I can imagine in ancient times that question came up, and they instantly shouted "Government!" A social contract was formed, where the regular people spend bits of their freedom to give more power to certain members of the tribe over others in order to protect them all. (I hold that this is how it works even when the resulting system is a monarchy or dictatorship. Though in those cases the spent-freedom is more like taken-freedom that the people don't care to reclaim until just enough has been taken to spark a bloody revolution.)
The general form of my different answer isn't unique to me, and it's not immediately obvious, but I'm confident with my application it would work. It's two words this time: "Social Pressure!"
This works fairly well in a primitive anarchy setting where a wrong-doer is banished from society. Other communities would be suspicious if a loner came wandering around trying to join a new tribe (after being banished from the old one). This gives the wrong-doer a chance to redeem himself but it's not very likely, so the incentive to do bad is very low. The communities decide whether to banish or not, there is no central authority for what crimes are banish-worthy. (Another premise of the primitive model is that the communities are small such that everyone knows everyone, which also reduces inter-community crimes and makes people more sensitive to outsiders.)
I will now attempt to explain how social pressure can work in a society like ours, and in societies more advanced than ours. I'll use the first example I thought of several months back as a starting point, and then I'll modify the original story to fit with the robust system explained later.
Alice has taken out a loan of a few thousand dollars from a bank, and now refuses to pay it back. Her account doesn't have any money in it, so the bank can't simply take it back. The bank must take the loss. But they can also spend some amount of money to tarnish Alice's reputation by publishing in various medias the fact that she owes them money. People will read this and decide Alice is untrustworthy, and therefore never do business with her again. A different Alice, knowing this will happen, decides to pay back the bank.
There are a number of problems in this example that I'll now fill. Why a few thousand dollars? Let's call the sum x. The bank has to pay a sum y to publish the evidence against Alice, but what if x was only $1? It's not really worth the bank's effort to denounce her, and so Alice gets away with $1. If x is $3000 then the bank might want to spend whatever y is to denounce her; Alice gets away with $3000 but loses far, far more, and the bank will likely be able to recuperate. Another possibility is that Alice, after discovering the tarnishing effects of refusing to pay back the loan, pays back the full amount x plus y plus whatever interest rate the bank has on loans (if any), and will also publish this information to reestablish her credibility.
It's also important to note that it's doubtful everyone will treat her poorly after the incident, as there are variables such as ignorance as well as tricks Alice can do such as changing her name or location to escape notice. This signals a lack in the effectiveness of the publishing the bank does. Even if they broadcast it on all the most popular news shows, in all the most popular newspapers, there would still be some who don't pay attention or don't hear it in the first place. Plus Alice isn't likely to carry one of these papers around with her to show people of her bad credibility.
A simple solution presents itself after some thought: a global, online, public, distributed database. The methods of establishing identity in this day and age are just about broken; social security numbers, photo IDs, and so forth can be forged. Thus the database would contain something more clear to identity, such as fingerprints or DNA samples, and pictures are great but can't alone be used. (I can hear people calling out already against this, but it's the only way to be sure that a person in the database is really that person.)
What else is in this database? Accusations and refutations. Let's say I'm stopped at a stoplight, and a man I've never known before pops up and demands I get out of the car (at gunpoint), then drives off with it. There will likely be witnesses, and I can always produce the fingerprint-stamped documents proving me the owner of the car. The hardest part is identifying the criminal, which is the case in any crime under any system, and lack of identification lets them get away. Ideally that person's picture would be in the database, or his fingerprints would be on something, or one could find hair droppings and get a DNA sample. But once he's identified, I make an entry into the database with an accusation against him, and provide all my evidence.
Here's the fun part. As machines get more advanced they will eventually take out most of the human elements in this process, but until then I can see people working for money or volunteering to go through accusations and weigh the evidence using Bayes's Theorem. Now whenever that car thief does anything requiring a fingerprint signature or his name the accusation will immediately come up. Let's say he was trying to buy some food: accusation comes up on the computer, the checker reads it, and based on individual or corporate beliefs can either let him have his food or deny him the transaction. Personally I would deny it to a car thief, and I'd bet most other people would as well, and thus social pressure kicks in. In the case of something like "This 23 year old guy had consensual sex with my 16 year old daughter, of which I do not approve", which in current times would land the guy on the sex offenders list and screw him up so bad, I would look past it if I interacted with him. Others might not, and that's their choice.
What if a false accusation is made? A refutation is made, providing counter-evidence if necessary. People are still considered innocent unless the evidence compels guiltiness. Just like in modern court cases, more than his-word-against-mine is needed. Documents are going to need fingerprint-signing in the future regardless of what happens if peoples's identities are to be preserved, and already photographs by themselves aren't always enough.
In a capitalist economy, this global network creates a bunch of new jobs and its creation would stimulate the economy. The database and website(s) must be built (I might actually do this as another side project for the next several months), mathematicians must be compelled (by duty, money, or something else) to weigh evidence, investigators can help the average Joe with the whole system, and communities can pool their money with voluntary 'taxes' to fund any of these or even just hosting parts of the distributed system. Fingerprinting systems need to be built and installed everywhere, and people need to populate the database. (Once fingerprinting systems were implemented, then various data can be collected incrementally as the people do things involving fingerprinting systems.)
In a future with nanotech I predict the downfall of money, and before then this system (if implemented overnight) would be run mostly by machines anyway. The costs in energy and so forth would become negligible. People will probably in general be "nicer" in this future as well, especially when many would have the power to potentially wipe out the earth itself with voracious nanomachines.
This system of course has some gaps and can't keep everyone "good". But then, that's the case of any system, especially our current one, and I think my system would work better. It shaves away the unnecessary government for punishing and typical jury systems of uninformed "peers" for weighing the evidence and still lets individuals decide how to treat a "crime". Someone who stole a loaf of bread would get pity from some, and ignoring from others, but I suspect stealing in general wouldn't gain much favor with the majority.
I hate to call upon fictional evidence to help my point, but in the book Brisingr (sp?) (spoiler warning), the Dwarves essentially banish an entire clan because of the actions of its leader. The rest of the Dwarves don't do this in any violent manner, they just completely ignore the banished clan and pretend the members don't exist (unless those members try to initiate violence). No trading, no acknowledgment, it's pretty awful. This is an example of social pressure at work.
Perhaps in an ironic turn of events the government's last act could be to require everyone to register to this database, get everything set up, and then dissolve itself? It could happen, right?
Posted on 2009-08-19 by Jach
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