TOC Might, justice, luck Your Turn

April 23, 2013

I am wont to describe our times as locked in a battle between individuals, states and corporations. And so, despite the terrible tragedy it represents for each of its victims, all innocent but the two perpetrators, I find a silver lining in the terrorist attack which struck last week at the heart of Boston.

Can one deny the state its role in promoting security and how much this role depends on cooperation among all states? If one could escape crime retribution as easily as some do tax contributions, by jumping borders, the Boston bombers would have left Massachusetts within two hours.

But the state itself rests on the cooperation of both individuals and corporations. "Federal and local police in Boston have issued appeals for anyone with video or photographic evidence from the area around the finishing line of the marathon, where the two bombs exploded", reported Geoff Dyer (*). This appeal to voluntarily share personal data is the total opposite of the preventive violation of so much of our privacy by government fiat.

That it takes a catastrophe to get all social actors to fully cooperate is the real issue. Confrontation is their ordinary mode and, in her harsh realism, the late Margaret Thatcher probably felt she was entitled to declare "there is no such thing as society", as Samuel Brittan reminds us (**).

Accused of "sho[oting] and kill[ing] two prosecutors", a "couple - Eric Lyle Williams and his wife, Kim Lene Williams, both 46 - were behind bars" in Texas (***). Manny Fernandez and Serge F. Kovaleski can even trace the origin of this personal vendetta. "The two prosecutors [...] had helped convict Mr Williams last year on burglary and theft charges in a dispute about three computers monitors worth less than $1,500". However chilling, this makes sense for, if there is no society, the state has no justification whatsoever. It follows private violence must be the norm.

To deny existence to an organism allows one to dispose of it without fuss, whatever its form. But not all denials are meant to be so radical. Fatal if unforeseeable, a congenital defect in the US Constitution denies existence to corporations as such, leaving the law to classify them as "persons".

Unbridled confrontation does not mean law disappears. Rather might makes right, under the motto "since we can, we may".

This is why individual pirates consider music to be free for their fun. This is why corporate ones forbid music buyers to resell what they paid for and why the companies I call the new vandals appropriate our personal data. This is why bureaucrats blindly enforce the rules on small businesses while the government lets big ones set their own laws. "Tear down the "rusting" sign atop [your] restaurant within a week, or face severe consequences - even though it has been up for decades" is how Luke Johnson describes the welcome Florida dished out to his latest venture (****).

Legal violence is at its most pernicious under the guise of what de Tocqueville dubbed the tyranny of the majority. This is how western democracies are progressively establishing hedonism as their de facto official religion, both left and right wings joining in a pleasurable architecture of death.

Still man aspires to justice. The most inspiring call from the left is for social justice and real capitalism is based on a genuine rule of the law. No act of wisdom from King Solomon is more famous than when he let justice prevail among the two women at war over a baby. "If we could appoint [him], who was the first domestic relation judge, as a special master, we would do it", Adam Liptak quotes Justice Kennedy in a current case (*****).

Heavy the burden on any one human judge called to deliver true justice, the position in which Justice Kennedy finds himself each time his swing vote makes the majority in the US Supreme Court. Trial by juries are precisely supposed to remove this burden and its attending risk of arbitrariness.

Democratic justice however does not eliminate confrontation. Indeed it invites both sides to put forth their best arguments. Unfortunately letting two parties fight their case in court to uncover the truth is no surer way to reach justice than to rely on individual wisdom. This is another illustration of the helicoidal nature of History. Favored in the Middle Ages, ordeals have made a modern comeback by replacing beefy brawlers with wily lawyers.

The result is the same. Dependent on one's beliefs, justice becomes the decree of Fate, the fruit of divine Providence or the random result of Luck. In repulsion of the latter, reasonable people prefer to cut deals, especially in the United States. According to Peter Lattman for instance, the S.E.C. finds this "practice is efficient and less costly than taking deep-pocketed financial firms to court and risking losing the case" (******). In exchange of money, of which they have plenty, banks avoid "admitting liability".

The more deals replace justice, the less random the result, the more the party with the most might is found to be, if not right, at least never wrong.

No society faces the downside of confrontation more than in a period of transition, when economic growth suddenly seems as sustainable as any Ponzi scheme. For all their silver lining, collective catastrophes are no answer and I would rather warn against them than wish them upon us.

The sharp mind of a grocer's daughter well understood "there is no such thing as an entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation". Logically, if duties come before rights, one can justify neither a star system based on the right to infinite rewards nor the universal flight from all responsibilities. Whether they make society the play thing of individuals or of corporations, neither hedonism nor pronaocracy can be the answer.

To claim cooperation must be found outside of collective disasters, to preach living must regain a purpose beyond maximizing pleasure, both raise the question of what goals to aim at. Some, such as peace on earth or eliminating poverty, are as noble as out of reach. Colonization of Mars is more feasible but will not matter to most any time soon. No less idealistic, yet more realistic is to monetize data created by human relationships.

Realistic, for it is already done today. Do not Tim Bradshaw and Robert Cookson conclude "Twitter Music may provide a new platform to increase the number of ads it shows to users" (*******)? If Twitter is not about human relationships, what is? Idealistic, for their monetization is currently done according to might rather than justice. Realistic, because doing it right would increase productivity, boost economic growth and need not rob platform providers from having a key role to play. Idealistic, for money must not be allowed to corrupt relationships, were recommenders to be paid for their recommendations for example. Whole new architectures, whole new business models are required. Every social actor is concerned.

In monetizing data from human relationships, justice cannot trump might by luck alone. Can it inspire states, individuals, corporations to cooperate?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Hunt for bomber in iPhone era, by Geoff Dyer (Financial Times) - April 18, 2013
  • (**) ........... Thatcher was right - there is no such thing as society, by Samuel Brittan (Financial Times) - April 19, 2013
  • (***) ......... Wife Implicates Her Husband in Killings of Two Texas Prosecutors, by Manny Fernandez and Serge F. Kovaleski (New York Times) - April 18, 2013
  • (****) ....... A surfeit of red tape is stifling job creation, by Luke Johnson (Financial Times) - April 17, 2013
  • (*****) ..... Justices Hear Case of Adopted Indian Child, Adam Liptak (New York Times) - April 17, 2013
  • (******) ... Judge Approves Settlement in Insider Trading Case, With Reservation, by Peter Lattman (New York Times) - April 17, 2013
  • (*******) . Twitter tunes into sound of music with new app, by Tim Bradshaw and Robert Cookson (Financial Times) - April 19, 2013
April 2013
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