When You “Work Hard and Play by the Rules,” the House Wins

Generally speaking, people tend to break down into two broad categories when it comes to “the rules.”

There are the people who view “the rules” as something made as a well-intentioned, good faith effort, by “society” or “all of us,” so that “we can all get along together”; it follows that “we all” have an obligation either to follow the rules “we all” live under, or to change them.

And then there are people like me.

I just don’t understand the rules-trusters.  It’s not that they’re necessarily bad people.

Some of them are probably just Type-A authoritarians like Archie Bunker, people who think society will degenerate into “anarchy” if we don’t all unite under the alpha-males and defend the in-group’s mores against out-groups and internal rebels.

But most of them probably just come from positive family backgrounds that have predisposed them toward trust and generosity.  It’s people like this who read “Why Mommy is a Democrat,” and think society is just like a big family where the rules are there to keep us all happy and safe and make sure the same person doesn’t always grab the last drumstick off the plate.

In a society made up entirely of genuinely consensual associations, with rules actually made by voluntary members, this trusting and generous attitude would be entirely appropriate–just the sort of personality type needed to keep things going.

But society isn’t a big family, with government as Mommy.  Government is run by people who rig the game to make sure they can take the drumstick off the plate every time.

You frequently hear, in this age of soccer mom politics, complaints that people “work hard and play by the rules” and still get screwed.

Well, OF COURSE people get screwed when they work hard and play by the rules.  Who do you think is making the rules?  You might as well complain that you don’t get rich in Vegas when you play by the rules of the house.

The only people who get rich playing by the rules are the people who make the rules.  And just look at the people sitting around the table, the people who make the rules you live by:  the “too big to fail” banks; the RIAA, MPAA and Microsoft; Cargill and ADM; Merck and Pfizer; Boeing and McDonnell Douglass.  Do these look like people who want you to get rich playing by the rules?  No.  They want YOU to play by the rules, while THEY get rich.

You’ll succeed by working hard and playing by the rules about as fast as an Egyptian slave would have got to be Pharaoh by working hard building a pyramid.

There’s an old saying about the definition of a liberal, as opposed to a radical:  a liberal is someone who thinks the system is broken and needs to be fixed, whereas a radical understands it’s working the way it’s supposed to.

A scene in Freedom, by Daniel Suarez, reminded me of that.  Most of the debate on torture in the mainstream press revolves around whether it’s a “mistake,” because of allegations that it doesn’t “work” as a way of extracting confessions.  A character in Freedom, known only as The Major (his real name was classified) put the debate in perspective.

The Major was a thirty year veteran of America’s dirty little wars, representing the people who own the world, the real government you never read about in the civics textbooks:  finance capitalists,  torturers, death squads,  narcotraffickers, and all the people we mentioned above sitting around that little table making “the rules.”  In the scene, The Major was preparing to torture a member of the kind of decentralist resistance movement that John Robb likes to write about:  local economies of soil-intensive horticulturists, micromanufacturers and renewable energy, organized through a global darknet.

As his assistants bustled about readying their pliers, snips and cauterizing torches, The Major held forth in good cheer on the real purpose of torture:  Of course torture is useless for extracting information, he said.  No one here is so naive as to believe otherwise.  But it’s quite useful for terrorizing subject populations.  You mutilate people, break them, and release what’s left of them into the general population as a warning sign written in flesh and blood:  “This is what happens when you resist.”  If you torture a thousand people, you can keep five million working quietly and obediently, with their heads down and mouths shut, doing what they’re told and not asking questions.

A liberal who doesn’t think the system is working, doesn’t understand what it’s supposed to do.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory