OpenBazaar is an open source project aiming to replace huge monopolies like Amazon and eBay by free p2p trades but I’m not part of the project. I am one of many enthusiasts who believe decentralization will have great social impacts all over the world. This article is not directly related to OpenBazaar as I will be discussing main topics in the first few articles and not OpenBazaar itself.
This article is not limited to any society or culture and is relevant to all countries around the world. Any reference to US, in particular, is due to the fact that other examples would be unfamiliar for most readers of this article.
If I were a ruler I would pass a law forcing students to study all my articles and those who failed to pass the exam would face criminal charges. I’m not a ruler and such a law doesn’t exist. Who decides what crime is? This article is about crime, the intersection of sociology, economics and political science (and many other things).
In my previous articles, I tried to study the social, political and economic characteristics of the decentralized world. You should be quite confused by now. And I tried to make things even more confusing by emphasizing on the difference between individualism and collectivism in my previous articles. In the decentralized world, individuals have maximum freedom in their social and economic lives with minimal regulations and severely limited local institutions for administrative tasks only. On the other hand (concentrate here) blockchain replaces the central authority with a community (in next articles I will talk about the decentralized world from the technological point of view more). So there is no vacuum of authority, but instead, individuals in power will be replaced with the community. So now those individuals with maximum freedom collectively form something bigger, a community. So economically decentralized world is all the way to the right. Socially, however, it’s quite left wing. This is impossible, pursue of self-interest of individuals can never be mixed with left-wing ideas regarding society, you might say. Then this article is for you.
During the 1970s and ’80s as new right rose to power in the US and UK, sociological theories regarding crime were considered to be theoretical and not practical. For instance, Marx suggested the total abolishment of the entire capitalist system. Reagan and Thatcher didn’t like the idea and so right realism emerged. Firstly it proposed pain-killer policy (sometimes called Zero Tolerance policy): Harshly punishing any crime without considering its underlying causes. Right realism theorists reject the idea that social issues such as poverty might cause crime (Thatcher in a pretty much anti-social statement had said “ there is no such thing as society” referring to the idea that society is nothing more than bunch of individuals) citing that the old are poor but not criminals (cool argument).
But that’s not all. Right realism also advocates the idea that education can be instrumental to underpin adherence to moral values. For instance, social control theory proposes that people’s “relationships, commitments, values, norms and beliefs encourage them not to break the law”. Right realism also emphasizes on the rational choice theory which says criminals commit a crime based on opportunity costs assessments and so iron fist of the justice system will increase the cost of crime and reduces the crime rate. What about left realism? When there is right realism there should be left realism in the opposite direction. It emphasizes on root causes of crime which of course for left wingers is poverty and relative deprivation. According to this approach, root causes can broadly be divided into two categories: structural: the political system which creates inequality (left is fine with gradual changes so no need for revolution) and non-structural: media for instance which promotes high standards of living and fuels the sense of deprivation in society. Regarding the first category Lea and Young pointed out something interesting: capitalism makes greater demands on worker leaving parents less opportunity to supervise the young (They used the argument in explanation for informal social control which I will discuss in more depth later in this article). Remember right’s anti-social approach to the concept of society? Left brings it into play. It proposes the organization of communities to pre-empt crime with minimal use of prison. Now we have right’s individualism vs left’s collectivism. What about the decentralized world? Now put aside crime and let’s focus on politics.
In societies where individuals pursue their self-interest, conflict of interests may occur among different individuals. And that is a major concern in political science. Any government should be able to handle that. What if pursue of the self-interest of someone as individual conflicts with the self-interest of the same person as a member of the society? What if political systems create and enhance such a conflict? Yes, I’m referring to Lea and Young’s argument about parenting. Political systems constantly create conflicts between individuals’ personal and social self-interest. They push people for more profit which leads to an increase in inequality, crime, less and less time for socializing and reinforcing social bonds. No socialists. Don’t jump to joy. Socialism which officially favours self-interest of the society over the self-interest of individuals merely reverses the problem. Crime is a misallocation of resources. The creativity and time which is devoted to a criminal act could be used to benefit the society. Economists argue that the pursue of self-interest of individuals corrects the misallocation of resources. Let’s say a society faces bread shortage. The more market agents will allocate more resources to bake more bread to earn more profit. All the actors involved are pursuing their self-interest and the problem of bread shortage is also solved as a result. But in social scenarios self-interest of individuals in today’s societies is paradoxical. If a bunch of youngsters make some sort of damage in streets. It serves the best interest of the society to stop them, to direct them toward beneficial activities. But let’s say people are busy earning more profit, unaware the inequality will make streets unsafer. They will then need to allocate more resources to combat the negative impact of that. They no longer merely compete with their peers but they are also running against themselves. Competing with themselves. Defeating themselves, knocking themselves out. So pursue of the self-interest which is the engine of the correction process is broken. Governments create this false loop and then it needs further allocation of resources to combat that.
Economists (most of them) will tell you that invisible hand in the market is a mechanism that self-interest of individuals corrects the misallocation of resources with no external intervention. What about societies? Is there any mechanism similar to the invisible hand in societies which, with minimal external intervention, corrects itself? Hint: I mentioned the name in Lea and Young section. That’s it. Informal social control. Disapproval of family when you dye your hair pink for instance.
Emile Durkheim argues that “society’s response to deviance clarifies moral bounds” and also “these reactions bring society together.” Both are very important in this discussion. Let’s start with the first one: moral boundaries. Back to the question of the beginning of the article, Who decides what crime is? You might be tempted to say governments codify moral boundaries of a society into law. That would be great if that was the case but simply it’s not. Governments codify moral boundaries and many other things into law. Governments very much have the power to blur the moral boundaries of a society. Especially where we consider the fact that crime is not limited to street crimes. Political crimes(corruption, censorship), crime by security(genocide, torture), economic crimes and social and cultural crimes are types of crimes which can be committed by states (McLaughlin). Now suppose a state which commits all those crimes passes a law which says consumption of alcohol is illegal. Previously, a large part of society would avoid drinking alcohol due to religious considerations, health, etc. But by making the activity illegal, the government attaches new meanings to the activity. Now that it has been banned drinking is also a political statement, a social protest. It is also an objection to that government. And it’s not limited to any particular country. In fact “great power and great crimes are inseparable.” ( Michalowski and Kramer) In other words concentration of power means great crimes.
One more example, Snowdon’s revelations is clearly against US law. US citizens, however, are divided whether the state’s definition of crime should be trusted. They themselves are the ones who committed a crime, some might argue. Consequently, when the moral boundaries of a society are blurred, its informal social control will be far less effective. (There is a similar concept in economics: Price confusion. Price is a pretty magical thing in the market. It encapsulates a whole lot of information about scarcity. When the price of something goes up it sends a signal to market actors that there is a shortage but if there is inflation price of everything goes up, market agents will get confused in short-term whether that is a signal for scarcity or something else.)
The second point Durkheim makes is social cohesion. “By reacting in similar ways to something that is considered to be not normative, we are affirming to each other that we are a ‘us’ and deviants (criminals in this article) are ‘them’.” This might be helpful in some cases but it diminishes criminals’ attachment to the rest of society and reduces its influence over them to correct their deviant acts. Let’s examine that from the political science point of view. One reason that two-party political systems exist is that when society needs to choose between so many different choices the stability of the system will be decreased. But besides that based on Duverger’s law, two parties are the natural result of a winner-take-all voting system. Countries like the US have only two major parties. Other countries like Germany have many more but eventually, some parties negotiate a coalition and form a government and other parties form an opposition. Which is again, Guess what, two party system. The only issue here is that the two-party political system is a myth. It doesn’t exist. There are two official parties plus a third party, those who believe they are not represented. Those who believe they are not part of the play. Those who don’t give a damn who the next law-makers will be. And the third party is a mess. No two individuals think the same way. No consensus whatsoever. Durkheim believes that the division of labour is so complex in modern societies that one craftsman has no idea what another craftsman does. And so people are so different in these societies. In contrast to traditional societies where everyone resembled each other and so reaching to consensus was far easier. This is true, Durkheim says. But he is not alarmed. He says those very different individuals need each other to survive more than any other time. He calls this organic solidarity. This could be true. But reaching to consensus is far more complicated in these societies and today’s political systems are designed to make things a million times worse. Winner-take-all two-party political systems were suitable in the 18th century when people were similar to each other not in the 21st century. This is now a major source of the division of society. It generates many “us vs them”. Trump supporters, for instance, and Clinton supporters couldn’t agree on a single issue in the 2016 election. I might disagree with my neighbour on topic A but our ideas regarding topic B might be much closer. In two-party systems I either agree with you on everything or disagree with you on everything. There is me and there are you and a clear line which separates us. And now bring the third party to the equation, a divided society, a chaos. That’s what you will get. In societies that people are so different political systems which fuel the divisions in the society are nothing short of poison.
In previous articles, I discussed the negative impact of central authorities on the market. In this article, I focused on different ways unsuitable social institutions can disrupt society. A cohesive society with clear moral boundaries protects itself against misallocation of resources for no other reason than its self-interest. Today’s political systems disrupt all 3.
And the last point about politics, again game theory: If 4 persons agree to clean a house and the fourth person is confident the other 3 persons will indeed do their tasks, he/she will be better off staying at home watching TV. If all of them have studied game theory then none might turn up to clean the house. How are you going to enforce agreements a politician will ask. In the next articles, I will discuss situations where political science cannot provide satisfactory outcomes in more depth. But very briefly there is a good reason why majority vote is 50% plus one vote. First of all, it ensures that the outcome of the decision-making process is unique. If the majority vote was 40% of the vote then candidate A and B could get 45% each and both would win which isn’t good. But secondly why only 50 per cent why not saying 100% of the population should agree on something instead of 50% plus one vote? It’s costly. The system might end up being unable to produce a single outcome. Now we have two options in social scenarios: A) government regulates everything and enforces every single agreement which means minimum use of society’s power. B) Use the maximum power of society with minimum regulations. So the question now is whether political science is the right tool to solve every social issue. We might have a much less costly tool at our disposal.
Having said that, society on its own can very much be a negative force too. And this is my observation as a former inmate. I was kept in Belmarsh for some weeks (around half of my sentence) which is a maximum security prison (due to sending emails, not threatening emails or anything like that). Belmarsh itself has different sections. I was kept in the non-violent section. Other inmates were still serious crime offenders but they weren’t violent. One of them who I shared a cell with was a large-scale drug dealer who I think got 15 years sentence. Another inmate in my cell was awaiting his trial for murder. One other inmate in our cell was a talkative young man who was convicted for armed rubbery waiting to be transferred to another prison in some other city close to his family. There were also other inmates I shared a cell with (as officers in Belmarsh used to relocated us every 3-4 days or so) who used to talk about their crimes in depth but I couldn’t understand a word of them. One of them believed he was there due to bad luck and was keep saying ‘that was my story’ and I was curious all the time what his story was. We were locked up most of the day but officers would unlock cells every day so we could take a shower, clean our cells or chat with other inmates (some inmates played billiard which was on the ground floor). The interesting thing for me was that I witnessed a few prisoners shouting at officers only once during my time at Belmarsh. Inmates were very careful not to do anything that would increase their sentences. They were eagerly looking forward to their release date. They weren’t indifference about spending more time in prison. They were law abiding individuals in the prison. But then the exact same people (most of them) would commit a new crime within 3 years of their release. What was wrong? Society came into play. They were eager to enter the society but would be pushed back into their cells by society. People in society sure act based on their self-interest but first they should have a clear understanding of what it is. And in complex modern societies, it’s not always so simple. Education, therefore, is central to any scenario that brings in the society. Imagine I say this: There are numerous small charities around the world working to combat the negative impacts of drugs. They work hard but they are not game changers. Now let’s change things a little bit. Let’s say those charities can legally sell drugs. They earn a profit. They employ the best resources to provide free services to their customers, be it medical care, consultancy, rehabilitation, etc. Since they are earning profit they can expand their services to the public, education for instance. Great now charities should sell drugs, earn a profit and spend parts of that for charity, you might say. As strange as it may look, this is exactly what I’m proposing. Let’s examine this in more depth. When charity is profitable best talents and most creative entrepreneurs compete with each other to provide the best service to their customers. They will make sure their customers will get the best medical treatment and consultation. They will provide the best social, physiological assistants they can and help them to overcome this disease (because the more successful they are the more customers they will have). They will knock out any anonymous street drug dealer in no time. Previously drug customers would need to pay a drug dealer some amount of money to buy drugs and then they had to spend some other amount of money for medication, consultation, etc. The money they paid to the drug dealer would enter the black market which in turn causes numerous other social economic problems( not mentioning the cost of policing and mass incarnation and all related social issues). Now drug customers pay only once. No money enters the black market. This might look crazy for the public, but which plan best serves the interest of the society, the current losing battle of drugs or this plan? Moral of the story: The most obvious and emotional solutions are not always the best ones. And education is the key to make informed decisions.
Back to politics (this is my last point about politics, did I say “the last point” the last time too?), There is a concept in economics called multiplier. The very similar effect also occurs regarding crimes. Any wrong decision politicians make multiplies the crime. When there are supply and demand in the drug market employing pain-killer policy will lead to the formation of unofficial markets. Actors in this market still need to compete with their peers (similar to any other market) but they do so through the barrel of guns and violence and not through improving the services they provide. The initial crime generates new crimes and at the end, the criminality is passed to next generations.
This article is much longer than what I thought it would be in the beginning. I started with the crime but then expanded that beyond just crimes. Sociologists will call ideas presented in this article as “armchair theories” which means I didn’t conduct a real-world experimentation so people could fill out questionnaires for instance so I could derive some conclusion based on them. That’s why I’m developing BitRump project which is all about examining ideas regarding the decentralized world in an online safe environment.
Let me finish this article by mentioning an incident which happened when I was in prison, the same time 2011 London riots began. An eastern Asian student was standing near where there was an unrest watching the scene. Some of the protesters approached him and beat him up (because adrenaline during these sort of protests is high) some other protesters approached him as if they wanted to help him, they stole their stuff and left. Unlucky for them a camera-person captured the scene. And you can guess what happened next. Officials shook hand with him and offered their full support. And I was watching the news from inside the prison. I realized when a camera is eventually on any of us ordinary people, we will have two options; shake hands with officials or change things.