Micah Redding — faith in humanity's future

The Skulls, Bones and The Power of Law

The Skulls is a fictitious movie based on Yale’s notorious secret Skull and Bones society. It follows the path of a new initiate through the process of getting picked, going to clandestine meetings, engaging in rituals and tests of dedication, until finally being ushered into membership, complete with all its lucrative privileges.

In the process, however, something goes wrong. Someone gets killed inside the secret war-room, a complete cover-up ensues, and the main character is faced with an impossible dilemma. When he finally decides he won’t go along with the secret crime, he becomes an enemy to the society, and they begin to hunt him.

As they head towards the ultimate confrontation, he pulls out the club’s rulebook, and demands a duel under their own code. If he wins, they have to let him go. If he loses, he is dead. Club rules.

When I first watched that, I kept wondering why they didn’t just kill him. They, after all, held all the power. Why not just go ahead and shoot him? Who was forcing them to go along with the code, even when it was being used against them?

In retrospect, the answer is obvious. The leaders of the society benefit profoundly from the society’s existence. Its existence as a strong and united organization is predicated on the strength of their common rulebook. Without that rulebook, the society would fracture along all kinds of interests and loyalties.

And so the leaders must sacrifice to maintain the rulebook’s strength. They must bind themselves unswervingly to its code, because once they no longer do so, the book loses its hold over the society, and it becomes worthless as a tool of control.

There’s a powerful truth here. Laws aren’t free. Someone buys their power.


Proponents of gold-backed currency are fond of suggesting that paper money has no value whatsoever, that it really only holds imaginary worth.

But that’s not quite true. When America went off the gold standard in the 70s, the value of the dollar plummeted, but it didn’t bottom out. It was adjusting to its new basis of value - the machinations and gullibility of the American people.

A simplistic way to think of this is to imagine that all that gold, sitting there for decades, could have been earning interest. If someone had taken it to the bank, it would have produced solid returns year after year, compounded until it doubled, tripled, quadrupled the original amount.

Instead, that potential interest was poured into growing the value of the dollar, until the original gold was removed, and the interest itself was able to carry the weight of the dollar’s value.

This is an analogy. The real location of that “interest” was in the trust that politicians and government had painstakingly purchased, with their blood, sweat, and conspiracy. They bound themselves over to this system, in order to buy power for the system.


We are quite used to thinking of politicians as corrupt. We imagine that they break all kinds of laws, that they skirt the rules behind the scenes, engaging in closed-door negotiations and secret treaties.

But even politicians are punished. When they are found out, when their friends and their allies are exposed, the penalties fly forth. And they submit. They sacrifice their friends and families if necessary, they let due process take its toll.

Of course, they try to hide. They have numerous loopholes and excuses and exemptions. But this just reinforces the law itself: If the law exempts me, who am I to question it?

By submitting themselves to the law, by enforcing it even on their companions, they are giving it power. They are feeding the machine, binding themselves to the system, buying it control. All of this so that the system can maintain its force and influence. All of this so that they may hope to exercise some of that control.

So perhaps the real corruption is not in how they break the laws, but in how they keep them.


Timothy Chutes:

I think the motivation for enforcing it on their companions is important. Admittedly, we can't know the interpersonal motivation for every politician. Action only seems to happen not when it comes out publicly, but when that public opinion becomes too negative. I don't think they're reinforcing the system, but reinforcing their hold in it (although that may have some structural reinforcement aftereffect).

Gregory Rader:

Hey Micah, coincidentally there are a lot of parallels in this to the post I published a couple days ago: http://onthespiral.com/charting-course-of-socioeconomic-evolution I quite agree on the general point that any rigid structure eventually is molded to suit the interests of the incumbents within the system. However, that doesn't assure adherence to the rules in any particular situation. For example, in the case of some sort of corruption, whoever becomes the scapegoat for the crime certainly won't be very pleased with sticking to the letter of the law. It is all the other incumbents that benefit from the system who will force one person to take the fall, thereby insulating the institution from reform. On the other hand, there can be benefits to having some friction in the system. Some degree of conservative resistance allows the time necessary to appropriately evaluate a given progressive direction. Frictionless efficiency in myopic pursuit of the wrong ends can lead to tragedy, as seen in the recent financial crises. Misplaced efficiency means small mistakes get amplified into huge mistakes very quickly.


Gregory, I actually had that post in my read-it-later queue. I think the analysis is great - my impression is that you've been working on understanding the dynamics of the entire socio-economic system, while I've been working on ways of seeing that system. See, for example, [The Vast Economy](http://micahredding.com/blog/2012/01/31/vast-economy). My main thought (which I realize I didn't express well) was that law itself is a form of fiat currency, that may rise and fall in value just like the dollar. Someone usually has to make large initial sacrifices in order to get law or currency going - which is why naive attempts to "start a new currency" or enact a new legal order usually fail. From the outside, it seems like law and money is just made up - but efforts to replicate that reveal that there is more to it. It's not that someone has to sacrifice themselves every single time. As you point out, politicians may evade the law, knowing that the law is strong enough to sustain itself. The tendency to break one's own laws probably correlates with the size and strength of the institution. If you are the primary leader of a group, breaking the law may capsize the whole operation. If you are simply a player in an ongoing economy, breaking the law may be simply a way of extracting value from the system. On the usefulness of friction, I think this is why things like constitutional amendments are separate from the regular legal process. The importance is not the content of the amendments - it's in the fact that requiring greater consensus is itself a technology, and that these two "levels" of law then allow for dynamic motion, but control runaway erratic processes.


I don't think that they are normally making a conscious choice. Rather, there is a pressure on a person to believe in something that allows for their survival. So, the leaders of The Skulls probably deeply believed in their rulebook. But if we ask *why* they did, it would start to look more and more like a preservation mechanism. As far as our politicians playing loose with the law, I think that is accounted for by two things. One, as Gregory pointed out, the system is big enough to sustain itself even if they break rules. In fact, them breaking the rules is seen as a moral failing, not a failure of law itself - so they extract some value in exchange for a loss of esteem. Two, by keeping things "loose", by allowing ways around the system, they actually preserve the system from collapse. If rich and powerful people can find "outs", that prevents those rich and powerful people from overturning everything.

Gregory Rader:

Yes, I think we are pursuing parallel paths. You should check out this podcast I linked to in my post with David Rose on 'the Moral Foundations of Economic Behavior'. I think you will find it enlightens that line of thinking: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/01/david_rose_on_t.html


I really enjoyed the podcast, particularly in how he analyzes the effects of prioritizing different types of morality: "Do good" vs "Don't do bad".