Monday, October 18, 2010
A Hobbesian Round of Prisoner’s Dilemma
For me the most fundamental question in all politics is the one asked by Thomas Hobbes: how is that that large numbers of people live in close proximity everyday without murdering one another. Instead of going to work next week, it makes perfect logical sense for me to murder my neighbors and take their clothes and any food I find in their apartment. Alternatively I can make an alliance with my neighbors to live in peace and brotherhood and massacre the people down the street, down the river or the next State over. (Think Attila the Hun.) Of course, if I am feeling slightly humanitarian, I might spare the lives of these other people and simply enslave them formally or under the guise of some system that establishes them as my inferiors, existing only to benefit me. The fact that you and I have been fortunate to live under more "civilized" circumstances does not take away from the fact that we are the exception. The natural state of human affairs is Hobbesian war where everyone tries to kill everyone else before they are in turn killed. Of course, as Hobbes understood, it is only under civilized regimes, where people do not wake up thinking about how best to murder their neighbors, that there can be any serious cultivation of the arts or scientific progress. (It is important to understand that the point of this entire discourse is not that you should murder your neighbors. Quite the contrary, it is about how we avoid murdering our neighbors.)
I might not accept Hobbes' answer (I do not support absolute monarchy), but his framing of the question places him in the front rank of political philosophers. What fundamentally separates me from Hobbes is an Enlightenment faith in reason. If Hobbes saw man as a material animal that could only be kept in check by the brute force of government authority, I assume that man is a rational animal, who can, through force of reason, negotiate his way out of mass slaughter. One way to think of Democracy is one grand act of societal negotiation; we go to the polls to vote as an alternative to killing one another.
Game theory's prisoner's dilemma offers a useful way of posing the Hobbesian question. Prisoner's dilemma is a scenario in which the police have two people in two separate rooms and offer them the exact same deal. If you agree to talk you go free and your partner goes to jail for ten years. If both you and your partner remain silent you both go free. If both you and your partner squeal on each other then both of you will go to jail for five years. Critical to this scenario is the fact that neither party knows what the other party is going to do. The irony of prisoner's dilemma is that if both parties follow their own rational self interest they will both squeal on the other. Talking to the police means that at worst you get five and that is only if your partner was going to talk himself and put you away for ten. Of course having both parties follow this logic means that they both will end up in jail. Both parties are trapped and neither can afford to do the right thing and keep silent even if that will save everyone; you have to assume that the other person is going to do what is best for himself and you must therefore do what is best for yourself, particularly knowing that the other person has no reason to trust you and is making the exact same calculation. Those we are trapped in a cycle of selfish behavior in which both sides lose.
To apply this to Hobbes, I might like to think of myself as a moral person, but I can make no assumption that anyone else is moral. When I walk out my door, I have every reason to assume that my neighbor is plotting to kill, rob or enslave me. The object that he is reaching for in his pocket is likely a gun and not his wallet. When he goes to meet with his friends he is probably plotting with them as to how best to get me and not the latest in sports or celebrity gossip. The only solution is for me to get a gun and start shooting, or at least find allies of my own and plot with them as to the best time for shooting. I am not a bad person; I am just acting rationally in self defense. Of course everyone else is making the same exact calculation and is forced to come to the same conclusion, a conclusion only strengthened by the assumption that others have reached this same inevitable line of reasoning. Thus we are trapped in a cycle of violence.
Now there is a way out of prisoner's dilemma; it requires that, instead of this being a onetime deal, the players have to do repeated rounds. This changes things by bringing in the possibility of retaliation. If you squeal on your partner, you can be certain that your partner will do the same to you on the next round. Relaying on the assumption that my partner is a rational being pursuing his own self interest and will not do something that is clearly going to harm him on all the next rounds, I can safely remain silent. My partner, relying on the fact that that I am a rational being making this exact calculation, can do the same. Thus the cycle of squealing is broken.
To apply this to Hobbes, when I make the decision whether or not to turn violent against my neighbor, I also have to take into account the fact that, even if I get to my gun first and kill my neighbor, I still have to deal with the six billion other players in this game. The fact that I have just demonstrated that I am the sort of person who will go for his gun, guarantees that everyone else will reach for their guns all the faster when it comes to dealing with me. Considering my own rational self interest, I take the chance that my neighbor is not trying to kill me, relying on the fact that, as a rational being, he, in turn, is going through this same calculation. Thus we break the cycle of violence and allow for the work of civilization to begin.
There are two principles of politics that come out of this system. One, as this method of breaking out of prisoner's dilemma only works when the threat of retaliation is swift and certain, it is necessary that anyone who goes for their gun must be viewed as an absolute threat to the entire system and wiped out without hesitation as one would a rabid dog. (The cases of Nazi Germany, Japan and the Palestinians come to mind.) The second principle is that one can only deal with people who are highly rational in all their dealings with others. The moment that I no longer possess clearly stated lines of thinking that I can rely on my neighbor to follow and which lead me to conclude that he is not reaching for his gun, I have to assume gun and the cycle of violence begins. So the next time you hear someone say that reason does not define their politics, better reach for your gun.