Friday, May 25, 2007

The Remnant is Nice

A new post by "Proteus", which is undoubtedly Bill Whittle, talks about the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Remnant. He mulls over the difference between short term and long term social strategies and the differences among those who chose their actions. The game theory described in this post is very timely because a very similar issue, the Traveller's Dilemma, is being discussed in the new Scientific American. El Blogador has a discussion as well. I hope he follows up on the Whittle article.

Everything that Whittle writes is essential reading, but this is key. The basic idea is that society is held together by people who make irrational altruistic choices when they can. Not all the time, mind you. We're not talking about punching bags here. This is about the tit-for-tat strategy.

The Traveller's dilemma, as described in the SciAm article, gives people a somewhat sleezy choice of how much reimbursement to ask for from the airline for their broken pot. The catch is that another person has the exact same problem with an identical pot. The airline will only pay the lowest estimate, within a reasonable range, from the two people (combatants). They will pay it to both parties, but there is another catch. The person who asks the most will be penalized a modest amount and the other person will be rewarded. In practice, both people will ask for the maximum amount, but it can be shown that in the specific circumstance discussed, it is not the rational choice. The problem reduces to a version of the famous prisoner's dilemma. The question is, why are people usually altruistic in this case?

The obvious answer to me and Bill is that good people are also willing to take retribution. If you don't go along with the shared benefit, then we find a way to get even. Tit-for-tat is the most effective and generous long term policy. Nice people win in the long run. Civilization depends on it.

Now, a counter-example I have puzzled over, is the recent trend, at least in my city, to follow a "no-snitch" policy. People in the problem neighborhoods have begun advocating a cultural norm of silence in the face of criminality. This may seem counter to the need for social retribution, but it is easily understandable on this basis. The social contract has failed these people. The failure corresponds, IMO, completely to the War on Drugs, which is a racist, liberty destroying pantomime of justice. Great numbers of civilized people are going to jail over this insanity.

The understanding of the nature of justice must be widely shared to make the fragile contract work. The Remant awaits your enlightenment. If you get it, they will come.

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2 Comments:

At Saturday, May 26, 2007 3:56:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Very interesting JJ.

I read Whittle's piece and right away added him to my list. I'll have to let the piece settle a bit, though, as I have not decided exactly what to make of it. Is he a visionary, or another person struggling to reconcile the path we're on with continuing daily life? Something else? In any case it was a very interesting and stimulating read.

When I clicked on Blogador, the first thing I saw was the phrase "por aqui molestando" at the top of the page, and I immediately knew the guy was from Guatemala. Sure enough. Added him to my list, too. It was cool for some reason to read him referring to a dog by the uniquely Guatemalan term chucho. Seems like a very bright guy.

The Remnant, eh?

I like it. Do it for yourself and, in the act, benefit the Remnant. Hmmm...

I'll have to go back and check out that Lew Rockwell link at the top of Whittle's piece, and see what he's got going at those links at the bottom of part 2.

Of course I agree completely with your drug war observation. Maybe it's not an insanity, though, but something along the lines of kaptinemo's comment at Drug WarRant this morning.

Cheers from Phoenix!

 
At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 11:33:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I don't think it's an Invisible Hand kind of thing. The Remnant is just the hard-core folks, unpredictably distributed through the population, that have internalized the meaning and means of civilization. They do what they have to do. They don't make heroic efforts in the face of countervailing force. They don't draw attention to themselves or make themselves look like patsies. They play tit-for-tat, but they are always, unconsciously perhaps, prepared to make altruistic choices, to do the Right Thing -- when the situation calls for it -- when the situation permits it.

The job of the politician and the would-be social engineer, assuming they are themselves members of the Remnant, should be to find ways to make the Remnant coalesce. You have no option other than to have faith that the Remnant exists.

Kaptinemo's comment is insightful, but I believe he confuses intent with result. He is describing the way things have worked out, in spite of the fact that no one was trying to attain that result. Society is a system of interacting parts, institutions, individuals, traditions, ... whatever. The Invisible Hand aspect is this: The Algorithm and inertia of society evoke a range of responses from individuals who are acting, necessarily, for their own welfare. The choices they have before them are obscurely, but firmly, limited. Some do their best. Others do their worst. The result is what you see.

Politicians are also limited much, much more than you can imagine. For instance, in spite of the fact that there are many atheists in Congress, you will not hear of it. There would never be an Ice-cream Revelation in a real Bartlett White House.


Another third rail is the tough-on-drugs phenomenon. Anyone who thinks about the way things work knows that the Drug War doesn't. Yet The System funnels us into a monstrously counter-productive and expensive drug-fighting process. No politician outside of San Francisco can call for legalization without losing an election.

My question is why politicians in democracies are ever able to do the right thing. Churchill is called forth only when the Crisis has come and gone, leaving people with the sick realization that it may be too late. Otherwise, most of the good works get done when no one is looking. And guess who does it.

 

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