24 October 2008

How Do We Encourage Honesty

We live in a civilized society. Important decisions in our society are made by voters, by judges and juries, by business managers whose words govern the conduct of their businesses, and by business people in business transactions.

Criminals find little niches of our life where might matters. But, crime is at decades long lows and isn't that economically important. A bank robber makes less money in a typical heist than a used car dealer does in a single sale. Less grand crimes tend to be even less economically productive. And, crime has to be conducted stealthily, because the overwhelming force of the state overwhelms any overt attempt to defy criminal laws. We don't live in the Wild West any more. The evidence also suggest very strongly that the vast majority of those who regularly commit crimes get caught and are punished severely for their crimes. We do not have a large class of common criminals who operate with impunity.

Might also matters on the international scene, but recent wars are better characterized as foreign military adventures than as anything that puts our own national security genuinely at risk.

The result of our civilized state of affairs is that decisions are made based upon what people say to decision makers. In this society, the truthfulness of communications is key to outcomes.

The importance of truthfulness to important outcomes creates intense incentives to be less than honest. Newspapers and websites routinely catalog a host of dishonest claims made in election campaigns. It would probably take fewer column inches to recite the truthful claims than the deceptive ones. Business advertising is only marginally better -- marketing has become the art of being deceptive without actually saying something that is factually false. In courts, not only do cops lie, they are kept on the force after they have been caught. Large swaths of the business community routinely cheat on their taxes. Psychological studies have shown that people who can lie convincingly are more successful than those who cannot.

Simply passing more laws that punish incidents of lying with punitive sanctions seems unlikely to be fruitful. White collar crimes, frauds and public deceits are rarely prosecuted criminally. You can count on your fingers the number of perjury prosecutions that took place in Colorado last year, for example, despite the fact that perjury happens in a significant number of all court cases and communications subject to penalties of perjury. Libels and slanders are likewise common place, despite the fact that they are rarely resolved in the courts. Punitive sanctions for deceitful conduct may discourage the most blatant offenses and put a finger in the dike, but aren't up to the task of meaningfully regulating areas of discourse where dishonesty has become the rule rather than the exception.

How can we create a situation where it is in people's own interests to be honest, with something other than draconian criminal and punitive sanctions from officials ill inclined to impose them? Is it possible to have a civilized society where free speech and a culture of honesty can co-exist? What would motivate people to tell the truth in high pressure situations, even when it is against their own interests to do so?

In what domains are people most honest, and why? Why does Wikipedia do a better job of ferreting out facts than political debates? Are some kinds of dishonestly more harmful than others, and are there ways to particularly restrain the most harmful kinds? If we create a forum where there is a higher standard of honesty, will it squeeze out dishonest forums, or does dishonest tend to bury honesty?


Michael Malak said...

To flip the question around, and to simultaneously put it into a religious context:

Q: How do we eradicate sin?

A: We can't in this world.

Oh, we can use padlocks on bicycles to "keep the honest people honest", but there will always be the meglomaniac sociopaths who ruin it for everyone.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Not so simple.

Honesty is very context specific. They may not be much of a difference between people in inherent propensity to be honest perhaps, but likelihood of honesty in fact varies a lot with context.

Some countries are more corrupt than others. Surveyor's reports are more likely to be truthful than campaign advertisements. Tax return lines that require documentation have less cheating than those that do not.

There are meglomaniac sociopaths out there, but if ordinary people are honest, than the meglomaniac sociopaths will stand out like sore thumbs when they are caught.