There were several useful comments on Defection. Vincent notices parallelism between my implicit theory of institutional cooperation and the alternative hypothesis offered by Venkatesh Rao. If you were going to read just one internet essay on institutional group dynamics, though, I would point you to Geeks, Mops, and Sociopaths. (Or if you want a link to an organic, homegrown internet essay on institutions, QL has its very own Machiavellianism series.)
CyborgNomade draws the connection between the strategic problems of social cooperation and an old Nick Land post on trustlessness — particularly timely now that Land is working with the exit-themed Jacobite-collective. I want to write something on the concept of exit soon, but once it’s written I will probably offer it to Jacobite first, so you will not see it appear here for a long time. For now you’ll have to be content with my reply to CN’s comment and my review of Davidson & Rees-Mogg.
Kristor, meanwhile, was kind enough to respond at length to my observations, and the purpose of this follow-up post is really to give our conversation a proper home. If you found my post useful, read this reply to it as well.
Kristor makes a several points about game theory with which I agree.
- He notes that people use induction from past experience, such as previous defections, to predict future results (not always wisely, or with happy results).
- He concurs on the importance of describing the parameters of games (i.e., strategic interactions), and emphasizes that community-size is one of the most important parameters. Indeed; and this is one reason why even urbanites (especially urbanites!) look for peer-groups/tribes of 20-1000 people.
- He accepts my point about theory and practice, and extends it to an analogy between lecture-hall kinematics and lecture-hall game theory, an analogy which I accept — although I would draw a slightly different conclusion, namely that while people have excellent heuristics for navigating physical and social obstacles without explicit thought, they start tripping over their own feet as soon as they start trying to improve the heuristics by overriding it with theorems in order to cover cases which were rare or unimportant in our evolutionary history .
- “After a sufficiently large number of generations, counterparties superficially identifiable as fellow nationals are relatively safe bets even if the details of their personal histories are obscure.” This is an important point, which should be better understood. This Axelrod paper on ethnocentrism makes the strategic case (and also this paper, which repeats the main point but has better graphics), and Darwinian Reactionary’s classic “No True Scotsman” post makes the epistemological case with a justification of descriptions like “superficially identifiable as (a Scotsman)” (i.e., of ethnic kinds).
In passing, Kristor mentions that “all models [are] a species of metaphor, and edifying qua metaphor only in virtue of some formal similarity between the model and the system to which it refers – which is to say, verisimility of the model.” I would not describe models as metaphors per se. A metaphor lacks literal meaning; a metaphorical figure is precisely one in which the literal meaning of the words is irrelevant to the point I am conveying. A model has a literal meaning, and its details carry precise implications. That the model only approximates that which it models does not make it a metaphor. Both measurements and approximations express a literal claim about a magnitude, but with different degrees of confidence; metaphors are not less-exact alternatives to accurate measurements, but attempts to express something which cannot be phrased in terms of measure.
Despite these quibbles, I take his point to be that the map is not the territory, and I agree entirely. A few months ago I wrote a continuation of Tribalism: A Model, which opens with some reflections on precisely this question of verisimilitude which Kristor raises; pending its appearance on QL, I will only state that the excellence of a model does not lie in reduplicating reality but in reducing it to its essential forms. Having modeled the interaction of certain formal principles, the next challenge is to figure out which phenomena in our world, if any, these forms animate, and then to extend the simplest form of the model until its approximations have the desired level of accuracy.
I will bring up one more general point before turning to the substance of Kristor’s comment. In discussing the need for parameters that specify e.g. whether players “remember” past interactions, Kristor says:
In such games[,] strategies that require historical information – Tit for Tat or Tit for Two Tats – can arise. “Historical information” is just a way of saying “reputation.”
Kristor likely knows this already, but the reader should note that even the availability of “historical information” is open to further specification. Does the agent remember only the most recent interaction? His last N interactions? All of his previous interactions with his current counterpart? All of his previous interactions with members of the counterpart’s “tribe” (but without any distinction amongst them)? Every interaction he (or his partner) has ever had? These lead to different strategic equilibria. (See the two links I provided to articles on ethnocentrism for examples.)
So there is no single version of “historical information”; therefore, I would not try to collapse historical information into reputation. Rather, I would say different reputation-systems are alternatives to historical information. They attempt to provide a different solution to the same problem, while routing around the epistemological and strategic difficulties of knowing everything that might help guide one’s strategy. (If you read the DR/E post I linked to, on “No True Scotsman”, you’ll see that assigning people to ethnic kinds functions in the same way. The stereotype of a Scotsman can successfully make inferences about a particular Scotsman without any biographical information about him.)
Now, onto the substantial question: what makes cooperative societies possible, what vitiates cooperation? Kristor cites this passage, from his original post, as an illustration of the “pelican principle”, i.e. that mutual respect and fellow-feeling lubricates social friction and removes obstacles to the (cooperate, cooperate) equilibrium:
Thus the crucial importance of honoring parents. Filial piety entails honoring siblings, and their spouses and children. It entails honoring all your kin. On that basis, only, can a generally profective society be built. Profection is an artifact of kinship.
This claim is the quintessence of Kristor’s original post, and what it means is the real question. Because, of course, tight families in themselves are not a roadmap for a society-wide (cooperate, cooperate) equilibrium. Sicily is the paradigm: tight families, a corrupt society, and the (defect, defect) equilibrium. Indeed, many (including Saint Thomas) believe that the great accomplishment of the medieval Church was breaking up tight-knit family structures wherever its power was strong, by enforcing a hyper-strict version of the Roman law on incestum. As Western Christians became less genetically tied to their clans relative to their neighbors, the new diffusion of social obligations and biological interests led to greater levels of altruism: (cooperate, cooperate).
(Recall CyberNomade’s comment, and my reply: more trusting interactions with Peter can make my interactions with Paul trustless, or vice versa.)
My heart says that Kristor is right: the family is the nucleus of civilization. A strong family structure, the obligation to honor one’s parents, and filial piety in general do promote cooperative societies. But why? It is no surprise that, as Kristor notes, “mediaeval knights took into their households the sons of their brothers-in-arms, and married their daughters to their friends, their lords, and their vassals.” Hostage exchange (trust but verify!) and diplomatic marriage are fine ways to commit to future cooperation! But such commitments are essentially limited in scope: they promote cooperation with some specific rival, e.g. the father of the squire or of the bride. (Well — up until Christianization these Germanic princes actually entered into as many diplomatic marriages as they had political allies, but you see what I mean.)
Minds at or near complete defection are prone to apprehend all acts of others as defections more or less veiled…
Good people and societies can be suspicious, cautious. And so they ought to be: Trust but verify, as a notably canny profector once said; gentle as doves, sly as serpents.
The nature of this “veiling” is the real question! It is probably a deeper question than game theory can solve (a fundamental challenge, not just of ethics, but of philosophy itself). “Trust but verify” gets at the heart of the paradox; it may feel good to accuse others of paranoia, but if you insist on verifying, in what sense did you ever trust?
(I agree whole-heartedly about “gentle as doves, sly as serpents” — that verse was the very first thing that appeared on my blog — but remember that trust-but-verify was the Apostle Thomas approach to faith.)
the Marxian analysis gets [social breakdown] correct in the same way that a broken clock is correct twice a day
This point may help clarify the veiling-paradox: are the Marxists saying that the clock is currently pointing to “heartless slaughter”? Or that the underlying motives and strategies which point to conformity to bourgeois respectability now will just as easily point to heartless slaughter when the time is ripe? In other words, what is being veiled and what is being shown?
To describe someone’s behavior as “veiled defection” doesn’t mean he is actually, currently defecting. (Likewise, describing someone as “essentially a criminal” typically means he has never committed an actual crime!) Instead it means he is following a strategy which puts too low a value on cooperation, that the attitudes and motives which recently produced cooperative behavior are the exact same ones that would quickly cause him to defect under different circumstances.
I should have been more careful to make clear that both minds and societies are located somewhere on a spectrum from perfect defection to perfect profection.
I would agree that this “spectrum” exists in the most general sense but demur if construed literally. Relative levels of defection and cooperation are not a question of degree, where we go from DEFECT=1 and COOPERATE=∞ along a sliding scale of increasing profection. Different people will cooperate and defect in different situations and with different counterparts. (These sorts of strategic compensations are not just conceptually possible, but systematically likely; let me repeat yet again that less trust with respect to X typically goes hand-in-hand with more trust with respect to some Y.) Thus while no particular defector is a defector in the absolute sense, there is no direct mapping of pattern of defection/cooperation onto a scale. Thus there can be no equation that will convert a defective strategy into an equivalently defective spirit, or vice-versa.
I don’t disagree with Kristor that there is some sort of correspondence, and indeed a correlation, between defective strategy and defective spirit. My assumption is that they are correlated. I do worry that the simplest intuitions about the nature of “cooperative spirit”, distinct from any actual cooperation, makes it sound like chaotic good. Pinning down the relation between the two could be an interesting challenge.