Thriving on Deceit

This is a response to Confessions of an Economic Hit Man [1], a book by John Perkins on his experience helping the corporate community gain money and power in the name of democracy and economic reform.

Nefariousness plagues the existence we uphold as moral and just. Most modern societies were developed to be resilient to humanity, but humanity seems a more powerful adversary, for as far as we know, no society has succeeded in this goal.

For most of human history, we’ve known that taking advantage of others secretly is a way to get ahead. As society becomes more complex, and as we develop more philosophically comfortable mechanisms for governing it, the sophistication of deceit grows just as fast. In addition to the lies becoming more complex they also seem to move from a governmental level, to an institutional one, and now even to a somewhat personal scale. We don’t have a good sense of how much this effects our lives today, as most relevant narratives and reports are released years after the fact, but we can be sure it’s still happening, and that society is changing to establish a normative prior for the clandestineness we hear about and expect to be running the show, behind the scenes.

To counter the issues human susceptibility to nefarious behavior brings, Red Teaming[2] has become an increasingly popular critical service. This process involves good people impersonating bad people, to find weaknesses in systems hoped to be secure. It’s a high paying job that requires technical, psychological and metacognitive expertise. Many practitioners are former military or intelligence operatives, or hackers (the bad kind), but due to the alluring nature of all that is dark, secret, and militaristic, there’s much excitement around taking these methods into every day life by the armchair militia of our community.

Today we pretend this house of cards is a lingering but controllable issue, something which will be stamped out by regulatory oversight committees, red teams, and personal vigilance. But, a different approach seems better. Why don’t we design society to benefit from human greed? Work has been done showing how making committing certain crimes legal can help avoid more severe ones[3], and that with the right models of integral resilience we can build systems that get stronger by being broken [4], and even that humans problematic limitations can be used as a key design constraint [5], but it remains repugnant to formally provoke a society optimized to thrive on deceit. Mechanism design [6], a field dedicated to supporting a given incentive model by designing new mechanisms that motivate it, is an ideal tool for building a future of this type.


Thriving on deceit through computational justification (referencing nobel prize winning Mechanism Design work [6], and the Garden of Earthly Delights [7]).

Discussion on this can be found here.


1. Perkins, John. Confessions of an economic hit man. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004.
2. Red Teams. retrieved 02/03/2015.
3. Basu, Kaushik. Why, for a Class of Bribes, the Act of Giving a Bribe should be Treated as Legal. 2011.
4. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: things that gain from disorder. Random House Incorporated, 2012.
5. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011.
6. Myerson, Roger B. Perspectives on mechanism design in economic theory. The American Economic Review (2008): 586-603.
7. Bosh, Hieronymus. The Garden of Earthly Delights. painting in oil. 1510.


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