due to the American Revolution, which probably caused an uptick in demand for other, more expensive varieties of slaves.

Ugh, cheap labor is such a horror show.

Back to the book. The authors note that juries did not always convict people to the full extent of the law:

In other cases the jury failed to include in its verdict features of the crime, … that would have made it non-clergyable the combined effect of acquittals and conviction for a lesser… offense was that, in the sample examined by Beatte, fewer than 40% of those charged with capital property felonies and fewer than 25% of those charged with murder were actually convicted of those offenses.

Of course, in the US system, something like 95% of criminal cases end in plea bargains rather than court cases of any sort.

Convicts could also be pardoned, which resulted in only 16% of those charged with capital crimes actually hanging. (This is still much higher than in our system.)

Evidence that this system worked comes in the form of crime statistics:

Beattie’s figures, based on homicide indictments per capita, suggests that rural homicide rates fell more than fourfold and urban about ninefold between 1660 and 1800. … it seems likely that much, perhaps most, of the drop in the crime rate between 1660 and 1900 occurred prior to the introduction of paid police.

This is in line with the generalized drop in homicide that we’ve seen across the developed world over the past thousand years:

homicide_in_europe_1200_2000

Murder rates tend to track pretty well with development level and IQ, though it’s not clear whether reducing murder makes it easier for people to do business, or raising standards of living makes people less likely to murder each other, or making people smarter makes them less likely to murder each other and better at doing business–but it’s probably all of the above.

World-Murder-Rate-Geocurrents-Map-1024x726

Either way, given the nigh-universality of these trends over time and space, I suspect they don’t have as much to do with the specific penal institutions of 17th and 18th century England and more to do with things like “the rise of capitalism” or “the Hajnal Line.”

The authors discuss a number of other potential mechanisms to make the British system more workable, including, essentially, prosecution insurance groups, ie, an association for the prosecution of felons.

Thousands of prosecution associations were established in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I interpret their main function not as insurance but commitment.

(That is, demonstrating to a potential thief a willingness to prosecute him.)

There was also a system that was similar to our plea bargains, which let criminals (or people accused of crimes) pay off the prosecutor and not go to trial. This benefited the prosecutor (who still got paid) and the defendant (who didn’t hang or go to the colonies.) This sounds rather similar to the Gypsy system of threatening to report each other to the local legal system if the other person doesn’t stop misbehaving.

Viewed from this standpoint, cases that went to trial represent failures, not successes, of the system.

Well, that is an interesting interpretation of the legal system being so unworkable that it functions as an effective extortion threat.

The tactic of starting a prosecution in order to be paid to drop it is familiar in the literature on malicious prosecution.

Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.

The authors then discuss why England lacked much in the way of imprisonment, agreeing with my assessment that it was just too expensive.

As for enslaving prisoners, outside of the colonies:

I conclude that galley slaves, at a time when galleys were still militarily useful, probably produced services worth more than the cost of guarding and maintaining the slaves but in other employments France, like England, found that prison labor cost more than it was worth.

Slaves are bad workers.

The authors neglect the enslavement of Scottish coal miners, though.

The authors delve into the role of pardons and paying off prosecutors, and conclude that the majority of convicts getting off with lighter sentences than the ones prescribed by law isn’t necessarily a bad thing (especially if the laws were improperly harsh to start with) if the occasional very public execution of a criminal is frightening enough to make potential criminals afraid to commit crimes. Humans do not generally sit down and work out the exact odds of getting caught and convicted before committing a crime, but watching someone die publicly and painfully can make a sharp impression. Thus only the occasional real enforcement of the full penalties may have been necessary to keep down crime more generally.

In conclusion, I am not quite in agreement with the authors that this was a reasonably good system despite itself. I think the British managed to find workarounds to compensate for a mediocre system. I suppose the distinction I am drawing here is bottom up vs top down. I think if you tried to impose this system on a different group of people, you’d end up with different outcomes because they would invent different informal ways of routing around the system’s inefficiencies, which means the relative “success” of the system is really the success of the people in it.

If I am going to recommend a particular set of rules, those rules should be independently functional, not only functional because people ignored them and set up alternative rules to abide by.

But perhaps I am being too picky, and this is always the way of modern legal systems–top down rules imposed by the powerful combined with bottom-up institutions created by emergent social behavior.

 

Well, that’s all for now. What did you think of the chapter? Any thoughts on the (very short) section on the development of English law over the past millennium? Take care, and we’ll read more in a week.

Subcultures and Week 1 of Skateboarding

Despite my husband’s insistence that I would wipe out and kill myself, I am successfully still alive after one week of skateboarding. I have also reassured him that I am not going to turn into one of “those people”: snowboarders. (Mostly because I am afraid of going downhill fast, and also because I don’t have the time and money to go skiing.)

I find it mildly hilarious that there is a cultural difference between skiers–proper, refined, pinkies in the air denizens of Deer Valley–and snowboarders–potheads, troublemakers, and young people with attitudes. Waterskiing also comes in two ski and one ski varieties, but as far as I know, there is no cultural difference between waterskiers who slalom and those who don’t.

In fact, snowboarding used to be banned at most US (and European) ski resorts:

Even though snowboarding was accepted by the mainstream winter sports industry in the 1990s, and is now recognized as a Winter Olympic sport (debuting in 1998), ski areas adopted the sport at a much slower pace than the winter sports public. For many years, animosity existed between skiers and snowboarders, which led to an ongoing skier-vs-snowboarder feud.[9] Early snowboards were banned from the slopes by park officials. In 1985, only seven percent of U.S. ski areas allowed snowboarding,[10] with a similar proportion in Europe. Because of this, snowboarders sought ways to protest such treatment from resorts owners and to a lesser degree, other skiers. Indeed, the snowboarding way of life came about to rebel against skiing. As a result, snowboarders chose to “shock” skiers by snowboarding at ski-only resorts as a protest.

Today, only Alta, Deer Valley, and Mad River Glen maintain the ban; the other resorts have recognized that snowboarders buy lift tickets, too.

Sam Baldrin has a good article on the conflict: Snowboarding vs. Skiing: The dying feud:

However, in those early days, skiing was still very much an elitist sport. Seen as expensive, and catering largely to the more wealthy citizens, resorts weren’t about to let this new, dangerous craze into their exclusive runs. …

But the boarding boom of the 1980s brought with it a very different type of personality to the slopes; droves of teenage skate punks with an accompanying ‘bad ass’ attitude that the average skier didn’t appreciate. This new form of snow sport brought the lawlessness of street skating to the arena of strict slope etiquette. …

And so the war began; on one side, the traditionally upper class, rich kid skiers, who wanted the slopes free of these rude, dangerous, disrespectful hoodlums with their baggy trousers and “trash and thrash” attitude. On the other, a rapidly growing army of young, enthusiastic new snowboarders, scornful of skiing’s conservative yuppie style, pumped full of teenage angst and reveling in the sport’s rebellious image.

How did two activities that are essentially the same–strapping a board or two to your feet and going downhill–develop radically different subcultures? Some sports obviously attract different sorts of people–basketball players are taller than jockeys, for example, but I doubt there’s anything about fine wine or baggy pants that makes one good at one or the other, and both groups have enough money to afford lift tickets at Vail.

In this case–as skiers and snowboarders have grown less antagonistic over the years–I think it’s mostly founder effects. Learning to ski or board is tricky, but people who could already skateboard had an advantage over those who didn’t. And while plenty of serious skiers saw the potential of snowboarding, once it was outlawed, only outlaws rode snowboards.

And who rides skateboards is itself at least partly founder effects that don’t have too much to do with skill, like who lives in cities with lots of smooth concrete.

Of course, young or old, yuppie or punk, one demographic variable unites the majority serious sports enthusiasts: they’re male. Yes, there are a few sports that women dominate, like rhythmic gymnastics, but the vast majority of athletic subcultures, professional, amateur, or merely fan, are dominated by men–and this is not a founder effect.

Some typical men’s hobbies, include riding motorcycles, working on car engines, woodworking, building computers, playing Call of Duty, and sports. Some typical women’s hobbies include include reading books/book clubs, arts and crafts, baking, playing the Sims, and shopping.

Men tend to get involved in hobbies that demand either high levels of skill–technical or athletic–and tend to enjoy tinkering for its own sake. They love optimizing their rigs, maximizing performance, or just hauling the motorcycle into the living room to do whatever repairs need done. Women, by contrast, tend to prefer their hobbies less DIY (except for art and baking) and more ready-off-the-shelf.

New hobbies are often male dominated because new things tend not to be very refined or have well-established supply chains: you can’t find them ready-on-the-shelf. The early internet, for example, wasn’t available on phones. To get on the early internet you had to figure out for yourself how to get on Usenet, and few enough people joined each year (mostly in September, when they arrived at colleges that had internet access), that the internet maintained a specific culture. Then in 1993, AOL went live and an unending stream of normal people flooded onto the internet, swamping the original culture and changing it forever, in what is known as “Eternal September.”

Ham radio–which I regard as the precursor to the internet–also required technical knowledge and assembling giant antennae; early rocketry (before WWII) was a highly technical hobby, with many parts and fuels built and mixed by hand.

In the cultural realm, watching anime was much trickier in the early 90s, before you could just stream it on YouTube or Netflix. (I got into anime because my best friend was Japanese, and we watched it together.) In those days you had to look in the Yellowpages to see if any video or comic shops near you carried it. Fan communities devoted to distributing, translating, dubbing, and subtitling anime developed on the internet–active communities, not just passive consumers.

The entry of large numbers of women into a community tends to mark a fundamental change in the nature of the community, not just because they are women, but also because whatever activity or skill it involves has become easy to get into. You no longer need to build anything or have specialized technical knowledge or spend hours working on a project to get in the culture; just buy something off the shelf and you’re there. Normies of both genders show up. The place changes.

Change isn’t always bad. Most of us seem to like that we can access Google Maps on our phones when we’re lost, or that our favorite shows are easy to find on Netflix or Hulu. I appreciate the skateboarding videos on Youtube that have taught me proper board stances, since there’s no one in my neighborhood I can ask.

But this is still change, and for the people who liked their communities the way they were when they were DIY, something they enjoyed may be lost.

(But don’t worry about me; I won’t be invading your skateparks.)

Anyway, skateboarding, week one:

Since my husband’s assertion that I had bought a “murderboard” and was going to “kill myself,” I have been keeping a list of things that have hurt me worse than skateboarding injuries:

Biting my tongue at breakfast
Stepping on a small plastic Pokemon that nearly punctured my foot
Bumping into the table (I still have the bruise)
Whacking my ankle with the scooter while picking it up
The pain in my elbow from using Twitter

I think a lot of people (including my husband) jump on a skateboard once, the skateboard flies out from under them, they crash to the ground, and they decide that skateboarding must be for people with better balance and pain tolerance than they.

But this is like jumping on a bike without training wheels, immediately falling over, and concluding that bike riding must be really hard.

So if you want to skateboard and you don’t want to fall on your butt, try watching this video first:

A real skateboard is a bit expensive (mine was about $120 dollars), which is a fair impediment to figuring out whether you enjoy skateboarding enough to want to put in the effort to learn it. A good compromise might be starting with a Razor Scooter, which are pretty fun to ride but more stable, due to the handlebar, or borrowing a skateboard from a neighbor.

After my first couple days of awkward step, skate, step, skate, step, skate, leap off the board, repeat, I got used to keeping my weight on my board foot and swishing the ground with my free foot. In the process I had two falls, but neither of these actually resulted in injuries or even pain. I decided to wear a helmet anyway, just in case.

Little known fact: humans are footed, just as they are handed. If you’re having trouble getting comfortable on your board, it might be because you’re using the wrong foot. When I use my non-dominant foot to practice different stances, I feel terribly clumsy and awkward.

So far everyone who has said anything at all has been very friendly and supportive (obviously I don’t look like a miscreant teenager, but a mom supervising her kids at the playground), and most people seem to be impressed that I can just stay on the board while gliding across a flat surface.

I was originally going to name my board “murderboard”, but my lack of injuries (other than a small bug that got squashed,) has made me reconsider.

I will probably never learn any fancy tricks (because I am not very good at athletic things) but I’ve had a really fun first week and am happy to have a hobby that I can actually discuss with strangers (unlike my blog).

We’ll be discussing legal systems on Friday.