Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Question Authority: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Gary Wolf has an article in Wired this month:

In fact, the people inside the towers were better informed and far more knowledgeable than emergency operators far from the scene. While walking down the stairs, they answered their cell phones and glanced at their BlackBerries, learning from friends that there had been a terrorist attack and that the Pentagon had also been hit. News of what was happening passed by word of mouth, and fellow workers pressed hesitating colleagues to continue their exit.

I can’t help but comment that local knowledge, driving people to make decisions that are right for them, is generally better than what those far away think ought to be done. Hayek tied this all very neatly to why central planning fails. Hayek also explains why central planning is the enemy of liberty. He didn’t get to why the central authorities get more and more strident as their pronouncements are mocked.

Wolf concludes:

We know that US borders are porous, that major targets are largely undefended, and that the multicolor threat alert scheme known affectionately as “the rainbow of doom” is a national joke. Anybody who has been paying attention probably suspects that if we rely on orders from above to protect us, we’ll be in terrible shape. But in a networked era, we have increasing opportunities to help ourselves. This is the real source of homeland security: not authoritarian schemes of surveillance and punishment, but multichannel networks of advice, information, and mutual aid.

It is my belief that local knowledge tends to be more useful. That orders from a central authority must, by nature of being general, ignore the special circumstances which exist. That the beauty of liberty comes from accepting this, and allowing people to make their own choices and decisions.

People who learn from their mistakes and are experienced in making decisions will tend to make good ones. They may not be the decisions I would make, but that’s no reason for me to make their decisions for them.

Thus my scorn for the security-industrial complex, that amalgamation of government and a thousand “data mining” companies who apply one yardstick to us all, and through their worship of the instructions that flow from innacurate data processed by small minded algorithms, impugn on all our liberties.

6 comments on "Question Authority: The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

  • beri says:

    In general, I agree that order from above tend to be overly deterministic and detached from reality on the ground. On the other hand, a bomb on a subway train doesn’t allow for much choice or decision making. We have to find a medium way.

  • 1 Raindrop says:

    Networked Detection

    Question Authority: The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Adam comments on the Wired article that showed 9/11 survivors were aided not by following instructions, but more through peer to peer information about the events as they unfolded from friends usin…

  • people inside the towers were better informed…
    The article provides absolutely no evidence to support this claim. The tragedies were so drastic, of course, because the buildings collapsed. This is completely independent of whether the towers were hit b/c of a terrorist attack or a freak accident. It is highly unlikely that people inside had any factual knowledge, or even a source of data to imply imminent collapse, just a natural desire to get the f*ck out of a burning building.
    The standard operating procedure of “in case of fire, take the stairs” and “don’t congregate in front of a burning building” are probably still valid, and probably good advice to give in an emergency. This data point of one doesn’t really show much, except give people who devote their careers to coming up with good general safety rules another point in a data set.
    Countless security experts are trying to educate the masses to not fight the last battle. This seems to directly contradict that approach.

  • adam says:

    Hi Allan,
    Re: “The article provides absolutely no evidence to support this claim.,” you’re correct, but one of the issues that the 9/11 commission report discussed was that the 911 operators were telling people to stay inside the towers, even while the police and fire were trying to get them to evacuate.

  • John Kelsey says:

    The more interesting question is how we can work out whether our knowledge is better than that of the authorities. The urge to get the hell out of the building was a good one for WTC inhabitants on 9/11, but if the terrorists had (say) released a bunch of nerve gas at the ground level instead, it would have been a pretty bad idea. When you’re headed down 60 flights of stairs, it’s not clear how you evaluate the conflicting information.

  • Adam says:

    Its a very hard question. Hayek pointed out that the beauty of price is that it works out lots of disparate information for you.
    I think locality is one key, but not the only key. That, and it not coming from Massport.

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