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Cascading Betrayal


A very interesting little book that I recommend is Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival. In it she argues that there are two systems of ethics and morality: an older one, the “Guardian Syndrome” whose values include: Shun trading; exert prowess; be obedient and disciplined; adhering to tradition, respecting hierarchy, being loyal, deceiving for the sake of the task, making rich use of leisure; being ostentatious; and taking vengeance. Most of us might recognize these from history and stories about the Middle Ages in Europe but many other kingdoms and empires of earlier times also valued such things more than most of us do today. On the other hand, a newer system of values has been developing since the Renaissance. In the “Commerce Syndrome,” people tend to value things such as shunning force, competing, being efficient, being open to inventiveness and novelty, being honest, collaborating easily with strangers and aliens, dissenting for the sake of the task, respecting contracts, investing for productive purposes. 


In modern societies worldwide, both systems are at play and they can often be in conflict. For instance, you have friends that you feel loyalty to (Guardian Syndrome) and you work for a corporation which asks you to sign a contract that says you will not steal from the corporation and that you will report anyone who does (Commerce Syndrome). You observe your good friend taking supplies from the company storeroom for personal use. You ask the friend to return the goods but they say, “Oh, come on. The company makes billions. They can afford it. It’s just our little secret.” You can’t dissuade your friend. Now, the conflict in values causes you a conflict. Do you “betray” your friend and honor your contract? Or do you betray your contract and collude with your friend? 

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Within American society (the one I happen to be most familiar with), these values are not evenly distributed. For instance, Silicon Valley seems quite centered on the “Commerce Syndrome” while small towns, sports teams, and the Catholic Church, for example, seem more centered on the “Guardian Syndrome.” 

People whose values are almost totally aligned with the “Guardian Syndrome” will tend to stay loyal to their boss, leader, team, political party, even when the boss, leader, team or political party does something stupid, cruel, unethical, or illegal. For a time, people in positions of great power can keep their power through, for example, the dispensing of favors, defining agreed upon untruths, or taking vengeance on the disloyal. 

abandoned architecture auschwitz auschwitz concentration camp

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Such a system is always somewhat fragile as demonstrated by the constant stream of rebellions, crusades, and wars in the Middle Ages. A state or organization based purely on the “Guardian Syndrome” is even more difficult today. If one tries to keep to a pure “Guardian System” in the midst of a highly interconnected and interdependent world, it will fail sooner and more spectacularly. 

One issue is that it is no longer possible for people not to be exposed to the actual truth. Lying to a populace in which only 1% of the population could read and write was fairly easy. Trying to do it in the computerized and recorded world of today is nearly impossible. Some people will remain loyal and refuse to call out the Emperor for having no clothes. But someone will. And, it will be caught on tape. And, the tape will be shown to vast numbers of other people who have no loyalty to the Emperor. They will all see he’s naked and have no compunction about saying so. 


As a result, a modern “Emperor” will find it difficult to keep all but the most fanatic fans from dismissing his attempts to control through politics and pageantry. The Medieval mechanisms of dispensing favors and wreaking havoc via vengeance will largely prove ineffective. Once such an Emperor begins to lose power, more and more people will begin to realize that they are much better off to “play by the rules” of the Commerce Syndrome. As a result, people who might have stayed loyal to the death to the Emperor will instead begin to defect. As more and more people defect, this will further weaken the Emperor’s power base and make it more likely for even more people to defect. 


Naturally, the Emperor will attempt to use whatever power they have left to prevent defections, but in our modern interdependent and interconnected world, this is increasingly difficult. Most modern countries — and their leaders — realize that material prosperity in the 21st Century depends on many of the values of the Commerce Syndrome. A society that tries to remain “closed” like North Korea, for instance, will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to invention, comfort, prosperity, and the happiness of its citizens. What little resources such a country does have will be increasingly funneled toward weapons of war, security, police, prisons, and the suppression of truth. While these measures may serve to consolidate the power of a modern emperor in the short term, in the long term, too many people will have too little physical comforts to feel much loyalty to the emperor. Support will continue to erode and eventually everyone will see beneath the invisible clothes. An early signal of such a collapse will be a cascade of betrayals. 

By contrast, in a modern state, loyalty is earned through such virtues as fairness, competence, innovation, and collaboration. In other words, people dispense loyalty on the basis of what people do, not because of what they promise to do and not on the basis of some bogus claim to royalty based on how and where they were born. Cascading betrayal is typically a symptom of an attempt to revert to an earlier state of human social evolution. It is another descriptive short-hand Anti-Pattern. It can be avoided by allowing feelings of loyalty to grow naturally from watching someone in a role of power make and keep promises over time and by watching them do what is in the best interest of the State; not by watching them take actions which mainly enrich the emperor. 


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