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Transcript for Meta Politics - "Blockchain and Smart Contracts, George Floyd, Derek Chauvin, Chesa Boudin, the Great Firewall, and the Long Tail of Irrational Persecution"
Cactus finds himself in a perfect storm of long tails and uses it to document how extreme, emotionally compelling and viral cases - the long tail of irrationality - undermine legal systems.
In front of you sits a world computer: a public record of every single law in existence. In comes the evidence and out comes an unequivocal verdict - innocent or guilty. To many this may seem like the epitome of justice. Others see it as a dystopia lacking any sense of humanity. Both would attest to wanting the most out of justice. To understand the tension that this places on any government we have to delve into what people are seeking when they desire a system of laws. And the answer may tell us why China may just outlast the United States.
Hi, hi, welcome, welcome. This is Metapol with me, Cactus, demystifying politics, media and culture for all who seek a rational way out.
We start with the legal system that is very far from perfect in either direction. In fact, it's often influenced by moneyed and organized interests. This of course is the United States legal system. Although many still consider it to be among the best in the world. There's a strong case to this, when you're looking at the competition.
In this legal system sets the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer accused of having killed George Floyd. In this now infamous case, there are various defenses that he can use, including the “qualified immunity law”, which means that he has immunity from things that would otherwise be considered crimes as long as they fall under his duties as a police officer. The argument of course is whether he stepped over the line and applied excessive force, as well as whether that was ultimately responsible for Mr. Floyd's death. However, behind this trial sits the specter of public consequences, no matter what the ultimate charge there may be. Riots may be induced, even if Floyd is convicted. The same holds true for the cops that stood by not necessarily harming Floyd directly, but also failing to step in and help in all of these cases.
The public attention and the emotional impact of the various trials are going to weigh heavy on both the judge and the jury. After all, this is a well-known philosophical problem. And the conclusion that various court precedents have come to is that the letter of the law should be carried out regardless of the public consequences. However, when we take this to the natural axiomatic extension, we run into a clear problem.
Many problems cannot be simply solved with a clear, straightforward restriction. It's silly to think that lawmakers can predict every single combination of outcomes of violations and of exceptions that would lead into a particular verdict. That reflection, that case by case handling by the courts is a necessary evil. However, applying this letter of the law can often be in stark contrast to what the public actually believes in a representative democracy. What this usually means is that those representatives should then go and change the law afterwards. The public fallout from these individual cases can create heavy strains against the legal system itself and create problems for democracy.
That's because zero is a special number. Whether it be zero coronavirus cases, zero threats to your life or zero guilty people left off the hook. There is an appeal of certainty that is incredibly powerful in stirring up moral panics. And the idea that even just once the law would fail to prosecute something that people strongly believe to be a heinous crime has been something that's been a strong political compulsion for both the left and the right.
We saw this already with the reaction and violence, with regards to the lack of severe charges in the Breonna Taylor case. There's been a strong case made from both the left and the right that the thing that was fundamentally at fault was the law itself. The state of Kentucky where Brianna Taylor lived and was shot allowed for no knock warrants, a police procedure aimed to target those who may dispose of evidence, but often results in gunfire and violent exchanges. There has since been a strong bipartisan push to repeal these laws. As people now better understand some of the risks and consequences. Despite that political push after the fact though laws are almost never retroactive. There's a good reason for this. You don't want to punish people for laws that they don't know exist yet.
Once again, that appeal of certainty is the kicker. As we've talked about in many previous episodes, individual stories, freak accidents, extreme edge cases are often used as the justification for violence for oppression. And for other misuses of power, as we've also talked about before, as the population increases these anecdotes approach fiction, because the more people you have in a country or in the world, the less representative each of these individual stories will be of the average person. However, if you have these types of cases being broadcast to millions or hundreds of millions, in fact, Then the strain on the legal system will be amplified by that reach. Even if this truly is a freak accident and the laws should be changed afterwards. However, this takes the assumption that the law in question is unjust.
It forgets about the mirror case in which a just law can nonetheless have damaging impacts because of odd specificities. One of the points that I make most often on the show is that everything is a trade-off, there's going to be cost. There's going to be error if you seek any sort of generalization, and that's exactly what legal systems tend to do. There are people who will be over prosecuted and people who will be under prosecuted, even in the case of a just law. Now I'm not saying that that's what the previous case is dealing with. But a hypothetical case in the future could certainly create those strains on a functional legal system.
This inability to make trade-offs is exactly what's motivating the recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin. Boudin, essentially refuse to prosecute crimes, including violent crimes due to the presence of COVID-19 in prisons and the current situation. However many argue that this has actually amplified the rate of crime in San Francisco, which was already struggling and created a heavily dangerous environment for everyone else living there. That's why there have been efforts to recall him and force a new election, but by now you're probably wondering why all of these stories are arguments against the world computer model. Against the legal system that is deterministic after all that would solve a lot of these problems of inconsistency, right? That's a very rational take and one that I probably expect from most of my audience, but I think among walking out onto the street, And talking with a random person, particularly one who's in the partisan left or partisan, right. You'd quickly encounter that this is not a common belief whatsoever.
That's because the emotional compulsion of the long tail of events one's either used in favor of the left or in favor of the right often overpower the appeal to rationality. You can see this with various conspiracy theories or with various sensational news stories, many of which I've covered on the show. Many people work backwards from what they see as the consequences. If they see a grievous, emotionally compelling case, even if it is literally one in 330 million, they nonetheless feel an emotional compulsion. Against a given law or even against a given system. These are exactly the kinks that a political system is supposed to work out.
And if that power is taken away, if that arbitrary-ness is disappeared, then there'll actually be much greater pressure on the legal systems because that long tail of cases can't be, let go. Especially to legal scholars, what I'm saying will sound incredibly dangerous. However, this is already the status quo of what gets passed through systems of government carve-outs for specific cases, strange exceptions, and a refusal to take things to their logical extreme. These carve-outs shave off the long tail of emotional compulsion. It essentially defangs some of the cases that would be extremely powerful in manipulating the public, even if it allows a little bit of injustice, a little bit of inconsistency into a legal system. And this power is exactly what is missed by those who seek a perfectly rational world that ultimately is why there can't be this type of smart contract legal system.
And it's also a general failure of cryptocurrency. A quote from Balaji is that the dollar is backed by guns while Bitcoin is backed by math, but it turns out if the people choose Bitcoin, then the people with guns can do something else. Just like the long tail of injustice, there is a long tail of political systems, of the willingness to take extreme measures, including military measures in order to manipulate wealth and to manipulate currency, of course, Bitcoiners desire to take this power out of government. They desire to take away that top layer of monetary manipulation. There's a lot of positive reasons for this case.
However, if it is done carelessly, the consequences can be disastrous. Something that I've often failed to communicate to Bitcoin proponents is how much the strange concoction of hope and envy drive a political system. That's because the power law dynamic, in which the distribution of resources in a way that benefits those who can manipulate their current resources ends in extreme inequality is seen as highly unfavorable by the vast majority of people. Even if the overall productivity in this type of system leaves people better than they would otherwise. That is the force of envy and the force of relative comparison often outweighs the force of a material gain. These forces manifest often as a drive to violence or a drive to tribalism, depending on if you're on the left or on the right.
What this has led to historically is violent revolution, ransoming, and even societal collapse. Some of the drivers behind this include the authoritarian or securitarian personality in which people are more concerned about certainty and are more concerned about avoiding risk instead of about the overall growth and the overall potential of the society. There is ultimately a strong moral foundation, as you can see in Jonathan Haidt's work, for equality of outcome and for “inequalities” to be leveled regardless, once again of how many resources people have at the end, many would seek a more equal distribution, even if it would leave themselves with less off.
However, there's something I mentioned off the top of the section that I still haven't gotten to. That is the dynamic of hope because in a political system where that hope can be dangled in front of you, where you can have that uncertainty and you can have the potential for leveling without actual leveling, there's going to be a much lower risk of overall revolution. You can see this in the difference between authoritarian States and lowercase L liberal democratic States. While a society run on cryptocurrency may be more libertarian and actually less authoritarian by taking that power out of the government, by taking that power out of the existing political system, you remove that hope. And as we talked about before, zero is a special number. If there's an understanding that some of these actions, some of these redistribution airy mechanisms are completely out of the picture. Then much of the same societal consequences could also be expected.
Now this isn't to say that if cryptocurrency is implemented, this is an inevitability. However, when we're dealing with forces, as powerful as the rise and fall of society, these elements of human psychology are not ones to be ignored. I would love to run experiments in which we can test this phenomenon out. However, it's likely that if we fail once we won't get a second chance.
This dynamic of the long tail of injustice is something that the Chinese communist party understands incredibly well and is something that I believe has allowed it to get away with semi authoritarian rule for much longer than the Western consensus believed it would. That's because they recognized that they only needed to suppress the long tail of regime threatening events and that they could do this to the vast majority of the population without severe consequences, many call this model porous censorship in which information is generally blocked via discreet and quite ineffective means.
It's well-known in China that you can get past the vast majority of censorship mechanisms simply by getting a five or ten dollar VPN. Data shows that 80% of Chinese citizens don't even consider bypassing this route, even though it's fairly cheap and this small amount of effort, this small amount of filtration can actually effectively control much of the possibility for outrage. Now, I'm certainly not advocating for a top down censorship regime. However, there needs to be some type of innovation in social technology, in the procedures that we all use to go about in order to counteract this long tail of outrage in a democratic free way. Of course, some people will always be attracted to emotionally compelling events. Some of the various incentives involved with feeding this to people, even if it would be actively damaging to their psychology, including the ad model, including the subscriber model and including the pursuit of political power can be mitigated and can be put in different ways.
If we reframe the political and economic consequences, if we create a broader understanding that this manipulation is exactly what's being done, then there can be a social stigma cast on the willingness to manipulate people using these individual stories. Not only that, but there can be a decentralized effort and effort by individuals and small organizations to combat this, using their own resources, using their own forms of storytelling, in order to bring to light those problems that are truly threatening. There can be significant improvements to people's lives simply by changing some of these basic causes of death. For example, such as complications from obesity and opioid use, if there can be a reconnection made with the people who genuinely suffer from those problems, which are orders of magnitudes greater than those who suffer from the long tail of outrage, then there can be a push towards a better political and legal system.
So what did we learn in this episode that we didn't know before, really? This is just the exponential emotional error that I've talked about previously. I think what this episode accomplishes tying in these facets that we've seen grievously threaten the ability for Western societies to function, whether it be China, whether it be crypto or whether it be the Derek Chauvin trial, all of these show that things we've taken for granted do not function in the realm of exponential emotional error - things that we hold dear, or maybe that we don't even think are on the table can certainly be in the blink of an eye.
It's with that message that I, once again, ask you to help share the podcast. I'm sure that many people you'd know would directly benefit from understanding this effect. You can probably name them in your head right now. And so please not just for me, but for you and for them and for everyone else share the podcast.
And if you do that, thank you.