Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

California arson and the Great Filter

Jerry Stratton, January 2, 2012

Two graphs converging: ability and desire. Over the last several days, an arsonist or group of arsonists has started thirty-nine fires in the Los Angeles area.

“Whoever is doing this is really messing with people’s lives,” said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Jamie Moore.

That’s an understatement.

What’s surprising isn’t that it’s happened, it’s that it doesn’t happen more often. I am amazed every time I go driving just how orderly people act in public. Watch the people driving on the other side of the road. Any one of them—all it takes is one—could cause massive death and destruction simply by swerving a few feet to the left.

Fires are incredibly easy to start, and if done randomly the culprit would probably never be found. If this arsonist had stopped at one, two, or even three, they’d probably never be caught. (Thirty-nine, I’m guessing they will. There’s too much opportunity for them to be seen.)

But not as quickly as they should have been. Listen to this from CNN:

Police are asking residents in the area to bring forward any surveillance video from their properties that might show suspicious activity. Residents are also being encouraged to follow the “see something, say something” motto and report suspicious behavior to authorities.

The police shouldn’t have to ask. Unfortunately, we’ve created a culture, especially in the cities but spreading to rural areas as well, that believes keeping order is something best left to the police, that there is no reason to get involved.

There is no way for the police to stop people who want to commit random acts of attempted murder like this before the attempt happens. Even the biggest police state can’t forbid or track all flammable materials. Cameras on every street corner still need people on every street corner to watch them; at best, computer heuristics could be reactive, making it easier to catch someone who has already started a fire, but even that assumes that the cameras themselves don’t become targets.

The only people who can stop a crime are people who are already there, either by stopping it or by immediately reporting it.

Random killers commit their crimes because they can, and because they want to, and because the repercussions of criminality are lower than their desire to be criminals. We can’t take away their ability to start fires; technology passed that point centuries ago. What we can do is slow down the increased population whose desire to start fires—or commit other forms of mass murder—exceeds the social barriers in place against starting fires.


People need to know that their efforts matter. They need to know that what they do today affects their success tomorrow. They need to know that tomorrow has opportunities. People need to be able to pull themselves up into success. The more their efforts require intervention from above, the more frustrated they’ll be. The more likely they’ll be to use extreme methods to draw attention to themselves—or push attention away.

Over the last several decades it has become harder and harder to take advantage of opportunities. The potential self-employed entrepreneur can’t just start up a business in their basement today. They need to hire a tax lawyer. If they’re going to build anything, they need to hire an ecology lawyer. If they’re going to have employees, they need to hire employment lawyers, and payroll tax lawyers… and if they don’t pay for all of these lawyers, they run the risk of getting slapped down by the government for not following the millions of regulations any one of which can put them out of business. And more and more, they need to hire lobbyists to ensure that their competitors don’t successfully lobby against them.

We need the ability to take advantage of opportunities from the bottom up. Top-down power creates frustration that you can’t personally alleviate. In the face of that frustration, more people will lash out randomly, and more people will not care that other people are lashing out randomly.

Encourage responsibility

When we are attacked or when we see a crime committed, our first thought should be an action. When we’re attacked, our first thought should be fighting back; extenuating circumstances might mean not fighting back1 but the default reaction should be self-defense. For almost every crime with the possible exception now of airplane hijackings, the default response recommended to us is to acquiesce.

And when it comes to crimes committed by other people? There are so many laws, most people realize they’ve broken a law somewhere even if they don’t know what that law was. And more and more, the default response to seeing evidence of a crime is to walk away and let the police handle it—without letting the police know about it. More and more people, for legitimate reasons, don’t want to get involved. They don’t want to draw the attention of the state to themselves.

This is an atmosphere that crime and corruption thrives in.

Do not encourage lawlessness

We have so many laws that we are unwilling to enforce, that some people will start to think they can get away with anything. Further, some laws that aren’t enforced literally increase the number of lawless. Our immigration laws keep people out who follow them, and let people in who don’t follow them. Our immigration environment selects for lawbreakers.

People who follow our speeding laws will be less successful than people who don’t: people who speed can do more than people who don’t speed! And because speed limits are usually set too low, it is usually safer to break them. If evolution still exists, we are breeding people who break speeding laws.

People who follow the laws on public meetings will have a rally of a few hours and then disappear. People who break the laws on public meetings can occupy private and public spaces for weeks and months, and get far more news coverage for their causes.

When the outcomes for breaking the law are better than the outcomes for following the law, we are encouraging people to break the law.

One set of laws

Laws that are only enforced against one class of people, or that are specifically not enforced against one class of people, will not be taken as seriously as laws that are applied evenly. Traffic laws are probably the worst example: public officials usually don’t have to worry about those laws; in California, there’s even a public-worker license plate that for all practical purposes exempts you from some traffic laws.

And often the government will specifically exempt themselves from laws they claim are important. Congress exempts themselves from insider trading laws, for example. Exempting the lawmaker breeds corruption that not only makes those laws suspect, it makes all laws suspect. The same happens at state and local levels. The more we have two sets of laws, the less the law will matter.

Tomorrow is a better place

Our vision of tomorrow must be of a better place. This is not just about opportunity but about simply living. The economic system we’re creating today means that tomorrow will not be a better place for our children. It probably won’t be a better place for us. We can’t continue to spend more than we have forever; eventually the system will crash. But before that happens, printing more money to try to stave off collapse means more inflation, it means savings become worth less, and prudence becomes a hindrance. It’s pointless to save, to even bother thinking about the future.

It is, in a word, depressing. Some people on the edge will succumb to that depression; others will choose to turn away when someone else succumbs.

Keep the perpetrators in prison

Avoiding laws we aren’t willing to enforce also means incarcerating perpetrators of crimes that remain on the books. Don’t let arsonists, murderers, and rapists out of prison to make room for pot smokers. In the initial stages of a societal meltdown, the perpetrators are repeat offenders. They’re probably repeat offenders even after the meltdown, but at that point it doesn’t matter.

We need to reduce the number of laws on the books until we have enough prison space to hold the lawbreakers who remain.2

Who matters?

It isn’t just the arsonist we want to affect; we’ve always had arsonists, but they’ve been rare. We need to make sure everyone around the arsonist still cares: the people who supply them with the gasoline; the people who live next to them; their children who are not yet arsonists. The more people see the world as one where the government is waiting to crush them, the more freely those who live outside the law will be allowed to operate.

And the people who are on the edge3, who would commit these crimes except that they still worry a little about how the rest of their neighborhood and the rest of society will view them afterwards. More and more, society just doesn’t care, and the more the society around these potential criminals doesn’t care, the more of these criminals we’ll have.

Reduce the regulations that criminalize opportunity. Encourage people to be responsible for their own self-defense and the defense of their community. Enforce the law, and repeal laws that are not enforced. Target and apply laws equally. Stop acting as if the future doesn’t exist. Incarcerate violent criminals. That’s how to build a better world, a world where we have fewer arsonists, and those we do have will be caught before their toll reaches double digits and before they inspire copycats in their own and other cities.

Happy New Year! Now get to work.

January 3 update: Sounds like it really was a Milton, and one whose crazy was triggered by immigration problems.

In response to To the ends of the earth: Why don’t we see any evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence? And will we survive long enough to make ourselves known to the universe?

  1. But less often than you might think.

  2. Or increase our prison space to the point where we can hold 50% or more of our population. That isn’t sustainable.

  3. The Miltons of the world.

  1. <- The graphs of destruction
  2. Graphs of freedom ->