Short Story: Perfect Justice

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about the idea of “Rationalia”, a country run on scientific principles. I put forward various argument about why this was a terrible idea: that science would be politicized, that science is a moving target and that morals matter in constructing a society as much as facts do.

When I wrote it, I mentioned a short story connected with it. They story was written but I didn’t like it. It was choppy, blunt and crude. Eventually, I rewrote it an epistolary, which I hope you will find enjoyable. It is now here or on the link to pages to your right. If you want to avoid spoilers, go ahead and read it then come back.

What stimulated the publication was this article at Reason, which looked at the idea of a society run by algorithms. I am very skeptical of this idea, since algorithms are not magics spells; they reflect the thoughts and beliefs and biases of their programmers. So a society run by algorithms is still a society run by humans. Just more so.

But in reading through that analysis, I found out that the story I’d written had already been done. The novel Gnomon is apparently based on the idea of a society creating a “perfect” police force guided by an overwhelming surveillance state and the problems that flow from it.

For a while, I was just going to toss the story in the rubbish bin. But I hate throwing things away and there is one aspect of the story I really wanted to get out: an attack on the idea of Rationalia, an attack on the idea — very popular on the Left in particular — that we should enact various polices because social science tells us they will work. And the idea that such a technocracy is a desirable goal.

I am extremely dubious of these ideas because social science is in the throes of a replication crisis where many of its results have proven to be garbage. And we have a great deal of real-world experience in seeing policies informed by social science go badly awry: a Great Inflation caused by theories that said inflation could end unemployment; an obesity epidemic worsened by claims that fat was our biggest concern; hiring decisions made by an implicit bias test that has turned out to be worthless.

Harkaway’s well-received novel — which I have not read but now added to my “hopefully I can read this one day” list — apparently goes into the human aspects of such a “perfect” police state. My take is a bit different. What informed this story was two aspects of such a “perfect” justice system:

1. Our country has a zillion laws, many of which are contradictory, and the average citizen can not help but break numerous laws as they go through life.

2. Any attempt to “rationalize” our laws in the name of science would almost certainly produce an even worse situation, with laws based on junk science or laws that flapped and fluttered with every little breeze that blew.

In short, I don’t think a society like the one that Harkaway describes would function at all, even if it were “perfect” and insulated from human failings. My story is based on my hypothesis that such “perfect” state would almost instantly go up in a fiery blaze of contradictions. So it’s less 1984 I’m going for, and more Brazil.

Blindly turning to science — least of all social science — to solve our problems is a surrender of self-determination. It is little different from blindly turning to the divine right of kings. Science is important and can inform our debates. But we always be aware of its limitations and tendency toward error. This story looks at what would happen to a society that threw such blind faith into algorithms, computers and social science.

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