Private Policing I Find Disturbing

Some residents of New Brighton, Christchurch are sick of the police failing to control crime and have taken to patrolling the streets. I would be all for that were these guys not a bunch of white supremacists.

A “white pride” group, Right Wing Resistance (RWR), claims to be patrolling New Brighton streets that “the police and the system has all but given up on”.

The group, linked to North Island-based white power activist Kyle Chapman, says Christchurch is the centre of a “white pride” revival.

Films of their initiation ceremonies were listed on an internet site for “white nationalists” called WNTube.

A message board used by the group,, said the group was performing “crimewatch patrols” aimed at “cutting down on homie [American rap-style] vandalism and muggings that have become common on the east side of CHCH”.

“The police and the system in general has all but given up on the poor areas and it is left to us to sort this out now,” it said. (…)

Locals were getting very upset with youths, particularly Polynesian youths, standing over people and vandalising.” (…)

If a European youth was found vandalising property: “We’d probably say `Hey, what are you doing? That’s not really the white way’.” (…)

New Brighton Residents Association member George Aorangi Stanley said “boot boys” had been spotted “hanging around looking menacing”.

“I don’t know if you’d consider it patrolling. I just consider them as contributing to the tension.”

The group had correctly tapped into local concern about crime and safety, she said. “It’s the main topic of conversation at the [Residents Association] meetings.”

Aorangi Stanley said the association had discussed doing their own patrols – a “reclaim the night” action – to increase safety.

This is the kind of thing Eric Crampton and I worry about in our paper on meddlesome preferences in anarchy, recently discussed here and here. (New Brighton, by the way, is Eric’s neck of the woods – I wonder if he has noticed anything?) Without government to provide public or quasi-public goods like policing, private clubs will step in to fill the gap. Of course, not all private clubs are created equal and those most able to overcome collective action problems will become more common in anarchy (or, as we see here, dysfunctional government). Further, small groups with intense preferences will have more power relative to large groups with weak preferences in anarchy compared to democracy.

The economics of religion pioneered by Larry Iannaccone, another of the amazingly interesting economists at GMU, suggests that clubs which require costly signals of commitment to the group – often including the internalization of wacky beliefs and efforts to make oneself stigmatized by the outside world –  will be more successful. Iannaccone is interested in sects, but his logic also applies to secular gangs like skinheads. Costly signalling means that we can’t rely on the standard incentive arguments against bigotry being expressed through markets. Beating up Polynesian kids is costly, but if it works to signal one’s commitment to the group, the costliness is a feature rather than a bug. On average, then, high-commitment clubs will instill preferences which favour the violation of others’ rights more than low-commitment clubs. Since these small groups with intense have more say in anarchy (where willingness to pay largely determines outcomes)  than democracy (where the raw numbers supporting some policy largely determines outcomes) , anarchy produces the situation it is least able to handle. So, by the way, does democracy.

Now, if the skinheads in New Brighton really are making the streets safer (which I doubt), the benefits will be enjoyed by residents regardless of whether they join or not. The fact that the group can get a bunch of guys to produce a public good (even if it’s intimidation of Polynesian kids) indicates that they’ll also be pretty good at producing a whole lot of club goods only enjoyed by members. If the role of government decreases, then, the skinheads will attract more members and we should expect more racist violence in New Brighton.

I still favour anarchy, but I do think this is something to worry about. Fortunately, it’s also something that reasonable people can work towards avoiding. The community association conducting its own patrols will reduce the leverage the skinheads can get in the community. More generally, efforts to create non-bigoted groups to voluntarily produce public goods will fill the void sects emerge to fill.

Nazi Parents and the State

Janet Keeping writes in the Western Standard:

The Manitoba government is seeking permanent custody of a brother and sister already in care. What’s wrong with the parents? Media reports have mentioned possible drug and alcohol abuse. But if press coverage is accurate, the main issue is that the parents have been teaching their children to hate non-whites and how to act on that hatred. Apparently, the seven-year old not only believes people of colour are inferior and ought to die, but knows how to kill them. (…)

What then about children brought up in a household that is relentlessly and hatefully racist? The generally applicable standard for guardianship decisions is “best interests of the child”. Given that foster care is often inadequate, we can’t justify seizure of children unless their best interests will be so served. Is ethical abuse – the systematic inculcation of hatred – enough? Does it differ so greatly from refusal to educate? How do you function safely, let alone even remotely successfully, in our highly diverse society, if you are taught from day one that people of colour (or Jews, Aboriginal people, or other minority populations) deserve to die?

And what if it isn’t just hate as an attitude that is taught, but also the ways in which hate can be acted upon? The seven-year-old girl in the Manitoba case – if the reports are correct – told investigators she knew how to kill black people and proceeded to explain.

To remove children from such a home does not strike me as ideological tyranny. Given such extreme ethical abuse, we would be justified, I think, in trying to give the children involved a better chance at a decent future. And in my book, the hate alone, even without the teaching of murderous technique, could sometimes warrant removal.

Indoctrinating kids in this way is certainly extremely harmful to them, and in this case probably to others as well. As I’ve said before, though, I don’t think the state should intervene to prevent even very bad parenting. Government action should be based on simple rules which delimit the scope of legitimate intervention. In general, parents are best positioned and motivated to advance their child’s interests, and so I prefer a blanket rule of parental sovereignty. I’m going to bite the bullet and say the government should leave this girl with her awful, awful parents.

That’s not to say the rest of us shouldn’t do anything peaceful in order to discourage the parents and expose the child to different and more reasonable points of view. I’m all for voluntary action to socially pressure parents into being more reasonable. Altruistic punishment to enforce illiberal norms can be very bad, of course, but the fact that it’s decentralised probably makes it more robust to bigotry than a centralised decision-making body like the state. A liberal state with the power to intervene in the parent-child relationship might be able to prevent small scale Nazism from being passed down the generations, but those same powers make possible the eugenic horrors of state Nazism we saw last century.

419 Baiting, Altruistic Punishment, and Ideology

Al Roth at the excellent Market Design points out that 419 baiting is a form of altruistic punishment. Spending your own time and resources in order to waste the time and resources of email scam artists makes it less likely that they’ll bother the rest of us. 419 baiters are voluntarily contributing to a public good. This video of Nigerian scammers performing Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch in order to obtain a scholarship from a fake production company is perhaps the pinnacle of 419 baiting, but the wooden carving of a Commodore 64 keyboard has to be close.

Altruistic punishment is extremely important for libertarians, and particularly those in favour of a completely voluntary society. Many social problems can be solved through entirely contractual arrangements among only the affected parties. Some problems, though, cannot be solved in the marketplace. For the anarchist, this makes the non-market voluntary institutions of civil society, along with nonmarket individual action, vitally important. Many social problems will require altruistic punishment. Thankfully, humans seem to have evolved such a disposition.

I think the best example of a problem which needs to be solved through altruistic punishment is child abuse within a community. Say there’s an isolated cult which likes to torture to death one in five of its children to appease a bloodthirsty God, and will violently protect their territory from interference by outsiders. The children aren’t in any sort of situation to be able to contract their way out of such a cruel fate, since they have nothing to trade (to head off any complex contractual arrangements, suppose also that the present value of their expected lifetime earnings is less than the cult is willing to expend to prevent their escape). In a world of self-interested utility-maximisers, these children would be tortured to death. In a world of sufficiently motivated altruistic punishers, they may be saved. Altruistic punishment is a good thing for the liberal.

Altruistic punishment, though, also has its dark side. In a world where people react to homosexuality or drug-use as strongly as they do to child torture; child-tortue, homosexuality, and drug-use will prove equally difficult. To have a decent voluntary society, we need the people to be willing to punish child-torturers, but leave gays and drug-users alone. Beating up gays produces a public good wrt bigots, in the same way rescuing tortured children produces a public good wrt decent people. This is not a situation which depends on political institutions or structures, but ideology. Preferences always matter.

Seasteading will make inter-community altruistic punishment more difficult by increasing the costs of monitoring and enforcement. This will be good for those who like gay sex and cocaine, but bad for those worried about child-torture. Altruistic punishment can produce great good or great evil, depending on human motivations.  For any given realistic distribution of preferences, changes in the tendency to engage in altruistic punishment will have opposing effects on the freedom of people to use drugs, and of children not to be tortured. The only way for both drug-users and torure-victims to simultaneously become more free is for the ratio of anti-drug and anti-torture sentiment to reduce. As I’ve said before, this makes ideology a crucial part of a free society. Changing ideology is not easy, of course, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Governments and Seasteads

Eric makes a good point in the comments:

The problem with meddlesome preferences on seasteads would be that Iran can always afford to spend more on punishing a Theo Van Gogh than a seastead can spend on protecting him.

I think if we consider the long-term dynamics of a world with both seasteads and land-based states, the problem may be more general and more serious.

If folks are able to choose between living on a seastead or on land, I can imagine an adverse selection-type dynamic causing currently liberalish countries becoming something like big illiberal sects, willing and able to intervene in the affairs of libertarian seasteaders.

If seasteading proves to be more attractive to the liberal-minded, the liberal-minded will disproportionately leave land-based states and the preferences of the median voter will shift in a more meddlesome direction. This will leave the remaining moderately liberal landlubbers dissatisfied, prompting them to leave, and so on. If seasteading became sufficiently popular, this could continue until the median voter of land-based states is significantly more meddlesome than is the case today.

Governments already have the institutions supporting coercive taxation, regulation and conscription, and will thus have higher cooperative efficacy – ability to overcome collective action problems in the production of public goods such as national defence and (widely-desired) aggression. Governments would presumably retain the military resources they have today, will have the ability extract resources from citizens to produce more, and will have the desire to use them.

Liberal seasteads will have trouble defending against aggression by foreign governments, since they will generally be smaller and will be less capable of collectively producing defence against aggression.   

Seasteading and Sects

We should expect sects – cohesive groups which instil extreme preferences on their members in order to ensure commitment – to be more prevalent under anarchy than under a state. Eric Crampton and I make this argument here. From the abstract:

Using insights from the economics of religion, we argue that anarchy is more likely than democracy to produce small groups with intense meddlesome preferences. Absent government provision of public goods, voluntary groups will emerge to fill the gap. Strict religious groups – ‘sects’ – are more able to overcome collective action problems and will therefore be more prevalent in an anarchic society. These sects are apt to instil intense meddlesome preferences in their members and have the ability to enforce them: anarchy produces the situation to which it is most fragile.

Sect membership is often voluntary: members get valuable services from sects and may rationally choose to take on irrational beliefs to signal loyalty. According to Larry Iannaccone, sects are not the product of brainwashing but second-best solutions to collective action problems. Sects will erect barriers to exit to ensure the commitment of members. This reduces free-riding and increases the average contribution to public and quasi-public goods.

It is interesting to think about how this plays out under dynamic geography. I assume that the same problems of collective action will be present with market-chosen law on land or water. We should thus expect to see more sects emerge on the ocean than within the jurisdiction of land-based governments. While freedom of movement will usually be greater with dynamic geography, this may not always be the case. A seasteading sect may choose to isolate itself in the middle of the ocean, far away from any other seasteads. This will clearly increase the physical costs of relocation to a more liberal regime. Land-based sects often use social isolation as a means of increasing the cost of exit. An isolated seastead will be able to increase the cost of exit more effectively. The cost of relocation is partly under the control of the seastead, and must be treated endogenously.

Of course, many libertarians will argue that there is no problem here: people voluntarily join sects and accept the high cost of exit. Nobody’s rights are being violated. Maybe, if we are considering only a single-generation seastead. Once children are involved, things become more complicated. Unless we consider children to be mere chattels of their parents, having children born into an illiberal community with little chance of exit is a serious problem for libertarians.

Unlike some libertarians, I think severe indoctrination is akin to coercion.* If a parent teaches their child that the outside world is evil and the only way to avoid eternal suffering is to live a repressed life of servitude, they are preventing the child from becoming a full-fledged agent capable of genuine choice. To me, this is about as bad as physically forcing them to live the same life. This raises the distinction between thick and thin libertarianism. Further, the same factors will increase the potential for outright coercion. Those who wish to leave a community will be more subject to restraint when they are physically and socially isolated and can not easily rely on the help of liberal outsiders.

If law is chosen through the market there are incentives for sects to form. If sects have the option of colonizing the ocean, they will be able to more effectively erect barriers to exit. Seasteading may reduce inter-community illiberalism but increase some forms of intra-community illiberalism.

*I don’t think it actually is coercion, since I don’t think there is any true “inner” self whose preferences are being thwarted by psychological abuse.

How Sincere are Anti-abortionists?

I find this video [hat tip: Francois Tremblay] confusing. Anti-abortion protestors are asked whether abortion should be illegal, and answer in the affirmative. When asked what the punishment should be, however, most say they haven’t thought about it and will not endorse time in prison, or any punishment at all. 

In addition to having a strange conception of what “illegal” means, these people  have something morally very strange going on. At one level they think abortion is murder, yet at another level they clearly see that it’s not. It’s as if they happily see abortion as murder at an abstract level when there is little at stake, but back off once they start to think about the practical consequences of what they propose. They are only being asked about punishment, however, and so there is still nothing at stake. Seems plausible to me that the punishment question puts them in a consequentialist state of mind. 

In one sense, this is heartening for those with liberal values: people aren’t really that willing to impose penalties on women who have abortions. In another sense it’s very worrying: with an appropriately framed policy platform, a political candidate could gain popular support for banning abortion, punishment and all, even if few people actually support punishment. 

The degree to which I favour anarchism just increased by at least .1, though it’s still slightly below .5. A couple more videos like this could well push me over the edge.