Measuring The Quality Of A Society

I can always tell when I’m in a bad neighborhood. I don’t have to witness crimes or even see another human being at all. The little things give it away. The first thing I notice about gas stations, for example, is whether or not the little support thingy has been removed from the pump’s trigger mechanism. You know, the one that lets you pump without holding the trigger yourself the whole time. If it’s been removed it means that people in the area are prone to use it as an excuse for not being able to pay for the gas they’ve already pumped into their cars.

Bars on the windows (businesses or residences) is a pretty overt one; it means that people tend to throw stuff through said windows and steal the stuff inside. And if you see signs on an establishment’s door that say, “No Personal Checks”, that means people tend to write bad checks there. You’ve probably also noticed that fast food places in bad areas often require you to ask for condiments. Why? Because they’re used to people coming in and stealing whatever’s out in the public area.

Here are some more examples:

  • The nicer the cars, the more liberties are given at dealerships. Free stuff in the common areas, more relaxed test driving rules, etc. Why? Because they know people buying those things are less likely to screw them over.

  • Counterfeit marking pens next to cash registers in the area. That means management has been losing so much money that they actually have to screen for fake money on every transaction.

  • Gas stations that you can’t go inside after a certain hour, and that require you to interract with the attendent through a small slit in a sheet of bulletproof glass.

To anyone who’s been around, all this stuff is pretty commonplace. There are good places and there are bad places — no big deal. And that’s what I thought too until I studied The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an experiment designed to observe how humans interact with each other with respect to either cooperation (mutual benefit) or selfishness at the other’s expense.

Here’s the way it works: each of two participants are asked if they want to cooperate with or defect from the other person with respect to sharing a sum of money. If they cooperate and the other person defects, they get only $1 dollar and the other person gets $4 dollars. If they defect and the other person does as well, they each get $2 dollars. But if both choose to cooperate they each get $3 dollars ($6 in total). That, by the way is the highest total sum of money. The others yield totals of only 4 and 5.

Mapping To The Real World

What’s interesting here is the issue of trust. As a participant in this experiment, you’re opening yourself up to be taken advantage of if you choose to cooperate. All the other person has to do is choose to be selfish and they’ll receive four times the reward that you do. To many people in our world who have been jaded by a painful reality, the “smart” decision is to defect. That way, the worst you can do is $2.

I find this fascinating because it maps directly to the issue with neighborhoods, and societal quality as a whole. People put bars on windows and start checking for counterfeit money when they don’t trust each other. Of course it’s a security issue, but we have to look at the root need for security. In the case of humans it’s usually a matter of protecting yourself from others. The bottom line is that the owners of these establishments believe that people out in their immediate vicinity are willing to take a human life for a few dollars. And they believe this for good reason.

Having been educated in the San Francisco Bay Area I’m quite versed in the liberal response to this type of statement. Namely, that these people are disadvantaged and therefore have no alternative to becoming defectors. They either become selfish or they die. They would further argue that being in the position to trust another human is something of a luxury.

I actually agree with all of that, but my point is simply that the presence of individuals, neighborhoods, countries, and cultures that subscribe to the defector mentality are incalculably harmful to human civilization. Regardless of the reasons, this is a reality that we face every day, whether at the gas station in Brooklyn or on a school playground in Mogadishu. Human systems that lack internal trust cannot function as a unit and are doomed to waste away in warfare while the enlightened pass them by. Our goal as humans should be to erradicate this defector way of life — or, to put it more pleasantly — to spread the cooperative alternative.

What We Can Do

Of course it’s easy to just say, “Let’s cooperate!”, but you have to start somewhere. And that somewhere is realizing how powerful trust is when given as a gift. It’s about being willing to open yourself up at the “stupidest” of times. To look across at the enemy and say, “I’m lowering my defenses. If you attack, I will die. If you want to find me, I’ll be over here making you a cup of tea. Please join me in conversation.”

And then really lowering your defenses. Offer cooperation after being screwed time after time — knowing that you’ve screwed them in the past, and that they’ve no reason to trust you. Trust them first. Take that step. This is the type of mentality that we need in order to move beyond the horrible offenses of the past.:

Related posts: