The Metastasy of Wickedness

The basic operation of every society is maintaining its essential order – the order that makes it the society that it is – in the face of adversity. It is the work of tradition: of transferring to rising generations the essential order of their forefathers, amended at the margin, or accidentally, so as to cope with changes in the environment.

This interminable project of social reproduction requires practical wisdom. And practical wisdom is possible only to the virtuous man, and then only to the extent of his virtue. Societies live or die, then, depending upon their preponderant degree of virtue. This is just as true for societies of multi-celled organisms – i.e., for men themselves – as it is for societies of men. It is true for any social organism: for the family, for the tribe, clan or people, for the church, for the guild or business enterprise, for the town or for the nation.

Thus the basic task of social existence, the quotidian moral housekeeping that is the sine qua non of successful social life, is the attainment and maintenance of virtue. The first and most basic product of society then, is righteousness. All other economic production is founded upon it. Worldly success – survival, vigor, prosperity, strength – is the fruit of practical wisdom, of applied virtue. Prosperity, then, is a fairly good indication of virtue.

There are to be sure in this Fallen world many ways to get rich by wickedness. Thus the fact that a man is rich is no sure indication that he is mostly righteous. But even ill-gotten wealth, such as that of the thief or gangster, is the product of a kind of virtue – a corrupted and ill-directed excellence, yes, but an excellence nonetheless (the competition among gangsters is keen, and ruthless; only the best survive). Likewise for the wealth of the corrupt executive or politician. The excellence of these sorts of men lies in their ability to game the system: to exploit the niches created by defects of the social order.

Such men are always with us. And indeed, they are not altogether useless, or they would never have succeeded at what they do. The corrupt politician succeeds by pleasing his constituents and his customers; the thief succeeds by pleasing his fences with the goods he offers; the Mafioso succeeds by pleasing the customers of his drug distribution system. The social utility of such men derives quite directly from their gaming of the system. In effect, their exploitation of defects in the system design corrects for those defects, or at least compensates for them.[1] Their gaming activities are similar in some ways to arbitrage. Like the arbitrageur, the wicked exploiter restores some equilibrium or other, and compensates for a defect of society.[2]

Can the system be gamed? It will be. Indeed, it ought to be.

Sins are corrupted virtues. So long as society is so ordered as to promote or encourage or reward vice, there will be vice. The control of vice and the promotion of virtue therefore depends, not on the elimination of the vicious – who are, after all, only responding rationally (if amorally) to the vicious environment in which they find themselves, and who if eliminated will be replaced – but of the weakness and perversity of the system itself.

There is then ever a need for systemic social reform. And like the requirement that a society learn to adapt to changes in its environment, the need for social reform is permanent. The first is analogous to eating, the second to sleeping. The work of social reform is interminable, for most innovations fail – fail to work as intended, or even worsen the situation. Even with reforms that succeed at their ostensible goal, there is a very good probability that they will create new and unanticipated system defects in their own right, new niches for new sorts of viciousness.

Utopian idealists overlook this difficulty. The utopian temptation is to the notion that we can get everything right. The essence of conservatism lies in the recognition that we never ever will.

That social reform is a hazardous undertaking does not mean that we ought therefore to be afraid of it. Indeed, timorousness with respect to correction of social defects is a recipe for social death. To death, there is at any time no alternative but to try to do better. We ought therefore rather as reformers to be careful, prudent, deliberate, judicious, and sagacious. I.e., practically virtuous.

Above all, we must be honest. Social defects generally arise due to noise of some sort, somewhere in the system. Noise misleads people about the true state of affairs, and so distorts their judgements, impoverishing them. So long as it continues, it prevents them from learning: from correcting their understanding, and making the commensurate tiny marginal adjustments in their own lives that could repair those distortions of judgement, and stop the losses they generated. It is just such individual adjustments that, as integrated across the whole culture, can organically correct the systemic defects that produced the noise in the first place. If you want a prosperous, happy society, you need first a proper understanding of the weaknesses that prevent it. This is why humans spend so much time talking to each other about what is happening, and why, and what ought to be done about it.

Dishonesty, then, or lack of candor, cannot but increase the noise to signal ratio. It’s no good to pretend that a problem is not a problem (e.g., “Muslim immigration is just fine.”), or to present a bug as a feature (e.g., “homosexuality is natural and good.”). If the Emperor is naked, we are obliged to notice the fact, and inform each other about it. Likewise it’s no good to cry wolf about a problem that is not really there (e.g., “Not everyone is equally talented, beautiful, rich, prestigious, and famous: it’s not fair!”).

Unfortunately, even when our understanding of the source of a problem is accurate, our first impulse – whether amending our own habits, or those of our polis – is to force a correction in the outputs of the system, without correcting the distortion in the inputs that generated the loss of output value we have noticed as problematic. We treat the symptom, rather than the disease; so the treatment of symptoms generated by a chronic disease becomes itself chronic, along with its side effects, each of which calls out in turn for additional chronic compensations. Does the unregulated steam engine whirl about so fast that it flies apart? Our first thought is to install a brake that engages at a threshold RPM. But this eventually threatens to result in an explosion of the boiler, so some additional measure must be taken as well – perhaps stationing an operator at the engine, who can throttle it back before the brake engages. The operator must then be hired, trained, paid, supervised; and so forth.

Given the danger that any reform is likely to create new problems, what, then, ought to be the basic form of social reforms, the default option? This: the identification of the source of the noise that has led to a loss of value, and the correction of the defect in the signaling system. The basic question should be, “where are the feedback circuits broken or incomplete, and how may they be restored or completed without breaking other circuits?” An economist would characterize this procedure as the perfection of the market, as the correction of its failures – to identify the real costs that market signals are not properly accounting for, and to improve price discovery procedures so that they do. Returning to the analogy of the steam engine, the reduction of noise, or equivalently the increase in the information accounted for by the system, would recommend the installation of a governor, that would reduce the fuel supply automatically as RPM approached the critical threshold.

As things now stand, the people charged with the reformation of society – chiefly our legislators, but by extension everyone who participates in politics, from executives and bureaucrats to lobbyists and electors, both the regulators and the regulated, and especially the media – are rewarded for increasing the noise of our social system. Where there is a problem, especially of the sort caused by the brakes they have already installed, they are encouraged to apply further brakes to the brakes, and brakes to the brakes to the brakes, and so on ad infinitum. This is why our code of laws has metastasized, so that laws proliferate without let or hindrance, and so that they more and more pervade every aspect of our lives, no matter how humble.

The system design defect that generates this sort of runaway growth lies in the fact that there is no feedback from the success or failure of social policy to the formation thereof. The social costs of political imprudence and the social benefits of political prudence are likewise buffered, muddled, and masked. Put differently, vice is not discouraged efficaciously, nor is virtue reliably rewarded. Indeed, the basic feedback circuit of a democracy characterized by universal suffrage is positive, a vicious cycle: the electorate is strongly motivated to vote themselves more benefits and lower taxes, more liberty to act out with fewer limits or constraints, or costs, for doing so. The more people see they can get from the state, the more they vote to get from the state. Nothing signals to them that they are demanding too much, that they are eating cultural seed corn. In the circumstances, any other behavior on their part would be irrational. So the bankruptcy of the system – economic, moral, and intellectual – is hardwired in.

As that bankruptcy approaches, the universal franchise makes of every man a thief. By rewarding political imprudence, it vitiates prudence in every other domain of life. It forces every citizen into daily combat in a war of each social atom against all others. It rewards gluttony and penalizes discipline, deferral of gratification, and every sort of capital investment, from savings to charitable or familiar altruism. It reduces all social intercourse to a system of explicit economic exchange. It saps authority of all sorts, especially doctrinal or philosophical authority: no doctrine is permitted to gain sway over the immediate pushes and pulls of the next few minutes. Thus it renders any transcendence of perspective irrational (this is why they call us fundamentalists “crazy”).

Because in a demos of gluttons where all values are rapidly inflating it is sensible only to grab as much as one can get and immediately devour it, the universal franchise tends rapidly toward the destruction of love and the triumph of nihilism and despair. In the limit, it promotes a culture that seeks in each man the death of all others. Its apotheosis is the Culture of Death, in which living children – the future of the species – are killed on account of the short term costs they impose upon parents.

This is Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, writ nationally large, and deep as Hell.

But what if the current positive feedback circuit could be re-wired so that it was a negative feedback circuit, like that of the steam engine and its governor? What if the penalties for vicious and imprudent political decisions were immediate and severe, while the rewards for virtuous, prudent political decisions were both explicit and compelling?

I’ll address those questions in a subsequent post.


[1] Such men are generally uninterested in the systemic correction of the defects in the social system that have opened the economic niches from which they gain their livelihood. Indeed, their interests lie in the protection of their niches, and thus in the maintenance and proliferation of social defects. That interest in the increase of preponderant wickedness among their fellows (so as to expand the size of the markets into which they can sell) is the primary reason they are considered enemies of society, even though they are providing products and services that their customers value. An acquaintance who is a professional gambler in Las Vegas tells me that the Mob keeps prostitution illegal in that county (it is perfectly legal in most of the sparsely populated counties of Nevada) so that they can continue to control the industry in its densest market, thus keeping the prices and profit margins high where it matters most.

Likewise, the liberals who make a living on race-baiting or administering affirmative action programs have no interest in actually solving the problems to whose amelioration they have ostensibly committed their careers. Should a systemic amelioration arise organically – as tends to happen with adaptive cooperative systems with distributed intelligent control – they may be relied upon to move the goalposts.

[2] I leave the connection between wicked gaming of the system and Game to the reader. I’m not sure that they are the same sort of thing, but it might be interesting to think about. As there are wicked exploiters, so there are virtuous exploiters, such as the arbitrageur who is a fair trader. So are there likewise both wicked and righteous Gamers?

22 thoughts on “The Metastasy of Wickedness

  1. I leave the connection between wicked gaming of the system and Game to the reader.

    Someone like Roissy is definitely gaming the system using Game.

  2. PBS Newshour and BBC America, both news outlets funded by government, have cheerfully celebrated, as historic, the fact that a black athlete publicly announces his preferences in intimate behavior. How do we save our children against such odds?

    • Be honest with them about the evil you apprehend. There’s no need to shelter them from the horrors of Sodom – either of the Sodomitical sins, or of their wages. Indeed, just the opposite. The moral education of children these days is deferred far too long. It needn’t be. Children are wired to relish the idea that they are engaged with their parents in a titanic struggle of mythic proportions, and they on the side of the Good Guys. They are wired to thrill at the thought of adventure – real adventure, with real stakes. Look at any of the classic children’s books, from Treasure Island to A Wrinkle in Time. And they are quite comfortable with blood and guts; viz., Little Red Riding Hood.

      If you are honest with them about the horrors and dangers of the world, it will make them feel more safe and confident, not less.

    • I taught my son a full on course of my own making on sex and sexual immorality at 5. I felt he was ready, and in the few instances he’s had with actual sexual immorality, he’s done well. My daughter is 6 now and I feel she is ready for the talk. When I gave my son the talk (in actuality, it is an ongoing open dialogue that comes up all the time) we lived on a farm, so it was nice to be able to reference the farm animals mating for context.

      If you don’t indoctrinate your children, someone else will.

      • Earl,

        I would love to have an outline of that course. I need to talk to my children about this, and would deeply appreciate any guidelines you could offer.

  3. Such men are always with us. And indeed, they are not altogether useless, or they would never have succeeded at what they do.

    I’m not sure I agree. I’ll only quote the Theaetetus 176c-d:

    If, therefore, one meets a man who practices injustice and is blasphemous in his talk or in his life, the best thing for him by far is that one should never grant that there is any sort of ability about his unscrupulousness; such men are ready enough to glory in the reproach, and think that it means not that they are mere rubbish, cumbering the ground to no purpose, but that they have the kind of qualities that are necessary for survival in the community. We must therefore tell them the truth—that their very ignorance of their true state fixes them the more firmly therein. For they do not know what is the penalty of injustice, which is the last thing of which a man should be ignorant. It is not what they suppose—scourging and death—things which they may entirely evade in spite of their wrongdoing. It is a penalty from which there is no escape.

    • But Plato in the passage you quote is not talking about whether the wicked man is anywise excellent *in fact,* but rather about the best way to treat such a man. He is saying, in effect, “For the love of all that is Good, don’t tell an expert murderer that he is really excellent at killing people, or even that his crimes are horrific, because, his morals having been perverted, he will only take that as encouragement. Tell him instead that he is going to Hell, and that so long as he continues in his present course, there will be no escaping Hell.”

  4. I completely agree with your reading, but I agree even more with Plato’s sentiment, which is why I never use the word “intelligent” in reference to wicked men. For them I tend to use the word “clever” , like a trained seal. My disagreement was with your rhetoric, not your reasoning.

  5. Kristor,

    I am surprised to find you spouting such modern sentiments

    “So long as society is so ordered as to promote or encourage or reward vice, there will be vice”.
    NO. There was sin even in Eden.

    “And indeed, they are not altogether useless, or they would never have succeeded at what they do.”
    A thief has no social goodness altogether, even though he promotes lock-making industry.

    “The control of vice and the promotion of virtue therefore depends, not on the elimination of the vicious – who are, after all, only responding rationally (if amorally) to the vicious environment in which they find themselves, and who if eliminated will be replaced – but of the weakness and perversity of the system itself. ”

    Isn’t this what Progressives say?. The individuals are good but the system is bad and must be reformed. The the usage of the word “rationally” jars–you are using it in the sense of economists–a purely instrumental thing. A thief is never rational.

    • Bedarz, you aren’t making sense here.

      There was sin even in Eden.

      That there was sin even in a pure society does not mean that there is no sin in a perverted society. Indeed, that there can be sin even in Eden makes sin in a perverted society seem all the more likely. You make my argument.

      A thief has no social goodness.

      Really? None? He is no good at all to anyone? What about Jean Valjean?

      A thief is never rational.

      Really? The thieves are all wandering about gibbering and drooling like maniacs, with their flies open and their shoes on backwards? How on earth, then, do they ever get it together to steal anything?

      That a thing is deformed does not mean it is altogether evil. The zero of goodness is the zero of being. Even Satan retains the glory, power and intelligence of a seraph.

      As to whether I am saying something the Progressives say: no. The progressives say that what we do is not our responsibility at all, and that we are wholly the products of our environments. I am saying that while we are certainly influenced by our environments, we are responsible for what we do. Only thus could any of our acts be characterized as either good or evil.

      • A thief has no social goodness.

        Means that as a thief, a man has no goodness. That is, the essence of stealing is bad for the City. Surely, you would not disagree. Thus, the vices, even greed are not conducive to the good of the City even though they may lead to material growth, but inevitably the social bonds are weakened. And thus contra 18C economists private vices do not make for public good.

        “A thief is never rational.”
        Simply, it is not rational to steal. You have modern instrumental view of rationality. I take the view that being rational implies having correct premises.

        Your point may be recast as –Man is largely formed by his City. We see the acts but God sees the heart.

      • I think I see what you are getting at. The thievery of a man is bad, even though the man himself, qua man rather than qua thief, may not be all bad. Likewise, the thievery of a man, being inherently irrational, vitiates his rationality, even though he might be quite rational in many other respects. Agreed.

        Thus, the vices, even greed are not conducive to the good of the City even though they may lead to material growth, but inevitably the social bonds are weakened.

        Yes. This was a prominent secondary theme of the post. You are saying the same thing I did.

  6. But cleverness in human beings is an indication of intelligence, is it not? And doesn’t ‘such men are not altogether useless’ imply that they are mostly useless?

    • Intelligence means acting in accord with knowledge of transcendent realities; cleverness, as I use the word, refers to acting in accord with mere opinion gained through perception and inference. It is a qualitative not a quantitative difference.

  7. Plato in this passage, it seems to me, is mainly addressing what we moderns might call “white collar criminality,” as opposed to hard-core murderers and such. Like, say, a crafty politician gaming the system to (legally) steal from one group of people in order to service another group, with the primary motive of lining his own pockets. I’ll leave it to others to give examples. They are, of course, plentiful.

  8. Pingback: A Modest Proposal: Enclose the Commons | The Orthosphere

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