Friday 8 February 2013

Preference falsification: King Arthur edition

Mark Twain was an awfully sharp fellow.

A seemingly throw-away line in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court anticipates some of the more modern discussion of preference falsification and dictatorship.

In Chapter 30, our narrator (the Yankee) and King Arthur travel in disguise to learn of the land. The Lord of a local manor, seemingly a tyrant, had been murdered and his house burned down. As the Lord had been particularly harsh of late on one family, suspicion fell on them. His retainers put the blame on that family, and all the local peasantry joined in the lynching, hanging the lot of them, knowing full well that there was no evidence and that they could just as easily have been in the place of that family.

The Yankee chats with one of the mob later on, after having gained his confidence by revealing that he believed it was right that that Lord had been killed. The man then replies:
"Even though you be a spy, and your words a trap for my undoing, yet are they such refreshment that to hear them again and others like to them, I would go to the gallows happy, as having had one good feast at least in a starved life. And I will say my say now, and ye may report it if ye be so minded. I helped to hang my neighbors for that it were peril to my own life to show lack of zeal in the master's cause; the others helped for none other reason. All rejoice to-day that he is dead, but all do go about seemingly sorrowing, and shedding the hypocrite's tear, for in that lies safety. I have said the words, I have said the words! the only ones that have ever tasted good in my mouth, and the reward of that taste is sufficient. Lead on, an ye will, be it even to the scaffold, for I am ready."
One truth-teller can break a preference-falsification equilibrium. But that equilibrium can nevertheless be awfully hard to break, as truth-telling can be dangerous; while many would share the man's joy in hearing the truth, others might dob in a truth-teller. I was reminded of Xavier Marquez's discussion of Barbara Demick's work on North Korea. Xavier there wrote:
There is a terrific story in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (pp. 97-101), which illustrates both how such control mechanisms can work regardless of belief and the degradation they inflict on people. The story is about a relatively privileged student, “Jun-sang,” at the time of the death of Kim Il-sung (North Korea’s “eternal president”). The death is announced, and Jun-sang finds that he cannot cry; he feels nothing for Kim Il-Sung. Yet, surrounded by his sobbing classmates, he suddenly realizes that “his entire future depended on his ability to cry: not just his career and his membership in the Workers’ Party, his very survival was at stake. It was a matter of life and death” (p. 98). So he forces himself to cry. And it gets worse: “What had started as a spontaneous outpouring of grief became a patriotic obligation … The inmiban [a neighbourhood committee] kept track of how often people went to the statue to show their respect. Everybody was being watched. They not only scrutinized actions, but facial expressions and tone of voice, gauging them for sincerity” (p. 101). The point of the story is not that nobody experienced any genuine grief at the death of Kim Il-sung (we cannot tell if Jun-sang’s feelings were common, or unusual) but that the expression of genuine grief was beside the point; all must give credible signals of grief or be considered suspect, and differences in these signals could be used to gauge the level of support (especially important at a time of leadership transition; Kim Il-sung had just died, and other people could have tried to take advantage of the opportunity if they had perceived any signals of wavering support from the population; note then the mobilization of the inmiban to monitor these signals). Moreover, the cult of personality induces a large degree of self-monitoring; there is no need to expend too many resources if others can be counted to note insufficiently credible signals of support and bring them to the attention of the authorities.
It's well worth re-reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, especially if you'd only read it as a kid. There's an awful lot of decent political economy in there. Imagine yourself in the place of Twain's narrator, with a comprehensive understanding of late 19th Century technology, put into the Court of King Arthur, and with the helpful conceit of remembering the date of an eclipse. I'm hard-pressed to imagine a better plan for social change than that which Twain's narrator attempts to effect. You can't oppose the Church directly, but you can start building up education and training in rational thinking. You can't oppose the nobility directly, but you can start building up a moneyed industrial class. And you can create a King's Own Regiment filled with useless nobles and hope to get them all killed off in some future battle while building a professional standing army under officers you've trained. Beautiful stuff. Heinlein imagined future revolutions; Twain imagined his as alt-history.

I've also loved:

  • The narrator's trying to start an insurance company, being opposed by the Church for gambling on the will of God;
  • Discussion of the merits of local newspapers, and his establishment of one at Court;
  • The merits of competition in religion, to prevent the tyranny of any monopoly Church;
  • The complete destruction of any romantic fantasies of life under a feudal monarch, even one as decent as Arthur. 
We're listening to it as audio-book on the morning commute. The finer nuance will be going over the five-year-old's head, but the kids will hopefully be picking up some lovely turns of phrase.


  1. Are you listening to one of the LibriVox versions of the book, or another version? What's the quality of the reading like?

  2. I bought this box set. Decent quality.

  3. Mark Twain was an amazing guy. It's not uncommon for good writers to also be acutely perceptive of human nature. I've just read JK Rowling's adult novel 'The Casual Vacancy' and have been really struck by her understanding of the small details of how people actually, really work.

  4. From 120 years ago, Mark Twain's

    "The Moral Statistician."
    Originally published in Sketches, Old and New, 1893

    "I don’t want any of your statistics; I took your whole batch and lit my pipe with it.

    I hate your kind of people. You are always ciphering out how much a man’s health is injured, and how much his intellect is impaired, and how many pitiful dollars and cents he wastes in the course of ninety-two years’ indulgence in the fatal practice of smoking; and in the equally fatal practice of drinking coffee; and in playing billiards occasionally; and in taking a glass of wine at dinner, etc. etc. And you are always figuring out how many women have been burned to death because of the dangerous fashion of wearing expansive hoops, etc. etc. You never see more than one side of the question.

    You are blind to the fact that most old men in America smoke and drink coffee, although, according to your theory, they ought to have died young; and that hearty old Englishmen drink wine and survive it, and portly old Dutchmen both drink and smoke freely, and yet grow older and fatter all the time. And you never try to find out how much solid comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment a man derives from smoking in the course of a lifetime (which is worth ten times the money he would save by letting it alone), nor the appalling aggregate of happiness lost in a lifetime by your kind of people from not smoking. Of course you can save money by denying yourself all those little vicious enjoyments for fifty years; but then what can you do with it? What use can you put it to? Money can’t save your infinitesimal soul. All the use that money can be put to is to purchase comfort and enjoyment in this life; therefore, as you are an enemy to comfort and enjoyment where is the use of accumulating cash?

    It won’t do for you to say that you can use it to better purpose in furnishing a good table, and in charities, and in supporting tract societies, because you know yourself that you people who have no petty vices are never known to give away a cent, and that you stint yourselves so in the matter of food that you are always feeble and hungry. And you never dare to laugh in the daytime for fear some poor wretch, seeing you in a good humor, will try to borrow a dollar of you; and in church you are always down on your knees, with your ears buried in the cushion, when the contribution-box comes around; and you never give the revenue officers a full statement of your income.

    Now you know all these things yourself, don’t you? Very well, then, what is the use of your stringing out your miserable lives to a lean and withered old age? What is the use of your saving money that is so utterly worthless to you? In a word, why don’t you go off somewhere and die, and not be always trying to seduce people into becoming as ornery and unlovable as you are yourselves, by your villainous 'moral statistics'?"