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The political and social institutions in a country are, in part, designed to reflect the country’s beliefs or governing philosophy. This is intuitive: you design your government (in part) the way you think will work best, so its design depends on what you think will work best. Sometimes this can be an unconscious process, as when the spread of mass production helped condition an entire generation to believe that fascism was better than democracy. At other times, this can be explicit. For example, Spain’s colonies in South America rebelled, in part, because of the galvanizing influence of the American Revolution and its great experiment of republican democracy. Later, in the mid-20th century, Latin American generals lost faith in democracy’s ability to run their countries, and decided to do the job themselves—launching coups against the elected governments and claiming the right to rule based on technocratic skill.

When we do worldbuilding and design our world’s countries, we should keep in mind the deep influence of ideas. Mind you, it’s easy to go overboard, and have every facet of a country be the pure expression of some philosophical system or other. Just remember that politics and history have their say too. But ideas still matter.

We can see this very clearly, for example, with how societies punish their lawbreakers. In the United States, most people tend to believe that prison is an appropriate punishment, and flogging is not. In Singapore, by contrast, criminals often accept caning as a way to reduce their prison sentence. In the ancient Biblical penal system (and in most penal systems of stateless societies), prisons were virtually unheard-of; most crimes were punished by fines of money or involuntary servitude, with some crimes resulting in flogging or the death penalty. Why?

In part, the differences are due to historical or practical factors. In particular, prisons are expensive and waste good labor. Still, we can learn a lot about the impact of ideas by looking at how the American prison system is justified philosophically.

The first thing we notice is that there is no single justification offered, and that many of the justifications conflict with each other. California Rule of Court 4.410, to take one example, lists eight objectives of the penal system:

(1) Protecting society;

(2) Punishing the defendant;

(3) Encouraging the defendant to lead a law-abiding life in the future and deterring him or her from future offenses;

(4) Deterring others from criminal conduct by demonstrating its consequences;

(5) Preventing the defendant from committing new crimes by isolating him or her for the period of incarceration;

(6) Securing restitution for the victims of crime;

(7) Achieving uniformity in sentencing; and

(8) Increasing public safety by reducing recidivism through community-based corrections programs and evidence-based practices.

Punishment and deterrence are not the same thing. To punish an offender, we decide how “bad” the offense was and then inflict a penalty commensurate with its “badness.” In part, this is to demonstrate that the offense was bad—that it merited a certain level of punishment. But to deter, we might have to inflict a penalty that is much worse than the offense. If it is hard to catch criminals, a proportionate punishment will not deter others.

For example, suppose that if you are caught stealing money, you have to pay back double what you stole—returning what you took and paying a further penalty. This makes sense from a punishment perspective: you stole from someone else, so your penalty is to lose the same amount as you took. Yet that punishment may not deter other criminals, if it is difficult to catch thieves. If only 10% of thefts are solved, for example, other criminals will figure that they will likely not be caught, and that it’s worth the risk.

If a society’s goal is to punish alone, it may view the lack of deterrence as an acceptable cost to keep punishments fair to the individual criminal. But if the society is worried about the overall level of crime, it might make the penalties harsher to deter other would-be thieves. For example, you might have to return five cattle for every one you stole. Or, as in early-modern England, you might be hanged. (Today, we would be horrified if someone were executed for stealing a sheep. On the other hand, in America the typical prison sentence for tax evasion is longer than for manslaughter.)

Such disproportionate punishments are unfair to the criminal, in one sense—it’s not her fault that most criminals escape punishment. A society that puts the highest value on individual rights might hesitate to use harsh “Beckerian” penalties. On the other hand, a society that prioritizes the collective good may be more apt to use harsh penalties if it thinks that the crime level will be kept lower that way.

Similarly, consider the tension between “encouraging the defendant to lead a law-abiding life,” and “isolating” the defendant by locking him in prison. If prison can be used to rehabilitate its inmates, then we ought to free an inmate as soon as his rehabilitation is complete. On the other hand, if someone is a hard criminal who will not change, and who will simply keep hurting people if able, it would make sense to keep her in prison forever, regardless of the particular crime for which she was convicted. So which is it? Do we as a society believe that criminals can be made better, or that they are irredeemable? Based on that difference, a society will tend to favor one approach over the other.

(In the real world, America isn’t sure what it believes—and everyone pays the price. The recidivism rate of the prison system—how often inmates are convicted of new crimes after their release—is over 75% in five years. Our prisons are not designed to rehabilitate people, in the main, but to dehumanize them. A more rational system would spend far more effort on rehabilitation, and society would benefit for it. Yet we also fail to treat many crimes with the seriousness that they merit, so that many dangerous criminals are released too early to harm again. Some would-be reformers focus on decarceration, which is easy, without spending much time thinking about reducing recidivism, which is hard. The result is more suffering, not less.)


Now, suppose that you were an Evil Overlord. You believe that individual freedom or moral worth is unimportant, and the main purpose of punishment is twofold: keep yourself in power, and keep society functioning smoothly enough to keep the taxes flowing. How might your “justice” system work?

The worst crime would be treason, which would be punished with death by slow torture. The traitor’s family and friends might also be tortured to death, if you go for that sort of thing. Theft would be next, especially theft from a tax collector. By contrast, the seriousness of murder would depend on who is doing the murdering. If one of your nobles decides to kidnap a peasant girl, use her, and leave her body in a shallow grave, little harm done. But if her peasant father decides to kill the noble in response, that would be a threat to the entire social order and must be met with harsh penalties.

Individual guilt would matter, but not much. The appearance of swift punishment is more important. Forced confessions would be commonplace, collective punishment might be used if worthwhile, and penalties would be harsh. Slave labor might be common, being a nice bonus to help the state turn a profit on its criminals.


We could keep going, but you get the point. We could go through a similar exercise thinking about other things besides punishment: property rights, the relative positions of men and women in society, attitudes towards work and wealth, and so on.

Sometimes this process goes in reverse. If society’s institutions happen to be a certain way, due to historical accident or material necessity or whatever, some people will develop justifications for why those institutions represent the pinnacle of moral achievement, no matter how cruel. (See under “chattel slavery in the American South,” for example.)

So in your worldbuilding, spend some time thinking about the impact of ideas on societies, and of societies on ideas.


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)