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Culture War Roundup for the week of March 4, 2024

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Disincentivizing low-level antisocial behavior

There's a recent reddit post about someone, who contextually sounds like a woman in her 20s or 30s, living in an apartment complex and paying for a reserved parking spot. According to her, some guy has repeated parked his car in her spot, and she finally wrote a polite note and tucked under the wipers asking him to not park in the reserved spot. Minutes later, when she's inside her unit, the guy comes to her door and beats and kicks on it, and then leaves a note that says don't touch his car.

I'm sure billions such peccadillos take place every day around the world. I'd guess 95+% of these don't amount to anything consequential, and only result in hurt feelings, and that in turn explains to a large extent why they keep on happening, because it's unserious enough to amount to any consequences. People respond to incentives, and if you don't disincentivize peccadillos, well, they keep multiplying.

In this specific case, the reddit thread mostly has people suggesting she call the apartment complex to tow the car next time this happens, and to file a complaint so there is a record of potential violence and intimidation. Another upvoted comment says to put up a camera near her car so she'd know if he retaliates, maybe by keying her car or something.

Here's the thing, all this sounds like a major headache for the poor woman. It sounds like a major headache for a man who has a life he values, too. Most apartment complex reserved spots merely mean convenience, and if yours is stolen, you can just park in an unreserved spot and walk a few more feet. Inconvenient, and perhaps infuriating, but if the alternative is stressing over an angry man beating on your door or keying your car, I mean, is it really rational to stand your ground? If she were my daughter, I think my system-level advice would be to try to escape that environment entirely, which might mean moving to a safer city/town, or paying more to go to a higher end apartment complex, etc.

There was a post high up on reddit featuring a clip from Jack Reacher season 2's opening, where a man deduces that a woman in front of him at the ATM is being held hostage by a carjacker. For extra morality simplification in case the audience is thinking too hard, her kid is in the car too. The hero then walks over, smashes the window, and beats the shit out of the carjacker. Very cathartic, and the reddit post is titled as something like this is every guy's fantasy.

Well, this is very dramatic, but I'd rather wish more lower-level heroics took place. Instead of beating up a carjacker to save a child, can we have a hero who beats on the door of the reserved parking spot thief and leave a note that says to never intimidate the poor woman ever again?

My point is this: society has systems in place to disincentivize felonies, and to a lesser extent, misdemeanors. We don't end up with too many serial killers because it's so egregious. We suffer misdemeanors, especially in blue cities, because it's tolerable. We breathe in peccadillos because no one can be bothered to do anything about it. And that seems incredibly inefficient and unjust.

Because it's almost never worth it to be the hero to enforce low level rule breakers. Ah, some "teens" are acting obnoxious on public transit? What are you gonna do, speak up? What if they stab you? What if some activist records you, edits the video to make you seem suspect, and gets you fired? In what universe can the rational incentives ever be right for an individual who's not a superhero to intervene? The problem is that once everyone acts rationally, the low level rule breakers take over public spaces, and everyone is worse off. And the victims won't be the upper class or middle class intellectuals, but working class women, children, seniors, and any man who doesn't want to escalate at every turn, and also can't afford to pay to leave the failed environment.

The formal legal system is useless here. The guy's sticky note on the poor woman doesn't directly threaten violence. But she's now strongly disincentivized to escalate because there is an implication of retaliation. All the guy has to do is to come across as a little unhinged, and a little willing to throw his life away, and every rational man or woman backs off, and rightly so. This strategy works brilliantly in a society that's just safe enough--if the apartment is known to have multiple unhinged individuals, each unhinged individual may think twice about beating on the wrong door. But if everyone else is a law abiding citizen, well, it's free real estate!

How are you supposed to prosecute this? Cops and DAs have bigger fish to fry, and most apartment complexes aren't typically managed by brilliant problem solvers who go out of their way to attend to residents' needs. All I can do is to send thoughts and prayers to the poor lady.

I can think of three divergent environments that manage this problem.

  1. Chinese surveillance / social credit state. Use technology and broad public support to directly manage against low level offenses.
  2. Japanese homogeneity. Stop outsiders and troublemakers from entering society. Then in this cohesive society, everyone pitches in to punish low level offenses without the additional complication of being accused of discrimination.
  3. Semi-failed state where the stakes are high for low level offenders themselves. Some guy parks in your spot? Shoot up his car windows. No legal consequence will come because that's considered a misdemeanor here. Perhaps things escalate, but perhaps not, but at least he won't park in your spot again.

Surely a rich society has a fourth option?

Because it's almost never worth it to be the hero to enforce low level rule breakers. Ah, some "teens" are acting obnoxious on public transit? What are you gonna do, speak up? What if they stab you? What if some activist records you, edits the video to make you seem suspect, and gets you fired? In what universe can the rational incentives ever be right for an individual who's not a superhero to intervene? The problem is that once everyone acts rationally, the low level rule breakers take over public spaces, and everyone is worse off.

You touch on the answer just below this, but it's a cousin phenomenon to Rob Henderson's luxury beliefs: social policies that are harmless in high-IQ high-SES bubbles but disastrous when broadcast to wider society. Our elite-set public morality frowns on small rule enforcement. For those with six figure incomes and degrees from top forty universities, chances are you do antisocial things so rarely, and your peers do antisocial things so rarely, that whenever someone confronts someone about a small rule, the confronter is a petty tyrant looking for an excuse to hurt others. The enforcer of small rules becomes a much hated figure — a Mrs. Dubose yelling at children for saying 'hey' rather than 'good afternoon' or a Mr. Neck pulling rank on free-thinking kids he doesn't like, bigot that he is. To the high-IQ high-SES bubble theatre kid who grows up to write popular media, such small-minded harassment is what 'rule enforcement' is.

Shuttled from private school to Harvard to cushy marketing gigs, they never experience the zoo that unregulated low-IQ low-SES spaces become. A few might donate a year to Teach For America, and then tell horror stories to their friends, only to shut up when they sense their 'friends' don't approve of this line of thinking.

A year or two ago there was an execrable ad on TV about a black young woman paying for college by running a beauty salon in a library. She clacks nails on a desk, and the furious, nasty-looking (and, of course, white) librarian hisses SHHHH at her. A reaction shot, if I recall, shows library patrons recoiling in disapproval at this fascist imposition on a girlboss running her business. The librarian is depicted as pure villain.

Break this down. The ad takes place in a library, a space specifically delineated for quiet study. Distraction-free is the rule. The librarian is an authority figure; she has prerogative to enforce rules, and is enforcing one that benefits every library patron except our young entrepreneur. And she's "bad" because... why, exactly? Because she's enforcing small rules. That's it.

High-IQ high-SES bubbles, where members have been filtered for agreeability and conscientiousness since birth, function without the librarian. Other spaces cannot. But the people in those bubbles set the tone at the top, and they teach proper (read: destructive) values of permissiveness to the lower orders. Thus the world we see around us.

High conscientiousness bubbles don't need a low level bossman. Highly religious communities and certain firearms-centered communities do quite well with minimal lower management, despite being broadly average in IQ and SES, because they're high in conscientiousness.

The trouble is we have a major ideological tendency which objects to the concept of conscientiousness and labels it as "whiteness", and other ideological tendencies which think that's ridiculous but do nothing to promote conscientiousness per se.