The Point of Government

Quote of the Day

Because the point of government is to create social trust. I started this talk by explaining the importance of trust in society, and how interpersonal trust doesn’t scale to larger groups. That other, impersonal kind of trust—social trust, reliability and predictability—is what governments create.

To the extent a government improves the overall trust in society, it succeeds. And to the extent a government doesn’t, it fails.

But they have to. We need government to constrain the behavior of corporations and the AIs they build, deploy, and control. Government needs to enforce both predictability and reliability.

That’s how we can create the social trust that society needs to thrive.

Bruce Schneier
December 4, 2023
AI and Trust

Via a message from Stephanie.

Schneier raises my hackles. It seems to me, that far too often he concludes more government is the solution to problems he imagines. What would he have us do when it is extraordinarily clear that the government is less trustworthy than any corporation or AI?

I’m far more inclined align myself with:

The end of Law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge Freedom: For in all the states of created beings capable of Laws, where there is no law, there is no Freedom.

Chains are but an ill wearing, how much Care soever hath been taken to file and polish them.

John Locke
Two Treatises of Government

Explicitly and from a source far more important, just governments are created to protect the rights of individuals:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

To the extent that a government does not align itself with this goal is the extent to which it is unjust and illegitimate.


17 thoughts on “The Point of Government

  1. It’s clear Bruce should stick to cryptography, a subject where he is actually competent.
    In the quote here he flunks Civics 101. The point of government obviously isn’t anything ethereal like “trust” but rather to act in strict obedience to the Supreme Law of the Land, a.k.a., the US Constitution.

    • That other, impersonal kind of trust—social trust, reliability and predictability—is what laws create

      Enforce bad laws, social trust erodes.

      • To some extent, perhaps. The way I see it is that social trust etc. are created by civilization (moral behavior, religion, proper upbringing — call it what you will). Laws are supposed to protect this, and certainly if laws are bad they will damage that fabric. But laws, in and of themselves, do not create social trust or civilization.

  2. It seems to me that the practical difference between a government, and a bunch of corporations agreeing to cooperate on things like common infrastructure, would be negligible in Schneier’s worldview. At least in terms of results. For instance, banks and credit card companies establish a trust regime so people who don’t know each other can conduct transactions. In the US that’s typically in dollars, but in principle there’s no reason the same framework couldn’t be implemented using standardized weights of gold, silver, etc.

    Or am I misreading what he’s suggesting?

    • What he tends to suggest when he advocates that government needs to regulate this or that, is that government needs to set reasonable policy protecting The People’s rights and privacy, and then enforce it against technology developers to ensure that everyone’s rights and privacy are prioritized above all else. I admit, that’s an idea I can agree with.


      Where he goes off the rails is in assuming (without evidence) that such government is always benevolent, always acts in The People’s best interests (never its own), and never needs oversight or to be called to account for missteps. That set of traits describes no government on Earth; it doesn’t exist and has never existed throughout human history, so the possibility it could pop up tomorrow is … we’ll say, “unlikely at best”.

      Any existing government would indeed set policy, and that policy might even be relatively reasonable. But it will always be written to serve the government’s ends, not necessarily The People’s, and certainly not The People’s privacy from government! That’s the part he’s never seemed to realize or understand.

  3. I gave up on attempting rational discussions with Bruce two decades ago. Every argument collapses to ipse dixit as he seems to believe that he is the expert in everything.

    • I gave up on following him at all a bit more than a couple of decades ago, when after 9/11 he also stepped way out of his areas of expertise to claim it was obvious arming pilots doesn’t work.

  4. Trust government? HAHAHAHAHA! What kind of unobservant moron would suggest such a thing? Especially in this day and age?
    Government always has been, and all will be about power. And power attracts the absolute worse sort of human.
    This is as iron clad as the law of supply and demand.
    And the more you trust government (and by extension those controlling it), the worst the empirically proven damage to come is going to be.
    Ever notice that the constitution is a strict grant of limited powers? And the bill of rights is a prohibition on what evil people in government would naturally morph those powers to control?
    2A and gun control anyone?
    As Pkoning says. It’s strict obedience to the supreme law of the land that needs to be enforced brutally. Or it’s what we got today.
    Our government is to repel invasion of our lands. Pretty simple.
    Trust got us a government so ignorant it will invade it’s own lands with foreigners. Using borrowed tax money to do it. And saying it’s needed to get rid of the colonizers.
    Trust government? BAAAHAHAHAHA!
    God pity the fool.

  5. Seems to me, biased as I am, that the purpose of government is to establish a solid, impenetrable floor upon which everyone and I mean “absolutely fucking everyone” is treated exactly the same insofar as rights, opportunities and laws are concerned.

    To that end, such laws as the people are subject to must be limited in their scope and clear in both content, expression and intent, and enforced by what limited authority government is provided by the citizenry in such a manner that no question can be raised about bias or inequality of enforcement, and that government must, absolutely must, perform as a totally impartial mediator between citizens who have disagreement and seek remediation, governed by, and in all instances operate with the understanding of, the imperfect limitations of human intelligence, experience and perception.

    We ain’t got that, “not even close” doesn’t describe it, I’m not sure we’re in the same universe on it. Any government which fails so miserably at the task as to receive condemnation for it deserves neither respect or support for continuation of existence.

    I’ve followed Schneier for some time because his deep expertise in IT security was extremely useful, but someone needs to impress upon him the need to Stay In His Lane.

    And he needs to take that advice to heart.

  6. I read Schneier’s stuff and I appreciate the insight into cryptography, security, and his thoughts on the current state of technology in general and AI in particular.

    But his ever-present argument that “more government” is the solution to ANY policy question, and his blind faith — despite all evidence to the contrary — that government will fairly and objectively wield the power with which he would entrust them, raises many red flags for me as well.

    As George Washington said, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

    Schneier seems to trust governments to act with reason and eloquence, to unfailingly protect The People’s rights and interests, and — most inexplicably — to require no oversight or accountability to do so. But that’s just not how any government run by humans and bureaucrats will work. George Washington understood this nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago; it’s interesting that as smart as he is, Bruce Schneier doesn’t.

    The term is “Ultracrepidarian” (literally, “beyond things related to shoes”), which is when an expert in one field criticizes or judges in a field beyond his/her expertise. (Wikipedia article) Schneier may be an expert in cryptography and computer/network security, but an expert in civics, government, and Constitutional law, he is not. Ergo any opinions he gives in those areas should be taken with a grain of salt (slice of lime and shot of tequila optional).

  7. If government were actively trying to undermine social trust, what would they be doing differently. This is not just a US problem either. The entire Anglosphere and the EU are all in too. We have reached a point where the President of El Salvador can correctly lecture us about the rules of democracy.

    • If government were actively trying to undermine social trust, what would they be doing differently.

      Great older video on YouTube, from April 2012, the middle of the Obama Administration: “If I wanted America to fail”.

      Still surprisingly relevant today, under the Biden Administration (a.k.a. Obama’s Third Term). Trump, for all the rules and policies he nixed, didn’t help much on many of the issues mentioned because the bureaucracy is too entrenched and the policies too wide-spread; it would take more than one term to clear much of it out.

      • Early on in the US history, when a new president was sworn in, he would proceed to fire virtually everyone, so people he wanted in charge could take over. Hmm, the loss of position may have actually been an automatic system. Why can’t this situation be replicated? If nothing else, an entrenched bureaucracy would be hard to develop for either side.

        • It was called the spoils system. The argument for it was that people should be given and keep their jobs based on merit rather than whether they were a supporter, friend, and/or family of the winner of an election.

          There are tradeoffs with either way things are done. I’m not sure there is a definite better choice among the two. Perhaps there are other alternatives. But since, I’m inclined to eliminate 99% of the jobs in government, until we reach that point, I see little reason to debate the merits of either system or a replacement alternative. It sort of like asking, “What do you replace the fire in your house with when you have extinguished it?”

          • One critical detail in your link about the spoils system, “After the assassination of James A. Garfield by a rejected office-seeker in 1881….”

            Seeing as how today’s political class is not exactly a profile in courage. Although assassins have been targeting national level Congressmen and others in the right of center. Rand Paul survived two attacks, the latter costing him part of lung, and then successfully ran for reelection in 2022.

            See also Steve Scalise who got severely injured in the same first assassination attempt by a Bernie Bro with an SKS, and the whole thing wasn’t far worse because of his position meriting a couple of Capitol Police bodyguards.

  8. “…. I’m inclined to eliminate 99% of the jobs in government,….”

    No idea if anyone has done it, but it would be interesting to see what the minimum staffing level at the minimum number of agencies required to maintain and enforce the United States Constitution would be.

    According to there are 2,950,000 civilian employees in the U.S. federal government as of January 2023 ( pegs it at 2,870,000 at the end of 2022, an 80K delta, so – probably – there’s no absolutely correct number available. From anyone.

    Anyway, using the higher figure, the 1% remaining after our host’s recommended 99% purge would be 29,500. Given that the Constitution has no direct authorization for most of the Executive branch agencies now in the federal government, that rough figure of 30K might be fairly close to the minimum required; at worst, even if it’s off by half, that still eliminates 98% of the present burden. .

    I would quite enthusiastically vote for that before lunchtime today, assuming someone can come up with an airtight way to keep it at that level.

    • That’s fairly simple, just not easy. People have to get it in their head that when the government does it. It’s almost always half-assed.
      Do it yourself. And most of the time you don’t need government.
      As one example, thieves not minding police/court systems. But their scared shit-less of armed citizens.
      And when the criminals figure out the people in the jury box are hanging them, and letting the vigilantes walk?
      Your police budget can shrink to match.

Comments are closed.