Trust and Crime

The following framework for thinking about crime, or the breakdown of trust, is excellent:

“Trust is what stands between individual actors and defection (as in the Prisoners’ Dilemma game); between civilisation and anarchy. Trust relates to the risks we must take and the relationships we must establish and maintain to promote sufficiently high rates of cooperation and low rates of defection or cheating for the society to hold together, whether a cycling club or the Roman Empire. Trust can be intimate – as within families – or impersonal, as where I trust the new contractor servicing my gas heating because I trust the certification and monitoring system that causes him to respect safety standards.

The issues to which trust, cooperation and defection pertain are defined as societal dilemmas, pitting actors in conflicting, competing or collaborating relationships. These are often ‘wicked’ issues, and many universal (like the Tragedy of the Commons). Well thought-out examples pepper the book, from price-setting/fixing among sandwich makers or industrial cartels, to bank misbehaviour, overfishing, military desertion, littering, adultery and volume crimes like burglary. These are neatly and consistently presented as tables which (adapted from p131):

  • Identify the dilemma (e.g. Doping in professional sports)

  • Identify the society (All the athletes in the sport)

  • Identify the group interest (A safe and fair sport) and group norm (Don’t take performance-enhancing drugs)

  • Identify the competing interest (Winning and making money) and corresponding defection (Take performance-enhancing drugs)

The analysis continues by describing the trust mechanisms available to the society in question to encourage people and corporations to act in the wider group interest. These come under four categories comprising the fundamental and universal ways whereby societies hold themselves together. The example continues:

  • Moral (e.g. guilt at not winning fair-and-square; shame at failing as role model)

  • Reputational (e.g. keep fans and commercial advertising opportunities by maintaining reputation of a fair player)

  • Institutional (e.g. civil or criminal bans on performance-enhancing drugs)

  • Security (e.g. testing for specific drugs)

The Institutional approach lies at the heart of defining certain behaviours in response to certain societal dilemmas, as  criminal  rather than merely defecting.”

That’s from a book review  of amusingly titled: “Liars and Outliers.”    I guess i’ll need to read the book now; because that applies to a lot of situations.

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