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.)



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:


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.


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.

Dlíthe na hÉireann: The Laws of Erin

Cu Chulainn, from the Cattle Raid of Cooley

Welcome back to Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’ll be discussing Irish law, insofar as we can reconstruct what it looked like over the centuries before England invaded.

Ireland is one of those countries that it has become popular to over-mythologize, especially in certain New Age/Wiccan circles, so I am always a little skeptical about Irish-related claims–I’m in the uncomfortable position of knowing a lot, but not knowing how much of what I know is actually true.

People want Ireland to be this eternal place with a deep connection to Europe’s mythic past, perhaps because it wasn’t conquered by the Romans, or perhaps because it retained a more primitive agricultural/herding economic system for longer than its neighbors (which strikes me as probably just an accident of geography.)

“Hunter gatherer’s camp at Irish National Heritage Park Exhibit showing how a 7000 B.C. campsite of Mesolithic period hunter gatherers would have looked. They were nomadic and built temporary houses. Wood, bone and flint were the materials of their tools. They fished using dugout canoes – there is one in the photo.” More photos in the park Credit to David Hawgood  

Ireland was settled relatively late, by European standards, because it was covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age. (If humans lived there before the Ice Ages, we have no evidence of them.) The first (known) humans showed up around 12,500 years ago, but we don’t know if they stuck around; evidence of really continuous habitation doesn’t show up until 10,000 years ago.

These folks were hunter-gatherers who built simple shelters that would have made the first little pig proud.

Around 6,500 BC, Ireland’s hunter-gatherers were conquered by farmers, known as the Linear Pottery Culture or LBK. LBK originated around Anatolia and raised sheep, goats, cattle, wheat, and barley. They also appear to have introduced red deer to Ireland. (I suspect wheat that originated in the Middle East originally struggled to grow in Ireland, but sheep did fine.)

The hunter-gatherer population of Ireland was never very big–Wikipedia estimates it around 8,000 people. The farming/herding population was much bigger, around 100,000 or more.

The LBK people also brought the practice of building stone monuments, such as the famous Newgrange, built ca. 5,200 years ago.

Metallurgy arrived with a new group of people, the Bell Beaker, around 4,500 years ago (2,500 BC). They were probably Indo-European speakers but we don’t know which language they spoke; Irish proper probably arrived a little later, with the Celts. This era is marked by the production of metal objects–jewelry, swords, axes, etc–and of course the development of mining and long-distance trade.

Reconstruction of a Crannog (technically, this one is located in Scotland.) By Christine Westerback  

Housing changed in a rather distressing way–people began constructing their huts (called crannogs) on platforms built in the middle of lakes. This is how you build when either the fishing is very good, or the invaders are very nasty.

As far as I know, the Celts arrived around 500 BC, which on the scale of ancient human migrations wasn’t that long before the Romans invaded Britain, a mere 450 years later.

This is the society whose laws were variously recorded when literacy reached Ireland a few hundred years down the line, around the 7th through 12th centuries CE. The Tain Bo Cuailnge (pronounced “cooley,” because Irish likes to throw in extra letters, but honestly, English has words like “through”, so who are we to judge?) or “Cattle Raid of Cooley,” written in the 12th century (though it may be based on manuscripts that were written centuries earlier and just haven’t survived) about events in the first, offers some insight into the political structure of pre-British Ireland.

Insights from the Tain:

  1. Ireland was ruled by multiple kings, not a single high king
  2. Some of the rulers were women
  3. Wealth was counted in cattle
  4. Particularly nice cows/bulls might be traded or lent for political reasons
  5. Sometimes cattle were stolen; particularly successful cattle raids were immortalized
  6. Warrior culture

There are hints in these stories of the archaeological record–of course, the Irish histories speak explicitly about the migrations of different peoples to Ireland; Cu Chulainn (the hero of the Tain) is himself half Gael and half Tuatha de Danann–depending on the source, the Tuatha are a conquered people, fairies, gods, or people who worshiped a particular god (or goddess).

I propose a fairly straightforward sequence of events: The Celts (or Gaels) invaded and, after some conquering, married a fair number of the locals. In some areas bands of locals and invaders lived side by side for some years; many advantageous marriages may have been conducted to join the estates of local chiefs with invading warriors, and notables like Cu Chulainn with mixed ancestries may have been fairly common. Alternatively, the ancestry may be a bit more attenuated, like when certain American whites claim a smidgen of Native American ancestry. (*cough* Elizabeth Warren *cough*)

The conquering of a bronze-age people by an iron-age people might be remembered in the claim that “fairy folk” have no iron or are allergic to iron. I’d be allergic to iron, too, if the iron were a spear slicing open my intestines.

At any rate, some of the conquered people might have retreated into the hills and bogs and other unappealing places, eventually becoming a memory of an impoverished, violent, “fairy race;” elsewhere, rulers keen on presenting themselves as legitimate to all of their subjects may have played up their semi-mythic Tuatha ancestries, even turning their ancestors into a kind of ancestral cult which eventually resulted in elevating them to the levels of gods and demi-gods.

Or perhaps this is all nonsense speculation. Let’s get on with the book:

Ireland at the beginning of the fifth century was a pagan country with a rich oral literature and an elaborate legal system, also oral. …

Whoever the authors [of the legal texts] were, they showed a strong conservative bias, recording not only legal rules still in practice in the seventh and eight centuries, when the texts were written down, but older rules as well. Their writing thus provides a somewhat blurred window on the pre-Christian legal system, which may have preserved institutions going back much further, possibly as far as the period before the different Indo-European languages separated. The evidence for that conjecture is in part linguistic, similar words in different Ind-European languages connected with the same legal/political institutions, and in part comparative, features that the early Irish legal system shared with ancient Indian law.

This is a fascinating idea which the authors never return to or develop at all in this chapter. We’re never told which terms in Irish law are cognate with terms in other legal systems, nor which traits it shares with the Indian system. (Maybe they’ll get around to it in a future chapter?) People have this funny habit of assuming that Irish things in particular are ancient survivals from ancient Europe, but why would Ireland in particular have any more ancient Indo-European survivals than, say, Germany? or Russia?

To the extent that Irish law looks like Indian (or Somali) law, I’d posit that 1/3 of the similarities are due to the needs of a herding society (Ireland and Somalia), 1/3 the dominance of a warrior elite over a conquered peasant class (Ireland and India) and 1/3 random chance/people  identifying parallels that aren’t really there. Overall, I suspect that Irish law developed in situ, in response to the particular situation in Ireland.

The Ireland described in the law books was divided into a large number of small kingdoms… modern scholars estimate hat there were about a hundred of them, with a population of a few thousand in each.

I feel like this is an abuse of the word “kingdom.” Shouldn’t these be “fiefdoms” or “clans” or “chieftanships” or something similar? The text supplies the Irish word “tuath,” which just means “people,” so I think “clan territory” is more appropriate.

A king might recognize the overlordship of another and more powerful king. … While the idea of a high king of all Ireland existed and the title was sometimes claimed, such a king is mentioned only rarely…

A king who is under another king’s rule isn’t a king.

For the most part, an individual had legal rights only within his own kingdom, although some special categories, such as poets and hermits, had rights elsewhere.

Good poets must have been in short supply.

An interesting custom:

… when the subject of one king was killed by the subject of another, both acknowledging a common overlord, the procedure for collecting the fine for the killing was initiated by the victim’s king taking a hostage, presumably a subject of the killer’s king, in the court of their overlord.

Getting your king to go out of his way to visit another king’s court and take a hostage sounds like an inconvenient way for the common man to achieve justice. I doubt it happened very often, except for cases involving rather prominent or powerful subjects/relatives of the king.

Within the clan, people were divided into kin groups, with agricultural land generally held within a group, called a derbfine, defined by a paternal great-grandfather.

The derbfine, like the much larger dia-paying group in the Somali system, was responsible for enforcing the rights of its members, if necessary by feud, sharing in the payment of damage payments by its members and the receipt of damage payments to its members.

The authors note that networks of mutual obligations, while good when you have debts, limit your ability to make contracts that might impose new costs or debts or obligations on everyone else in the network.

Kind of like how your health insurer would really appreciate it if you didn’t smoke.

Despite the occasional “warrior woman” or queen popping up in the sagas, Irish law wasn’t favorable toward women:

Marriage law recognized a range of possible relationships, depending both on the resources each party brought into the marriage and the degree to which the marriage had or had not been approved of by the women’s kin… A man would normally have a chief wife but could also have a secondary wife or concubine.

A woman was under the authority first of her father, then her husband, hen her sons, and had very restricted rights.

Fostering was common, though:

Fostering of children was a common practice that established a form of pseudo-kinship… a man’s foster father had a claim to a fraction of the blood-money if his foster son was killed…

Irish law was built around a status system similar to the Indian Caste system, which is probably a reflection of the realities of life in a conquered country:

An individual’s honor price determined what he was owed for offenses against him but also the limits to his legal capacity, including the amount for which he could contract on his own authority and the weight of his evidence in legal dispute.

The major categories of status were [noble], non-noble freemen, and unfree. Within each there was a range of sub-categories. …

[Nobles] had a variety of legal privileges, limiting the degree to which legal rights could be enforced against hem… One consequence… was to make contracting with them risky, since it might prove impossible to enforce the contract, a problem pointed out in the period sources.

There’s a system rather like feudalism or sharecropping, in which lords have clients who are provided land or animals in exchange for a share of the produce or other services.

Among the unfree, the major divisions were between the semi-free… who had no land of his own and no independent honor price, the hereditary serf, who was bound to the land, and the salve.

More than one level of unfree. Sounds awful.

Private Law:

The legal sources describe mechanisms for making and enforcing contracts that do not appear to depend on either royal courts or any centralized mechanisms for judgement and enforcement. But there are also references to what appears to be curial law, law enforced in the court of a king. …

Private contract law depended on a system of sureties, third parties with rights and obligations connected with the contract…

Freedom of contract within the system was limited by the network of mutual obligations. … A son was obliged to support his aged father, so a father could under some circumstances cancel a contract the son made that might reduce his ability to do so [and vice versa]. Husband and wife had mutual obligations which gave each the right to cancel some contracts made by the other, with the details depending in part on the nature of their marriage.

The derbfine also placed restrictions on the sorts of contracts and obligations the individual could have–in general, in systems where governments don’t offer social safety nets, such restrictions are the norm.

Anyway, if you did make a contract and then failed to fulfill it, after some back and forth announcements and mediation, the other party could come and drive away your cattle. People probably did not always allow their cattle to be driven away without a fight, though.

Of course, if you’ve entered into a contract with someone of higher social standing than yourself, you don’t get to just up and drive away their cattle. The king has more soldiers than you do; good luck.

So if a king or other noble has wronged you, the proper procedure was a kind of ritual fast outside the noble’s house. For whatever reasons, the nobleman was obliged not to eat while the fast was going on, until he had satisfied the claim against him. How exactly this was enforced, I don’t know. Maybe shame.

More violent crimes, like murder, were settled like the Icelandic system, via feud and payment:

In both, offenses were expected to be open rather than concealed…

Just as in Somalia, there was a pre-existing coalition responsible for both pursuing feud on behalf of a wronged member and assisting with the payment of damages owed by a member.

Ireland did have some sort of court system, with professional judges and lawyers; after a promise or physical pledge to abide by the judge’s decision, the case proceeded in a manner fairly similar to modern courts.

As in Jews and Islamic law, the legal procedure might include the swearing of oaths; under some circumstances someone accused of an offense could defend himself by swearing the charge away. …

the force of an oath was linked to the honor price of the person swearing it; a higher-status individual could overswear a lower-status.

This isn’t really a system that looks out for the little guy, but if several little guys teamed up, they might be able to get their oaths to add up to the same value as higher-status person’s.

Women’s oaths were only accepted if no one else could be found to swear on a thing. In general, they weren’t allowed to be witnesses.

Disputes could also be settled via ordeal or duel.


That’s all for now. If anyone knows what these supposed parallels with Indian law or proto-Indo-European legal survivals are, I’d love to hear them.

Next week we’ll hop across the pond and discuss the Comanches, Kiowa, and Cheyenne.

Icelandic Law



Today we’re discussing the legal system of saga-period Iceland in Legal Systems Very Different from Ours.

First, a little background:

Iceland … is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, with a population of 360,390[4] and an area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.[b][8]  …Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterised by sand and lava fieldsmountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. … Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.

According to the ancient manuscript Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 AD when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island.[9] In the following centuries, Norwegians, and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, emigrated to Iceland, bringing with them thralls (i.e., slaves or serfs) of Gaelic origin.

The island was governed as an independent commonwealth under the Althing, one of the world’s oldest functioning legislative assemblies. Following a period of civil strife, Iceland acceded to Norwegian rule in the 13th century.

Iceland today is a small country; Iceland in the saga era was even smaller. Official records weren’t kept until the 1700s, but at that time, the population was a bit under 50,000 and stayed there for over a hundred years, so I think it’s safe to put 50,000 as our max population for the saga period.

Ethnically, the male population was about 66% Viking and 34% Scottish/Irish slaves; the female population was about 60% Scottish/Irish slaves and 40% Viking.

Note that Iceland’s population went from about 50,000 to 350,000 in two hundred years–seven times bigger–yet Wikipedia claims, “Due to a shortage of labor,[21] immigration to Iceland will most likely increase in the future.[22]” How the fuck do you septuple your population and still have a “shortage of labor”?

Utter nonsense.

Anyway, back to the Viking age, when people solved their problems by stabbing each other, setting their houses on fire, and kidnapping the women:

In saga-period Iceland a thousand years ago, if you killed someone his relatives sued you.

Despite being a bunch of Vikings and their slaves, Icelanders still set up a legal system that was sufficiently complex that modern scholars aren’t sure exactly how it worked. (I’m sure if some future legal scholars tried to piece together the American legal system from old episodes of Perry Mason plus some law review articles, they’d also be confused.) Our understanding of the Icelandic system similarly comes from a combination of entertaining stories (sagas) and a collection of legal texts written down later, the Gragas. It’s tempting to claim that Gragas must be correct, since it is actually a collection of legal texts, but I challenge you to read a bunch of US case law and use it to piece together how US law actually works in practice. (You won’t.)

As for what we know:

The political system they developed [in Iceland] was based on Norwegian traditions with one important innovation–there was no king.

At the base of the system stood the godi [note: the d should be crossed]… The original godar seem to have been local leaders who built pagan temples and served as their priests. A godi received temple dues and provided in exchange both religious and political services. The godord was his congregation. The relationship between the godi and his thingmen was contractual not territorial. The godi had no claim to the thingman’s land and the thingman was free to transfer his allegiance.

It’s hard to have a king or exert much power over people when population density is low and they can just move on if you annoy them too much. I don’t think this is really a political innovation so much as a reality of low-density frontiers-like areas.

Personally, I don’t like using non-English terms when perfectly good translations exist. the godi (plural, godar) is a priest. The godord is his congregation.

Under the system of laws established in AD 930, these local leaders were combined into a national system. In 960, Iceland was divided into four quarters, each containing nine godord clustered in groups of three called things. …

The one permanent official of this system was the … lawspeaker; he was elected… His job was to memorize the laws, recite them once during his term in office, provide advice on difficult legal points and preside over the … legislature.

I once tried to figure out how many laws the US has and came up with an official answer of “no one knows, not event he government.” It’s not exactly clear what is and isn’t a law–for example, if the state mandates that parents whose kids have more than 10 unexcused absences from school in a year be charged with truancy, then does the schools’ procedure for reporting medical absences count as a law? Our system is complicated, and no mortal could ever memorize it, much less recite it all in a timely manner.

The existence of the lawspeaker was probably just necessity in a system where not everyone was literate, but it also provides a check on the number of laws (and thus the structure that the law takes,) since it must be humanly possible for someone to memorize them all.

The godord [congregation] itself was two different things. It was … the particular men who had agreed to follow that godi [priest], to be members of that [congregation]. … The godord was also a bundle of rights, including the right to sit in the [lawcourt] and appoint judges for certain courts. … it was the right to be the person through whom ordinary farmers plugged into the legal system.

So everyone has to be associated with some congregation of other, but you get to chose the one you want to be part of. Once you’re part of a congregation, you have to pay your priest an annual tax, which pays for the expenses of the men who attend the annual lawcourt and decide cases. Membership in the congregation and thus the right to sit in the legal assembly and hear court cases could be bought, sold, given away, inherited, etc.

For serious offenses, conviction meant full outlawry. … It was legal to kill an outlaw, illegal to feed him, shelter him, or help him to leave Iceland. … A lesser outlaw had the right to leave Iceland and could return in three years.

If you’re declared an outlaw, then the court takes your stuff and gives it to the victims or their surviving relatives (saving some for any of your innocent children).

Prosecution was up to the victim or his kin… Most cases in the sagas were settled out of court, usually for money damages. … Many were settled by arbitration. .. Calculations by two different scholars suggest tat only about a tenth of cases went to a final judgment by the court.

Lest you think this is a lot, 97% of criminal cases in the US end with plea bargains rather than actual court trials.

Icelandic law distinguished between killing and murder–secret killing. After killing a man, one was obliged to announce the fact immediately. … Murder cost the killer the ability to raise legal defenses, such as the fact that his victim was an outlaw or had forfeited his immunity by attacking [first, I presume.]

Since this is a system of privately enforced law in which people essentially join a legal society and then pay taxes to it, there’s always the possibility that the poor will be too poor to afford justice, or the rich so rich they can buy their way out.

The former was not a problem, the authors argue, because the money for a successful conviction was always potentially available, so even people too poor to prosecute a case could sell their case to someone else who would be happy to pursue it for profit.

The latter case, the rich buying their way out of trouble, became a problem as the poor peasants (and slaves) who made up Iceland’s initial population gradually built up their estates and some families became significantly more wealthy than others:

By the Sturlung period there were many areas where all or most of the godord were held by one family, reducing or eliminating the ability of the individual thingman to choose his godi and creating a de facto, if imperfect, form of territorial sovereignty…

Another possible source of concentration of wealth and power was the introduction of Christianity…

A second and related cause of the breakdown was the introduction into Iceland of a foreign ideology–monarchy. … Several of the leading figures, when out of Iceland, usually as a result of a settlement that included temporary outlawry, became retainers of the king…

Population growth=all of the good land gets snatched up. Over time, some families get richer and accumulate more power. Eventually, they use that power to get more power, setting themselves up as local lords; with all of the good land taken, people have nowhere else to go if they get fed up.

Exit provides a workable system if there are other places to go; not if everything is closed off already. Eventually, bigger societies become more hierarchical, except in Iceland’s case, this led to a total breakdown of the system.

Of course, even during the breakdown, Iceland was still safer than the US at the peak of the crime wave:

According to a calculation by a scholar who went through the Sturlung sagas counting bodies, during more than fifty years of the violent breakdown of the traditional system the number of people killed or executed each year, on a per capita basis, was roughly equal to the rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter in the United States in 1975.


Today, of course, Iceland is one of the world’s safest countries:

Murder rate per 100k people in 2012: light blue = 0-1; darkest blue > 20

That’s all for today; next week we’ll look at Somali law. Should be fun. Take care.

Our AI future

AI generated art

The First AI-Generated Piece of Art Comes to Auction:

AI artwork sells for $432,500 — nearly 45 times its high estimate — as Christie’s becomes the first auction house to offer a work of art created by an algorithm

I honestly think that within ten years or so, a large percent of the “media” people consume, from TV to porn to news to music to art, will be computer-generated and only vaguely checked/edited by humans for errors.

We’re already halfway there. The news content in your feed is already curated by computer algorithms. Your YouTube playlists and recommendations are curated by algorithms.

Walmart uses Big Data, not human logic, to determine that Poptarts should be stocked next to the hurricane supplies. Walmart never had to think, “People want tasty food that doesn’t require cooking in waterproof packaging when hurricanes are coming” to notice a trend in the data and stick the poptarts next to the bottled water.

But those are algorithms dealing with human-produced inputs; some human did actually invent the poptart.

AI generated story (the bold text was my input):

The dark elf walked into an inn, carrying a harp and dagger.  He approached the bed when a rous’do shouted, “Oh, that’s my archer! I got you!”  “Hah! I told you to leave me alone.”  Dark elf pulled out a weapon he found lying on the bed, pointing it at the hooded man, “Oh, I thought that you wouldn’t be so clever. I’ll take your archer with me!  So please, don’t come back!”
Dark elf shouted, “I ain’t leaving you alone!  Don’t come back, you filthy, rotten little whore!”  “I ain’t leaving you alone!  No, this time I’m taking all you have and turning you into a fine specimen!”  “I ain’t leaving you alone.”
The hooded man yelled, “Oh, my God!”  “Don’t you know we have enough to eat?  Come to my house, we’re on the list to have your head on a plate!  I will have you punished!”
“No no!  I can’t.  It’s not fair.”  “I said you can’t!”  “Oh, really?  That’s a great idea!

Some AI generated news:

Donald Trump proposed buying Greenland today.  I wonder if we could do to ourselves what he did to Scotland, to Greenland. Trump’s promise to build a barrier around Greenland would be a major change in tone, considering his attitude toward North Korea as well.
We were reminded recently that it has been three decades since the last time a major American leader came to Greenland to visit.  I can recall only one visit–and it was a very short visit.  I imagine the President’s visit could be as small or as large as he wants, without much of a change in tone.  So maybe we could do it too.
What did George W. Bush do for the people of Greenland?  Well, we probably got our oil, but no oil.  There’s just enough room for one of his family’s homes–but the rest of the land is off limits.  Trump has not been shy in his praise of Greenland’s icecaps, saying: When I see it there, you see the majesty of the icecaps…. When I look and see how Greenland has been working since this summer, people are thanking me for all this ice…. I know Greenland well.  From Greenland is a country where you have to learn about your country.  Ice is also a key economic component for Greenland.

AI generated porn, coming soon:

These technologies aren’t great yet, but they’re improving fast. And besides, how do you know your memes weren’t AI-generated already?

What does this thing even mean?

In some areas, like art, the AI will be vastly better than us humans. Cameras already are; algorithms trained on the likes of Kinkaid, Wyland, Rembrandt, and Monet will churn out cheap, beautiful art (and calendars) in any style you want.

In other arenas, like novels and news articles, the results will be bad, mostly because so much nuance goes into human language, politics, and communication. People will consume these anyway.

Once the main use of AI-generated art isn’t avant-garde but beautiful, people will argue that it isn’t “real art” and only plebes will buy beautiful AI-generated paintings, while AI-generated news will seep into your feed without you even noticing. Entire classes will consume AI-gen news without blinking an eye.

In a way, they already are.

AI-generated porn has the potential to be good, but in practice will be terrible because no one cares if their porn is terrible.

Eventually, whether one consumes media made by actual humans will become a social marker of sorts–probably first of low status, as only rich people can afford $400,000 paintings; later of high status, as AI-generated memes and incoherent news articles flood the timelines of people who are, unfortunately, not smart enough to realize that they don’t make sense.

Burned by the machine

Of course, AI will not be neutral. Remember the time Microsoft released an AI chatbot and let it just interact with the internet, but forgot that the internet is full of humans and humans love teaching parrots to curse, so they had to shut it down?

When you think about it, humans are really the weak link in AI-generated content.

The Amish, of course, will just go on about their lives, interacting with real humans while the rest of us watch AI-generated superhero mashups with a never-ending AI-news ticker in the bottom right hand corner of our VR dome, probably while sipping bug-protein based soylent replacement because people were afraid soymilk would give them boobs.

The video games will be awesome, though.

Old China, New China

I think people have generally been underestimating china. When I was young, China wasn’t doing so well–I mentally classed it alongside India, which is also a mega-country of over a billion people living in similar levels of poverty–but in the past few decades, China has surged ahead.

Yes, China uses tech in ways that sound like dystopian nightmares. Yes, there’s something going on with Uyghirs and camps. Yes, pollution. But it is impossible to deny that the average Chinese citizen has become massively more prosperous and that China is bubbling with innovative energy.

I recently heard a speech–I think it was given by Obama several years ago about Shanghai’s test scores being higher than American ones–claiming that this was our “Sputnik moment.”


It’s not.

Going to the moon is something a command economy can do, even a command economy with capitalist characteristics. The government can allocate a few billion dollars, hire a bunch of rocket scientists, and tell them to go to the moon.

Generalized innovation, energy, and economic growth are not things you can command, which is why the Soviet Union was always stagnant on the ground. America cannot outclass China unless the energy for doing so comes from the people themselves.

But enough about America.

Here’s the zoom on a Huawei phone camera:

You must excuse me if I think the recent buzz about Huawei being evil is due to tech companies like Apple realizing that Huawei is about to eat their lunch with cheaper, better tech.

If you think China isn’t going to eat our lunch, don’t argue with me, just go out there and succeed.

AI not working as intended


As we have previously covered, there has been a push in recent times for social media companies to censor posts containing offensive remarks, Fake News, Russian bots, or slowed down videos of Nancy Pelosi. Social media companies have been dumb enough to along with this demand (mostly because the people who run them are also the kinds of people who think social media companies should censor more,) but as a practical matter, they are of course incapable of reading and evaluating every post that comes their way.

So these companies need algorithms to trawl their millions of posts for offensive content.

Unfortunately (for someone) any AI trained on things that people actually find offensive will censor things the Woke don’t want censored:

On LGBTQ pride month, we share some of the main findings of our research looking at the impacts of Artificial Intelligence on LGBTQ speech. Our goal is to shed some light on the gaps and biases that may be present in AI technologies that are currently being developed to moderate content on internet platforms and demonstrate how they might have significant implications for LGBTQ rights.

The results of this study are unintentionally hilarious:

By training their algorithm to learn what pieces of content are more likely to be considered as “toxic”, Perspective may be a useful tool to make automated decisions about what should stay and what should be taken down from the internet platforms. …

We used Perspective’s API to measure the perceived levels of toxicity of prominent drag queens in the United States and compared them with the perceived levels of toxicity of other prominent Twitter users in the US, especially far-right figures. …

After getting access to Twitter’s API, we collected tweets of all former participants of RuPaul’s Drag Race (seasons 1 to 10) who have verified accounts on Twitter and who post in English, amounting to 80 drag queen Twitter profiles.

We used Perspective’s production version 6 dealing with “toxicity”. We only used content posted in English, so tweets in other languages were excluded. We also collected tweets of prominent non-LGBTQ people (Michelle Obama, Donald Trump, David DukeRichard SpencerStefan Molyneux and Faith Goldy). These Twitter accounts were chosen as control examples for less controversial or “healthy” speech (Michele Obama) and for extremely controversial or “very toxic” speech (Donald Trump, David DukeRichard SpencerStefan Molyneux and Faith Goldy). In total, we collected 116,988 tweets and analysed 114,204 (after exclusions).

“drag queens are in blue; white supremacists in red; Michelle Obama in green and Donald Trump, in orange.”

It turns out that drag queens are really rude and Richard Spencer is pretty polite. Even Donald Trump, who is kind of rude sometimes, is more polite than the majority of drag queens.

Of course, anyone who has actually read their tweets would have known this already. As the study notes, drag queens are likely to pepper their tweets with phrases like “I love you bitch” and “I’m a faggot,” while white supremecists are likely to say things like “Italy has a lovely history and culture and we should preserve it.” Drag queens also know their speech is protected (back in the early days of systems like AOL Online, you weren’t allowed to use words like “bitch” and “fuck,” but today they are allowed,) while WNs know that they are being watched and that if they step out of line, there’s a good chance their accounts will be deleted.

Any algorithm trained on actual rudeness as perceived by normal humans will of course tag drag queens’ typical tweets as offensive; it will take intervention by actual humans to train the algorithms to pick up on the words creators actually want to censor, like “Donald Trump” or “Chinese detention camps”.

 Speaking of which:

Van de Weghe has continued to study Chinese AI—how it tracks people with ever-improving facial recognition software. He describes the new “social credit” programs that use AI to combine data from numerous sources, assign scores to people’s behavior and allocate privileges accordingly. In 2013, when Liu Hu, a Chinese journalist, exposed a government official’s corruption, he lost his social credit and could no longer buy plane tickets or property, take out loans, or travel on certain train lines. …

Jennifer Pan, an assistant professor of communication, explains why Chinese citizens accept social credit programs. “People think others spit in the street or don’t take care of shared, public facilities. They imagine that social credit could lead to a better, more modern China. This is an appealing idea. Political dissent is already so highly suppressed and marginalized that the addition of AI is unlikely to have anything more than an incremental effect.”

The result for journalists is that actual prisons (where many are currently held) are replaced by virtual prisons—less visible and therefore more difficult to report on. In the face of this, Van de Weghe says, many journalists he knows have quit or self-censored. And while reporters outside China can critique the general practice of censorship, thousands of individual cases go unnoticed. Government computers scan the internet for all types of dissidence, from unauthorized journalism to pro-democracy writing to photos of Winnie-the-Pooh posted by citizens to critique President Xi Jinping, who is thought to bear a resemblance. AI news anchors—simulations that resemble humans on-screen—deliver news 24/7. The government calls this media control “harmonization.” The Communist Party’s goal for sustaining its rule, according to Pan, “is to indoctrinate people to agree. Authoritarian regimes don’t want fear.”

There is a lot of amazing technological progress coming out of China these days, for good or bad:

If you think mass AI-censorship and surveillance sounds scary in China but totally good and awesome in the US, you haven’t thought this through.

It’s not Stealing if they’re Gadje: Legal Systems very Different from Ours pt 2

51ta-us7crlWelcome back to Leeson, Skarbek, and Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we will be discussing Gypsy law, in a chapter that I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t already read Isabella Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey.

Usage note: I use “Gypsy” instead of “Romani” for the same reason that I refer to “Germans” and not “Deutsch”: because “Gypsy” is the proper English ethnonym. Romani is not an English word, and it doesn’t even translate to Gypsy–it means “people,” and you and I are people, too. In American parlance, “Gypsy” is neither an insult nor a slur, so I will not dance around like it is one.

Furthermore, I am opposed to ethnonymic creep; it is a very annoying part of my job here at this blog to try to figure out what group I am reading about if the name it goes by has changed over the course of years and I cannot track down reliable references. This recent trend of accelerated ethnonymic shift exists mainly to give intellectuals with lots of time on their hands to learn the latest terms something to feel superior about while confusing ordinary people, who are left wondering “Huh? Romani?”

Don’t worry; we here at EvX have enough ways of feeling superior without resorting to confusion–like semicolons.

Background: The Gypsies are a peripatetic ethnic group that left India about a thousand years ago and have since spread across the rest of the Indo-European world. They have traditionally filled the economic niche of traveling blacksmiths, tinsmiths, tinkerers, salesmen, and occasional chicken thieves. Interestingly, in places where the Gypsies never reached, like Ireland, an equivalent group of people emerged to fill the same economic niche–the Travellers–suggesting that this is a real economic niche that people needed filled, albeit minus the part about the chickens.

Globally, there are about 2-20 million Gypsies, with concentrations in the United States, Brazil, Romania, and Turkey. About 1 million Gypsies live in America, a population bigger than the Amish. It’s hard to find really good statistics on Gypsies because Gypsies don’t believe in keeping statistics, much less cooperating with government officials who seem intent on prying into their business and pinning them down. Note that because Gypsy communities are widely scattered across the globe and have not had, until recently, any good way of communicating with each other across great distances, what is true of one band or group may not be even remotely true of another group. Gypsies in one country may be settled, school-going city dwellers, while Gypsies in another country move about in caravans. Few sell horses these days (but many sell cars). Some speak the dominant local language; some speak a Gypsy variety. Some Gypsy languages are mutually intelligible; others are not. To say anything of Gypsies as a whole is probably wrong, so please forgive the limits of language.

Back in the Middle Ages, people didn’t mind the traditional Gypsy lifestyle too much, so long as chicken thefts were kept to a minimum. People needed tinkerers, and if the Gypsies didn’t send their children to school, well, neither did the locals. The traditional lifestyle clashes tremendously with the modern state, which wants people to stay put, carry ID, fill out their forms, pay taxes, and send their children to school. Stalin grounded the Gypsies of the Soviet Union (and stole their gold–not that they were rich to begin with, but you know, people can’t have anything nice in the Soviet Union) so the state could better control them. Gypsies in less coercive modern states have been less coercively encouraged to settle, to varying degrees of success.

My impression is that America has been less coercive toward its Gypsies, encouraging mandatory school attendance, but otherwise putting up with folks who feel like moving from town to town.

Traditional Gypsy law, as the authors note, exists separate from the regular laws of the state. The extent to which state law applies to them has varied over time, depending on how much the local officials wish to interfere. Where they are left to mostly manage their own affairs, we have a polylegal system:

Polylegal systems, systems in which different people in the same country were under different legal authorities, existed in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The status of Jewish communities in the diaspora, discussed in Chapter 4, is one example, the millet system of the Ottoman Empire another. It is possible that the fifteenth century Romani persuaded Sigismund that they were entitled to similar treatment.

Whether or not fifteenth century Romani obtained a grant of de jure judicial autonomy from a fifteenth century emperor, Romani communities through the centuries have been strikingly successful in maintaining de facto autonomy, staying below the radar of the official legal system while imposing their own rules on their own members.

I have long wondered why anyone would bother obeying two legal systems at once–why obey both American and Jewish law, for example? Obeying complicated restrictions is annoying, even difficult, so why don’t people just slowly default to following only one to make their lives simpler?

This chapter offers no solution, but Chapter 9 does. The Amish, of course, are a community whose lifestyle can only be maintained by adherence to Amish law, but Gypsy law does not guarantee a Gypsy lifestyle. But adhering to Gypsy law does mean that one is part of a Gypsy community (since the strongest punishment available in Gypsy law is getting kicked out of the community,) and Gypsies love their communities:

Part of the painfulness of being denied contact with one’s own people, whether to be in a jail, a hospital, or a job, is that of being alone. To be among a group of Rom [masculine singular declinsion of Romani] is the natural everyday context within which a person lives, learns, and expresses his personality; to be among a group of gaje [outsiders] is to be alone. Wherever he travels or lives, a Rom is rarely alone. More often he is surrounded by large numbers of relatives and friends.

Of course, whether one follows the law also depends on whether there are any better options elsewhere, and for much of history, Gypsies have not had much hope of joining a nearby community if they decided their band’s purity laws were overly burdensome.

The authors’ analysis of Gypsy law is based off accounts of two groups of Gypsies–the Kaale of Finaland and the Vlach Rom of California, circa 1970 (and thus out of date). Be careful of over-extending any of this to other Gypsy groups, and frankly, given the described delight the Gypsies took in deceiving their ethnographer back in the 70s, I wouldn’t assume it was completely accurate back then, either.

(Ethnographers are often deceived by people who think it’s funny or that the ethnographers are being way too nosy.)

Social Structure:

The basic unit [of the Vlach Rom] is the familia, a couple their adult sons, daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters and grandchildren. Above the familia is the vitsa, a larger kinship group descended from an ancestor some generations back. … Above the vitsa is the Natsiya, nation. The Vlach Rom are divided into four Natsiya

So family, extended family, and clan.

Marriage is by purchase, a payment from the family of the groom to the family of the bride. Payments are substantial, typically several thousand dollars as of 1970. While consent of bride and groom is required, it is up to a man’s parents to find him a wife and negotiate with her parents. The wife lives in her husband’s familia; in the early years of the marriage she is expected to do much of the work of the household.

Note that the family structure of the Kaale Gypsies of Finland is completely different.

The geographical unit above the Familia is the kumpania. The original meaning seems to have been an encampment, a group of households camping together. In the modern American context, it describes a unit such as the Romani settlement in Richmond. A Kumpania usually has  Rom Baro, a “Big Man,” who plays an important role in interactions with authorities such as the police and welfare department and among the Rom.

Here we see the difficulties of using an ethnonym from a foreign language–“Rom” means man (eg, Rom Baro = Big Man). You cannot play an important role in interactions among the man. You play a role among the men, plural. The plural of Rom is Roma. (The adjective is Romani. Romni is a woman.)

Anyway, in a move that clearly violates American anti-discrimination laws that the rest of us are required to follow, different kumpanias decide who gets to live there:

It may be a closed Kumpania, meaning that Romani families require permission to move in, likely to be based on vitsa membership and kinship to those already there, or it may be open. Restrictions on entry are typically enforced by the Rom Baro’s influence with local authorities. An unwelcome family can be reported to the police for crimes they id or didn’t commit, to the welfare department for violations that would otherwise go unreported. Restrictions on entry serve in part to protect current residents against competition in income-earning activities such as fortune telling.

Remember that this only works if you’re a Gypsy; if a white person tries to prevent people from entering their town or country in order to protect their job, they’re a dirty racist and deserve universal condemnation. Gypsies using the police to kick their neighbors out of their homes on false charges is totally fine, but you doing that is illegal and a sign that you are a terrible shit person.

Anyway, on to the laws:

Romania, the system of rules can be grouped into two categories. One consists of ordinary legal rules covering the obligations of Romani to each other, including extensive obligations of mutual help, especially but not exclusively between relatives. …

Obligations apply to fellow Rom not to outsiders, Gaje. … swindling or stealing from an outsider comes under Romania only to the extent that it creates problems for other Rom.

“Gaje” means outsiders; it can also be spelled “gadje.” The authors quote the source they are relying on for this amusing tidbit:

There is no word for all men and women. Human beings are either Roma or gadje.

When you use the term “Romani,” you are implicitly agreeing with this notion that Gypsies are people are you are not.

It is only a mild exaggeration to say that Romani view the non-Romani population not as part of their society but as part of their environment.

Do you ever get the impression that different people are held to different standards?

I was surprised the authors were this frank on the matter; usually people try to dance around and hide such attitudes, since they definitely reflect badly on the Gypsies.

Gypsy neighborhood in Belgrade, Serbia: So much purity!

The second category covered by Romania is an elaborate system of purity and pollution Orthodox Judaism on steroids.

I would not believe this had I not also read it elsewhere. Many Gypsies do in fact have complicated, annoying purity laws regarding washtubs, pregnant women, clothes, and body parts, but for some reason these laws don’t extend to the trash around their communities.


Because pollution is contagious and Gaje neither know nor follow the rules to prevent it, association with them is sharply limited. Vlach Rom in America [in the 70s, at least] if they have to eat in a non-Romani setting such as a restaurant, prefer paper plates; they may eat with their fingers instead of utensils for fear that the latter may be polluted.

Note: I guarantee you that there are Gypsies who love restaurants and use the silverware.

As for lying, the authors quote:

The Rom often lie to each other about everyday matters, but they almost always lie to the gaje. There is no particular shame attached to lying to each other… but to lie to the gaje is certainly correct and acceptable behavior…

When ‘caught out’ in this way [that is, caught in a lie] I never saw anyone show embarrassment. They enjoyed it when a good story was put over on them as much as they enjoyed putting one over on someone else.

There is a Gypsy court system called a kris, at which major decisions are made. The court may decide to ostracize someone or declare that certain behavior is good or bad; it may declare a punishment on one group of Gypsies that caused trouble for another group, etc. The functioning of the court is not terribly consistent over time and space, since Gypsy law is unwritten and based primarily on whatever the local elders think it is.

The pollution and ostracism rules provide the most effective means (besides calling the police) that Gypsies have of regulating each others’ behavior:

Ostracism is a way in which an embedded legal system, one that exists under the rule of a state with much greater resource of coercion than the community possesses, can function. Refusing to associate with someone is not illegal, so the marime [unclean] penalty can be enforced without coming into conflict with state law.

(Oh really? It’s not illegal to refuse to associate with someone? I’ll be sure to remember that next time I’m selling a house.)


Outside the family structure, the Romani are strikingly unwilling to engage in hierarchical relationships. Men who work together in groups do it as partners, not employer/employee. When Romani find it necessary to work for the gaje, picking crops for example, they do it as day labor not long-term employees.

Exit means you don’t have to put up with annoying people lording it over you.

On feuds:

A Romanichal who believes his rights to have been violated responds by demanding, with threats of violence, compensation. … As with any well-functioning feud system, while the incentive to obey the laws or norms is provided by the threat of private violence, actual violence is the exception rather than the rule.

Feud systems are not actually known for their lack of violence, but people are easily misled by an ethnographer who says something like, “Well, I never personally saw anyone get murdered, so the murder rate in this community must be much lower than the nation as a whole.”

Now, I’ve been a bit harsh, but I do think this case shines an interesting light on how legal systems developed in the first place, top up and bottom down. Every pre-state community had some kind of norms and rules in place to manage relationships, ease business transactions (even hunter-gatherers trade with each other), and manage food production/distribution. Farmers must determine who gets which plot and how to cooperate during planting and harvesting; hunters must split their catches effectively in an environment where meat cannot be stored because refrigeration has not yet been invented. There are religious rules, intended to keep the gods happy, and purity rules to avoid contamination and germs. There are the obligations of children and parents to each other, and matters of marriage and kinship to iron out.

(We discussed this back Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.)

People did all of these things for themselves long before states got in on the game, and state law has historically not interfered too much with local administration. Take marriage, which we now see as indelibly tied up in the legal system: in the 1700s, most marriages had nothing to do with the state. People were married because they said they were married, told their friends and neighbors they were married, and then moved in together and started having children. Today we call this a “common law marriage.” People will of course have big wedding parties if they can afford them, but most people throughout history were poor, and even still, these parties did not need to involve the state.

It is only recently, for tax (and insurance) purposes, that the state has started getting particularly nosy about who is married to whom, and suddenly people have developed this ridiculous notion that only Uncle Sam can determine who is and isn’t married, even though marriage has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years longer than the US has even existed.

It is natural that these local, tribal laws people developed thousands of years ago would only dictate behavior within the local tribe and not dictate obligations to people outside one’s tribe; after all, they’re different people in different tribes who are following their own laws. We only see the emergence of “universal” laws like “murder is bad whether you murder a kinsman or a stranger” within empires that rule over multiple ethnic groups (though Hammurabi’s code still declares some murders less bad according to the victim’s hierarchical status). Empires don’t care about people so much as they care about taxes, and empires can collect more taxes when people get along, conduct trade, and don’t have feuds with each other.

Which leads naturally to the question of whether national or polynational systems are better. Empires by their nature, are polynational–that is, they contain more than one ethnic group. One of the beliefs enshrined in early 20th century liberalism was the Self-Determination of all Nations–see Woodrow Wilson’s 13 points at the end of WWI. Self-determination was the idea that the interests of the Irish people would be best served by a government composed of Irish people, who would be disinclined to let their kinsmen die of famine. The interests of Poles would be best served by an independent Poland; the interests of Germans would be best served by all of the German people living in one country run by Germans.

Current liberal thinking, however, is that polynational (or multiethnic) systems are best, presumably due to the difficulties inherent in creating single-nation states when a population is not located in a single place or two populations are already mixed together. In a polynational state, if no single ethnic group can get the upper hand and thus become dominant, then the interests of different groups may balance and the state can effectively mediate between them.

In practice, both systems have their downsides.

A true nation-state enjoys the simplicity of being able to declare local laws state laws, and the difference between how I treat my co-ethnics and foreigners is simplified by a national border between us and them.

A polyethnic state has to find a way to mange different legal systems in different regions. Sometimes states give local communities significant leeway to conduct their own affairs, staying out of the way for most everything except tax collection; sometimes, as in the USSR, states decide to completely stamp out local systems and bring everyone under a unified system. In general, modern states are far more nimble (since the invention of communication and transportation technologies like telephones, video cameras, cars, and planes that make gathering information and extending power over long distances much easier,) than their predecessors, and so take a much deeper interest in their citizens’ everyday lives.

America is in the process of transitioning from a nation of nations–it was about 90% white in 1900, with the remnants of federalism still somewhat functioning–to a polynational state in which an increasingly invasive government does its best to make sure that whites adhere to the empire’s desire for universal laws and norms.

But enough about that; on to the Kaale, Finnish Gypsies who seem to have convinced an ethnographer that they don’t understand this concept of “marriage.”

The Kaale, the Finnish Romani, a small population isolated for centuries, carry the Vlach Rom attitude towards the lower half of the body even further than other Romani, refusing to openly admit the facts of human reproduction. They have no institution of marriage. Couples that wish to reproduce are expected to first leave their family households, flee far enough away so that the woman’s kin cannot find them and retrieve her, and return only when their child is weaned and so no longer requires a visible association with its mother. On returning, the father is expected to show the humility appropriate to one who has violated the norms of his society while the women of the mother’s generation smuggle mother and child into the household, where the child will be expected to treat all of the women of his mother’s generation as equally mothers.

No way this story started as a way to avoid explaining kinship structures to some nosy outsider who kept asking too many question.

Several obvious problems suggest themselves. First, the system is stupid. Second, it makes no sense. Third, the couple have to like each other enough to want to elope for a couple of years, find a new home, and go through pregnancy, birth, and weaning before returning, but afterward are apparently supposed to pretend like they don’t have a relationship?

Let us assume that the Kaale have a fertility rate above 1 child per woman: must a woman who already has a child disappear again for two or three years every time she or a man she is interested in wants to have sex? Do they simply not have sex anymore after the birth of their first child?

One result of the Kaale rejection of sexuality is to eliminate many of the taboos associated with it among other Romani groups. There can be no restrictions associated with menstruation since enforcing them would require recognition of the fact of menstruation, and similarly with pregnancy.

Oh…kay.  I can tell this book was written by men. Guys, there is no way for women to not recognize the “fact of menstruation.” Not recognizing the fact that you menstruate means dripping blood down your legs and onto the floor/chairs. Absolutely not going to happen. Just because some women didn’t want to talk to an anthropologist or other nosy outsider about their menses doesn’t mean they aren’t aware that it happens and have some sort of way of dealing with it.

In most societies, the restrictions/taboos surrounding menstruation have little to do with pregnancy (which is pretty removed in most people’s minds) and has everything to do with keeping the bloody mess contained, (which was much trickier before the invention of modern menstrual hygiene products like pads and tampons,) and I guarantee you the Kaale don’t want blood all over their chairs anymore than you do.

A Kalle woman living in the household of her or her partner’s kin conceals the fact of pregnancy until shortly before delivery …

Guys, have you ever seen a pregnant woman? Pregnancy is not something you can conceal.

Then there are some bits about feuding, which sound more likely to be true: dead bodies are easy to count.

For Kaale feud, the relevant unit is the household, not, as among the Romanichal, the individual. All households are considered peers and here exists no mechanism above the household for peacefully settling disputes. …

Conflict between individuals of different households, if sufficiently serious, leads to duels. … If death or serious injury does occur,t he result is a blood feud. … There is no equivalent of the court procedures or arbitrated settlements that terminated Icelandic feuds.

The authors speculate for a while on why the Vlach Rom and Kaale Gypsies are so different from each other. If you ask me, it’s probably because they’re different groups of people living in completely different environments about 10,000 miles apart. Yes, they were probably part of the same group hundreds of years ago, but they split (perhaps because they didn’t like each other’s rules in the first place,) and have been developing on their own ever since. There is nothing about Kaale life that differs from Vlach Rom life in a way that leads us to conclude, “Ah, therefore it makes sense for them to pretend reproduction doesn’t exist and settle their disputes via feuds instead of courts.”

Different groups are just… different.

California: Only Acceleration can fix this mess

Picture 20
Gratuitous bioluminescent jellyfish

Observation: Over time, legal systems tend to build up, bit by bit, until they become unworkable messes that hinder the creation and acquisition of basic necessities like jobs, housing, or justice. This is because it is easier to pass new laws than to repeal old laws; because there are always interest groups in favor of passing some new regulation in their favor, but rarely groups in favor of repealing them; and because it is generally difficult to look back over the many laws passed over many years to deal with changing conditions and think up and pass a better, more efficient law that unifies all of the things the previous laws were trying to address into one coherent package.

In other words, the second law of thermodynamics.

The middle class is now leaving CA at high rates because they can’t afford it, due primarily to housing costs, which are in turn driven by building/environmental regulations, rental regulations, and tax laws.

Notably, California has some laws that affect taxes on housing that only make one’s tax rate go up when a home is sold, so people who’ve lived in their homes for a long time pay much lower real estate taxes than people who recently bought homes, which makes people who’ve lived in their homes for a long time much less willing to sell and move to a new home because they don’t want a big jump in taxes, which keeps a lot of the housing stock off the market and means that young people trying to buy their first homes are paying a hugely disproportionate amount of the real estate taxes.

This wouldn’t be such a huge deal if Californian could just build more houses, but with so many regulations, that’s difficult, and on top of all that, California is one of the top destinations for newcomers to the US, who also want to live in houses and so are also competing for the limited stock.

So young middle class folks increasingly find that they simply cannot afford to live in California and are leaving.

This is migration driven entirely by artificial scarcity created through bad policies, since (other than maybe water) CA is resource-rich, land rich, and has great weather.

Since it is easier to add more laws on top of old than to repeal, there is very little hope of fixing things through legal reform. Laws exist in part because someone wants them or benefits from them, after all, and the system will keep limping along for as long as it can.

The other option, acceleration, is to simply speed up the process so the system breaks sooner rather than later, forcing people to deal with it rather than punt the problems to the next generation.

The Optimal Free Rider Problem

It occurred to me this morning that the optimal state of compliance with many programs is not 100%. Society is better off, in essence, with some free riders.

Take vaccines. Immunity is good. Herd immunity is good. Herd immunity in general goes up as vaccination rates go up, but by its very nature, herd immunity does not require 100% vaccination.

But vaccines also have side effects; there are people who, for medical reasons, probably shouldn’t have vaccines.

Let’s take measles, an unpleasant and highly contagious disease. A vaccination rate of 90-95% is required to achieve herd immunity against measles–let’s just play it safe and say 95%.

Since every vaccine (and medications generally) carries some risk of side effects, that last 5% of people is not necessarily any better off getting the vaccine than not getting it. In fact, if they can coast along on herd immunity without taking any of the risk of vaccine side effects, they are personally better off. From a herd standpoint, there’s no point in spending resources on unneeded vaccines, finding the last few non-compliant people, or killing people with compromised immune systems who can’t handle vaccination–beyond 95%, these activities may be lowering the herd’s collective health, not raising it.

Of course, this opens a Prisoners’ Dilemma-type situation: Everyone would like to enjoy more herd immunity with less personal risk of vaccine side effects (not to mention cost, inconvenience, etc), which means everyone has an incentive to defect, claim a medical exemption, and let everyone else take the jab for them.

If too many people start claiming exemptions, of course, herd immunity breaks down. People claiming religious, ethical, or “I just don’t want to have vaccines” exemptions aren’t really in the former category of people whose health would be actually harmed by vaccines. Some of them might still fit in that 5%, but beyond that, we have a problem.

Then society starts cracking down on the freeloaders. This leads to “policies,” procedures, gate keepers, and red tape. Now people who actually shouldn’t get vaccines have to go through a bunch of trouble to prove they aren’t freeloaders, and people are generally shamed for non-vaccination.

Parking spots are another case where a few freeloaders is probably optimal.

Most parking lots set aside a few spaces for the disabled, but most of the time, these spaces are not completely filled. There are usually a few empty spaces that could be optimally allocated to people in a special hurry, making deliveries, pregnant women, people nervous about crime at night, etc.

Of course, if more than one or two people cheat, then very quickly we don’t have any disabled parking spots, so there’s a lot of social pressure on people not to abuse the disabled parking.

Disabled assistance animals are also exceptions to a general rule. We usually declare that dogs and other animals aren’t allowed inside places like grocery stores and restaurants for hygienic reasons/other people’s allergies, but 100% compliance with the “no dogs” rule isn’t optimal. We make exceptions for seeing eye dogs because obviously everyone is better off with blind people being able to get around town and buy food. The general category of assistance animal has been expanded to include other useful abilities, like hearing dogs for the deaf and mobility for people in wheelchairs.

These are clear-cut cases, but the water becomes muddier when we enter the realm of psychiatric or emotional assistance animals. Does someone with PTSD who disappears under a car every time there’s a loud noise need an assist animal? What about a child with autism who will be much quieter and calmer on a plane if his dog is there? How about an anxious older woman who feels calmer with her cat?

At some point we run into the fact that most pet owners have a pet in the first place because it makes them happy. Many people would be happier or less anxious with their pet with them (or at least think they would). 

Allowing a broadened definition of self-declared assist animals leads quickly down a path to someone’s “emotional support pitbull” mauling a five year old at the airport:

The traumatic incident for the young girl is just one of numerous high-profile allegations of bad support-animal behavior at airports as airlines and the federal government have scrambled to respond to a growing pile of complaints, ranging from poor potty training to nasty bites.

The episodes have proliferated over the past two years, fueling a debate over how the animals should be regulated while traveling. In June 2017, a 70-pound emotional support dog bit a man in the face just as he sat down in his window seat on a Delta Air Lines flight departing Atlanta, leaving him with 28 stitches. In February 2018, another emotional support dog chomped at a little girl’s forehead on a Southwest Airlines flight departing Phoenix, leaving her with only a scrape but causing panic.

In Gabriella’s case, she had to undergo tear-duct surgery, leaving her with permanent scars, her attorney, Chad Stavley, told The Washington Post. The pit bull severed her tear duct and disfigured her upper lip, leaving a chunk of it missing, according to a graphic photo of her injuries provided by Stavley. …

All of these bad incidents amount to businesses and lawmakers cracking down on “support” animals and passing stricter laws about which ones qualify–in other words, people who have a legitimate need for real support animals get inconvenienced because of people taking advantage of the system.

Firefighting is another case where there’s probably an optimal number of free riders–not in the fighting of fires, but in the paying taxes to pay the firefighters. Suppose a system where everyone pays their taxes to the fire department and the department puts out all fires: good. But some people are poor and don’t have any money for taxes. Even if we don’t care about their houses, their neighbors do, and their neighbors don’t want fire jumping from their houses to the houses of taxpayers. It makes sense for the fire department to put out all of the fires, even of people who haven’t paid. But if people can get their fires put out without paying, there stops being any incentive to pay the fire tax, and soon the fire department can’t afford trucks.

These cases suggest an overall pattern: First, a rule that needs to be nearly universally followed. Second, a few legitimate exceptions that people generally recognize. Third, too many people taking advantage of the exceptions. Fourth, increased institutional/legal rigidity in an attempt to define just who exactly gets the exceptions.