Lawful Society Bias

I propose a new bias which presumes that most if not all of society can be made effectively lawful, and most if not all instances of a crime or undesirable behavior can be eliminated with enough legal action. Perhaps it’s a subcategory of another, as in circumstantial ad hominem, which is itself a subcategory of the genetic fallacy which is a subcategory of the fallacy of relevance/red herring. The actual uniqueness is not the point, nor does it reduce its benefit, because the benefit of distinct terms is speedy identification and the downside is trivial effort.

Let’s call this bias the Lawful Society bias, as a relative to the Just World bias.

Most biases are errors in weight, proportion, or estimation — false methodological views, basically. This is one of the few biases that isn’t really a *bias* in the way that most cognitive biases are biases.

There’s a rarer category that includes just views people seem disproportionately predisposed to regardless of culture or upbringing, unless the upbringing directly weeds out the bias. Just World Bias is the most famous. Classic examples include victim-blaming (“what did she do to deserve her sexual assault?”, “poor people are just lazy”) but less obvious examples include believing models and athletes must be stupid (so that their value will be balanced out), believing porn stars or promiscuous people must have STDs (so then you can feel better about having less sex), believing bullies must be insecure (plenty of bullies have fine self-esteem), believing that mean people will “get their punishment in the end” (Stalin killed millions and didn’t), and the general belief that people are born or exist with equal competencies.

If what follows this next colon is difficult to accept, you may have some Just World Bias: there are some people who utterly suck at everything. There exists someone, right now, who is hideous and fat and has a horrible personality and is awful at every skill they attempt and will die alone. (If you feel so bad for them you can have sex with them *right now*. You won’t.) Further, there is a man with 160 IQ and 350lb bench press who is 6’4″ and has an 8 inch penis (and can use it very well) and a model face and beautiful wife with a great personality (or maybe multiple girlfriends, but because he just felt like having them) and is funny and really fun to hang out with and great at whatever would piss you off, and totally will not suffer any really major life problems. He will die happy and lots of people will care.

Just World Bias is a belief bias. Naturalness bias one of these belief biases too: the view that natural things are just better, for some reason, i.e. by-default believing them to be more beneficial or less harmful than ‘unnatural’ things. (Synthetic insulin pretty much = real insulin, arsenic is natural, many fungi are fatal, etc.) Hank Green mentioned this in the SciShow episode on false anti-vaccine beliefs and sourced a study demonstrating the bias’s existence.

The Lawful Society bias is a bias because it tends to be a default view that people hold unconsciously; perhaps out of predisposition from human nature or perhaps out of upbringing, but regardless it’s so common that it probably functions as one.

How many instances of some thing do advocates of a law think they can stop, really? 80%? 70%. No. Even 70% is largely unrealistic. Not even 70% of murders can be stopped. You can determine how much criminals get away with a specific crime in several ways:

1. How much something happens that is likely to be the result of some crime vs. incentive to lie about crime (e.g. people have much less incentive to report armed robberies, so the vast majority of armed robberies probably actually happened; meanwhile, reporting something stolen when you just lost it can be beneficial in covering up a lie.)

2. Clearance rates (how many reported instances of a crime are solved)

You can look up clearance rates on the FBI’s website.


Here are some things you can infer from clearance rates:

* ~33% of homicides aren’t cleared. Meaning of known homicides, about 1/3 are successful. Someone shot your ass and got away with it, or whatever.

* there are enough missing people / suicides / fatal accidents that successful homicides ruled as a missing person or suicide or accident could bump up the successful homicide (non-cleared) rate to as high as 70%. (Jeanne Carriere, author of “The Rights of the Living Dead: Absent Persons in Civil Law”, estimates the number of death in absentia cases in the United States at between 60,000 and 100,000 as of 1990. Unintentional injury is the #1 cause of death for people aged 1-44, and suicide is #2 for ages 15-34, as per CDC data.)

* however, 70% is way too high. A lot of people just hate their lives. Lots of suicides are clearly that, lots of fatal injuries are clearly fuckups, and not all missing people go missing due to homicide. However, given that 33% is high enough as it is for known homicides, and more competent killers would not make their kills known at all (and would kill more), 50% is probably a good estimate for success rate of murder.

* this is, after all, only fractionally taking into account the competence of criminal, i.e. for a more competent criminal the success rate of murder could probably exceed 90%.

* to reinforce the above, let’s take data from a known hitman: Nate Craft confessed to killing 30 people personally, his gang totaled 80 as a group. The actual number could be much higher, since there is no incentive to admit to numbers you feel won’t influence your sentence — and while he’s spent something like 20 years in prison, that’s not necessarily due to his 30+ murders; he’s free today due to his utility to law enforcement. His success rate is at least 95%.

* the above is taking into consideration that Nate’s gang was not that methodical and didn’t go through intense efforts to conceal deaths. While they did study targets and learn their routines, he describes his work flippantly: “During his 1994 testimony against Best Friends, Craft said the gang kept a running list of the people it wanted to kill. “There was a whole big list of them,” he said. “Half the time I wasn’t paying too much attention to it. We would just go out and start popping people.”

* for people who have bought Powerball lottery tickets, let’s assume that killing people had zero competence factors and instead was a 50/50 shot. (It doesn’t; competence matters, but we’re assuming it doesn’t since the average person thinks “if you do illegal thing you will get caught.”) If this were true, you could successfully kill 20 people without getting caught and still have profoundly better odds than winning Powerball.

* in other words: lots of people get away with murder, and in fact some people do over 90% of the time. The belief that they will “eventually get caught” is not necessarily justified. Police can only do so much for enforcement.

Takeaway: you will never be truly safe in any society; if someone wants you dead, they can probably do it, and all you can do is take steps to protect yourself such as by arming your household.

But the above stats are for murder. Murder leaves a glaring hole in the lives of other people; there are a lot of people who will wonder where you went, and more pertinently, so will the government. After a certain amount of time the government *will* investigate since they have databases to track these things.

Likewise with robbery. A person who has been robbed probably knows they’ve been robbed. Unless you just have so much crap that you can’t keep up with it, you probably will know when someone took your TV. Taking a student’s laptop is a great way to see who isn’t above torture. Nearly everyone knows when their car is stolen because they rely on it daily.

But there are lots of crimes that just happen so much that there’s no… way… ever that you could track all of it, much less even stop it. And usually the stuff that happens the most is the stuff that appeals to some innate human tendency on top of being illegal.

Among stuff like this:

* illegal drug use
* sex before the age of consent
* persons under 18 taking nude photos of themselves
* illegal mp3 downloads

People are going to fuck and do things that lead to fucking. This is perhaps the most predictable human tendency because you would not exist if it weren’t. People are going to seek out fun things, and drugs + music are really fun, both of which can also be used to enhance sex. The more base of an impulse an action originates from, the dumber you are for restricting it or thinking you can restrict it.

These kinds of crimes are definitely more common than burglary or whatever, and they happen out of sight by police. A typical college party kid has probably seen hundreds of instances of illegal drug use before they find one instance where police caught and arrested the person using drugs illegally.

What would the success rate (i.e. use without prosecution) of this look like? 98%? 99%? 99.9? It’s very likely that you’ll be arguing over how much the “9” repeats.

Yet drug laws — and not just drug laws, but gun bans, soda bans, whatever — are made with some kind of view that you’ll just make a law and people will stop doing some thing, when in reality you’re cutting down on a fraction of a fraction of that thing and just making things tremendously inconvenient (a profound understatement) for other people who want that thing.

Even though people might know the law, it’s quite a different experience once you’ve actually seen the environments people go through to get some illegal thing — even mundane illegal things, like viagra. Not only is the usage far more common than you had imagined, but the enforcement mechanisms are just pointless and create inconveniences at best and unnecessary jailtime, if not outright murder (via gang violence and such) at worst. And this applies to any ban of anything — guns, sodas, sugary syrup, I don’t care — as long as a consumer wants it, they’ll find a way to get it and it will happen way more often than a typical person thinks it happens.

You can get amphetamine on the Darknet. Sure, if you have good health insurance, you can get Adderall from a psychiatrist. But not everyone has good health insurance. A majority of people have horrible health insurance. Meanwhile, mediocre but effective amphetamine from some country like Germany or the Netherlands is $100 for 10 grams at 45% purity and 50mg per dose. That’s 200 days worth; an Adderall prescription plus a psych evaluation plus followup can cost over $1,000. No one will argue that higher quality pharmaceuticals aren’t better; they’ll remind you that they can’t afford it.

But when a pretty white girl (as in missing white girl syndrome pretty) overdoses on amphetamine a law banning amphetamine outright seems like a good idea to laypeople. Innumerable bodybuilders killed themselves by failing to dose DNP properly, but when a pretty teen girl takes eight times the dose she was instructed it warrants an Interpol alert. People will read a headline and go into outrage mode and make comments like “why has no one done anything about this?!” or “there should be a law that stops people from getting this!”, not realizing DNP is a pesticide and banning this is like trying to ban bleach, but if bleach made you lose body fat really fast.

People who respond like that are using a Lawful Society bias. They want to believe that legal action via some crude ban will stop the outrageous story events in some real, major way, like a 10-20% reduction or more. They want to believe Megan’s Meth Law will avenge Megan’s death, and not just admit that Megan couldn’t follow dosing instructions, or that an effective dose of 5-10mg methamphetamine is rather harmless for literate adults. (See Figure 1.) In all scenarios like this you’re fighting over a fraction of a fraction of a percent. Her law won’t do anything. It’s holding the blanket over your eyes when you see a roach; the roach is still there.

But if you think drugs is the worst case of this bias, there actually was a campaign to ban knives.

This is the sort of thing that would only happen in a small island country like the UK, because only a small island country would extrapolate that hard from their previous bans. Australia bans guns and gun massacres go down. Massacres still happen, just with less bodies. The “still happens” part is the point here — they never won’t — but more importantly I need to stress that island countries have unique import control that all other countries don’t. Australia has some of the strictest customs in the world. You can do a lot when planes and boats are the only way to deliver a package. You can’t tunnel or catapult or drone or riverboat or wax jesus statue your drugs in. This might stop large pieces of metal, but it certainly doesn’t stop people who want to gain muscle faster from importing (or even synthesizing) a fundamental hormone that your body makes on its own, nor does it stop people who are determined enough from making an AK-47 out of a shovel, and this will become even less necessary when 3D printed guns become really good, which is also inevitable without banning 3D printers, which also will not happen.

If someone wants to kill a lot of people and doesn’t care if they die, it’ll happen. This doesn’t mean “you can’t reduce fatalities”, this means “you definitely can’t reduce all fatalities and should shoot for a realistic percent of them.” All you can do is try to lower the total number of fatalities and hope that the killers aren’t that smart.

The UK knife-surrender campaign didn’t outright call for knives to be banned, but it hinted at the idea every chance it got. The slogan was to “save a life, surrender your knife.” I’m not for a second going to pretend these people would have suddenly said “no, that’s too far” had the option to ban knives by law been a real possibility.

I thought it was fake. It’s not. The case for it is even worse. One of the more outrageously bullshit lines from the article was this:

* “They consulted 10 top chefs from around the UK, and found such knives have little practical value in the kitchen.”

I know a lot of chefs, who themselves know far more chefs than I do, and the extent to which they think this is wrong is about what would happen if you asked programmers “do you need the spacebar?” — sure, you could copy+paste a space I guess. You don’t *need* it in the way you need oxygen. But for programming it’s close. And what happened here, most likely, is a journalist asked “could you accomplish this with some other less dangerous knife” to which they say “well, yes, but…” — and in the midst of saying how this is a misleading thing to say, the journalist stops listening because they’ve got what they wanted to hear to market their cause.

There are many videos on how to make knives.  The take home from this is that after a certain point, the process of making a thing that can kill people is so easy that it outpaces the speed you can ban things. Human physiology is forever vulnerable. All it takes is falling a single story from the right position. All of us will die eventually, but while you are alive you will never have complete safety from death. This is an illusion – or delusion – brought about by being naive.

No matter how much you try to criminalize or ban or otherwise restrict some thing, it will not wipe out whatever the action using that thing. This is a human reality.

Here in Texas, a mom recently shot and killed her two children. Nothing, without seriously restricting the rights of basically everyone, could have prevented her from killing her children if she really wanted to.

If you’ve watched the third Matrix movie, great. If not, this is a spoiler, but I doubt you care:

The Architect of the Matrix tells Neo that the universe where this conversation takes place is but one iteration among many the Architect has run through, and scenarios of a reality where Neo does some different thing but ends up with the same result happen every time. Of course, Neo doesn’t end up with the same result because this is a movie, but that’s not the point.

In all scenarios you’d run of this woman’s life, if all that changed was the law about what she could legally own, she’d have still killed people. Maybe there’s one or two realities where she saves Zion like Neo, but your kill rate would be enormous anyway. You could erase gunpowder from human history and this woman still would have killed her kids a majority of the time. Past a certain point there is no way you can effectively stop people from killing other people if they want to without stopping all human decision-making.

There are far, far too many ways to end functioning of the human body — aka kill people. Our physiology is too easily overridden. Not just easy, but beat-the-first-level-of-Mario easy. If you can do that, you can probably kill someone. Trying to stop a person like this from killing people is like trying to stop someone from going to a website by disabling it from their bookmarks bar. Do you think that’d actually stop you? Or really, anyone? I doubt it.

In other scenarios it’d be a knife or poison or an ice pick or a hammer or a metal bat or piano wire or rope or a shiv made out of toilet paper. As long as human physiology is what it is and as long as people can make decisions there will be killing. Killing has been the norm for most of human history. In fact, if you truly confronted what was the norm for most of history, most people would be horrified and unable to adjust to the reality. I wrote more about that, but keep in mind before you click that link that the event and implications are disturbing. (As in actually, not as in teenager hyperbole.)

Killing will happen at the very least to resource competition (as it has for most of history) but also due to a variety of other reasons; hatred, anger, jealousy, defense against perceived but not actual threat, greed, religious ideology, or even just because you’re bored. No law would have prevented this crime without massively infringing on the rights and quality of life of other people. This sort of thing is a glitch in humanity that will always occur every 5,000 or 10,000 people or so.

No law will stop behavior. It’s doubtful it will even stop most of a behavior. It will stop some percentage of behavior.

I cannot emphasize that enough: when you make a law, you are saying it will stop a percentage of behavior. You are not arguing over whether it will stop something entirely (because that is impossible) but how much of something it will stop. To even begin to have a rational discussion about a law’s effects you to need to put forth estimates of what percent you expect to be reduced.

5%? 10%? 1%?

Imagine if someone had proposed the drug war and said “I think 1% of cocaine use will drop.” Do you think that would have worked? I don’t.

Weeding out this bias is especially important in a society where people vote, because all policies are behavioral estimations. By voting for the establishment of a law you are probably making a behavioral claim that this law will do what it says it does. This can be empirically measured; not as accurately as we’d like, but to some useful degrees, which is better than the typical estimation of a ban’s effectiveness 100% of the time.

All of the bans that became enormous failures happened due to a Lawful Society bias — the false, yet seemingly ingrained notion that we can have some lawful society where laws just determine behavior and people follow them. A law banning X means 100% reduction of X. A law restricting Y means everyone says what the law specifies about Y.

We can’t. Everything you’ve just read should demonstrate as much. It’s categorically not ever happening because it’s not possible. Not like a movie where our hero goes “so you’re saying there’s a 1 in a million chance, well I’ll take it” and that one chance is the chance that wins. I mean actually impossible. As in you will lose, in every possible world. Stop thinking you can stop people who really want to break the law from breaking the law. You can’t. You will lose, a lot, endlessly, forever and even after that.

Until you rid your thought of this bias, you can’t claim to be rational or justified. Estimate the actual reduction you expect your law to have, and go from there.

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