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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Bruce Schneier, Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

Welcome Bruce Schneier (Schneier on Security) and Host James Fallows (The Atlantic) (new book: China Airborne)

Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

Bruce Schneier is best known to the world, and probably to readers of FDL, for his trenchant sanity-based critique of the way America has responded to security threats through the post-9/11 era. His Schneier on Security is the standard reference site on this topic. When you hear the phrase “security theater” — or think of it when passing through TSA checkpoints or dealing with other features of the modern security state — you’re using a term usually credited to Schneier.

In my magazine, the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has profiled Schneier and his security concepts in one of the most popular articles we have ever run, “The Things He Carried.” He has also talked about Schneier’s emphasis on resilience as the core of a nation’s security strategy. That is: if you try to guard against every conceivable security threat, you can end up strangling a society and destroying the very liberties you are theoretically trying to defend. Instead it makes sense to take all reasonable preventive measures — but then shift your emphasis to the tools of resilience, so you can limit the damage and resume normal activities if some attack succeeds. In personal risk-management, this would be the difference between: (a) never leaving the house, and living in a sanitized bubble, so as to avoid any exposure to outside germs, and (b) maintaining good overall health so that you bounce back quickly when you do get sick.

I mention all this as prelude to Schneier’s latest book, Liars & Outliers, which is not directly about security-theater, the TSA, or other familiar themes, but which explores some of the deeper principles on which social health depends. The subtitle of the book conveys the main theme: “Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.” It is a systematic assessment of the conditions that allow people to assume the best rather than the worst from the others they encounter during the day. Or, if not strictly “the best,” at least assuming that people you deal with will maintain a basic level of honesty and, yes, trust-worthiness even when no one is watching to monitor their behavior. You can get in a taxi and assume that the driver will take you to your destination rather than robbing you; you can order a meal in a restaurant and assume that it hasn’t been poisoned; you can walk down a crowded street without worrying that any passer-by might be carrying a dagger and planning to stab you.

There are places around the world where you cannot take any of these things on trust, and life works differently — and worse — there. Schneier’s book involves trust in all walks of society, from the highest-level corruption and abuse of power to routine social interactions. He is not the first one to have considered this concept. In the mid-1990s, Francis Fukuyama examined similar issues in a book called Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. A few years earlier, a book of my own, called More Like Us, argued that something I called the “radius of trust” was a very important guide to a society’s ability to thrive. (When people trust only members of their own in-group — family, clan, tribe — social life is worse by almost any measure than when there are efforts to promote trust on a broader scale.) And back to Max Weber and long before, writers and political theorists have emphasized how much difference these “soft,” non-legislated parts of behavior matter. The run-on-the-bank scene in It’s a Wonderful Life is all about what happens when people no longer trust that their money will be safe tomorrow if they leave it in the bank today.

How is this connected to security? How can an ever-more divided and unequal America deal with issues of trust? Bruce Schneier explores these themes in his book, and will handle our questions on them here.


James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is China Airborne.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

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James Fallows

James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has worked for the magazine for more than 25 years. He has written for the magazine on a wide range of topics, including national security policy, American politics, the development and impact of technology, economic trends and patterns, and U.S. relations with the Middle East, Asia, and other parts of the world.

Fallows grew up in Redlands, California and then attended Harvard, where he was president of the newspaper The Crimson. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1970 and then studied economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He has been an editor of The Washington Monthly and of Texas Monthly, and from 1977 to 1979 he served as President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. His first book, National Defense, won the American Book Award in 1981; he has written seven others. He has worked as a software designer at Microsoft and from 1996 to 1998 he was the editor of U.S. News & World Report.

In the five years after the 9/11 attacks, Fallows was based in Washington and wrote a number of articles about the evolution of U.S. policies for dealing with terrorism and about the war in Iraq. One of these articles, "The Fifty First State?," won the National Magazine Award, and another, "Why Iraq has no Army," was a finalist. He also writes a monthly technology column for the magazine.

His books Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (January 1996), and Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel were excerpted in the February, 1996, and June, 2001, issues respectively. Looking at the Sun (1994) was excerpted in several installments in the early 1990s. His books Blind into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq (2006) and Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China (2009) are each based on several of his Atlantic articles. He and his wife live in D.C. and have two grown sons.

His latest writings can be found on the James Fallows blog. (