Sunday, January 13, 2008




What follows below is a reprint of a rather old essay that was first put on the internet, as far as I can determine, via Spunk Press in 1994. It was reprinted in a certain unnamed "anarchist" site without proper attribution, as per usual for said site. Molly reproduces it here because she thinks the matters discussed are important. Despite the obvious signposts in the "Anarchist Canon" such as the work of Kropotkin and his concept of an instinctual drive for "mutual aid", anarchism in the 20th century largely abandoned its earlier distinctive view of human nature and adopted the "blank slate" view of the Marxists and other ideologues of managerialism. Today this view of human nature lies in tatters and not just because of the obvious failings of communist tyrants to "create the new socialist man" by their propaganda and social engineering. While the blank slate is still popular amongst the leftist subculture it now has little credence elsewhere. To apply Marx to the Marxists, the financial interests of social welfare bureaucracies in maintaining the illusion that they can engineer the minds of the underclass and thereby, by some alchemy believed only by them, raise them up in class position is believable to few who don't make their money out of such efforts. They are supported by governments in general for reasons quite other than the illusions they have about themselves.

The author of this essay, Douglas Newdick, wrote this piece in the early 1990s, as can easily be seen from the dating of the references. The latest one dates to 1992. At the same time he published another essay, Power and Consent:Reductionism, Dialectics and Consent Theory, also available at the Spunk Press online library. Today Newdick is still resident in his native New Zealand, but he seems to have put his youthful anarchist phase far behind him. He presently works as a computer consultant. The essay that follows relies heavily on the early work of Michael John Taylor, author of numerous papers and books such as 'Anarchy and Cooperation' (1976), 'Community, Anarchy and Liberty' (1982) and 'The Possibility of Cooperation' (1987). All of these books, and many other papers use the language of "game theory" to argue that human society can be ordered so as to achieve cooperation without the cooercive hand of the state. Taylor was originally British, but since 1985 he has taught at the University of Washington in Seattle. While resident there he has published such papers as 'Rationality and Revolutionary Collective Action' (1988) and 'Cooperation, Norms and Moral Motivation' (1993). Taylor himself has published less and less in recent years.

For those unfamiliar with the whole concept of Game Theory, really a branch of applied mathematics, the Wikipedia online encyclopedia has an introduction. There is also an excellent portal to the whole matter at Game Theory.Net. Whether you see this as important or not depends upon whether you see the need for a properly grounded view of "human nature", one grounded in empirical fact and the theories that inform research devoted to governing such facts. Molly has referred to this matter earlier on this blog in her extended review of Tom Siegried's 'A Beautiful Math'. A properly scientific view of "human nature" is necessary not just for the polemical purpose of "proving anarchism realistic". It is even more necessary to inform anarchists about what paths may prove useful and which will prove futile. What would a functioning anarchist society look like ? Since Newdick wrote this essay game theory has continued to be used in a wide variety of fields in both the natural and social sciences. It has actually experienced an exponential growth in its development and applications. Thus some of the opinions expressed below may be "dated", but it is still a very useful starting point. Enough of the intro....
In any discussion of anarchism, or the conditions for a stateless society, sooner or later a claim like this surfaces; "people are too selfish for that to work". This, I believe, is based upon an assumption (or theory) about human nature that is taken to be evidently true rather than argued for. Often I hear a version of "I'm sorry but I just have a more pessimistic view of people than you do". the purpose of this essay is to show that even if we grant the assumptions of selfish rationality then cooperation without the state is still a possibility.
With tese sorts of objections to anarchism ("people are too selfish to cooperate without laws",etc) I think people tacitly appealing to an argument of the form:
1. People are selfish (rational egoists).
2. Selfish people won't cooperate if they aren;t forced to.
3. Anarchism involves the absense of force.
4. Therefore people won't cooperate in an anarchy.
The opponent of anarchism can then say either; as anarchy also rfequires cooperation, it involves a contradiction; or, a society without cooperation would be awful, therefore anarchy would be awful.
2.2 TAYLOR'S (1987) VERSION.
If we call the two options (strategies) available to the individual cooperation (C) and defection (D) (non-cooperation) then we can see the similarities between the inituative argument and Taylor's (1987) interpretation of Hobbes (1968) argument for the necessity for, or justification of, the state: (a) in the absence of any coercion, it is in each individual's interest to choose stategy D; the outcome of the game is therefore mutual defection; but every individual prefers the mutual cooperation outcome; (b) the only way to ensure that the preferred outcome is obtained is to establish a government with sufficient power to ensure that it is in every man's interest to choose C. Taylor 1987:17). we can see from this that the argument appears to be formalizable in terms of Game Theory, specifically in the form of a prisoners' dilemma game.
To say that an individual is rational, in this context, is to say that she maximizes her payoffs. If an individual is egoistic (ie selfish) then his payoff is solely in terms of his own utility. Thus the rational egoist will choose those outcomes which have the highest utility for herself. In the traditional llustration of the prisoners' dilemma two criminals have commited an heinious crime and have been captured by the police. The police know that the two individuals have commited this crime, but do not have enough evidence to convict them. the police, however, do have enough evidence to convict them of a lesser offense. the police (and perhaps a clever prosecuting attorney) seperate the two thugs and offer them each a deal. The criminals each have two options: to remain quiet or to squeal on their partner in crime. If they squeal on their companion and their companion remains quiet they will get off, if both squeal they will receive medium sentences, if they remain quiet and their companion squeals they will receive the heaviest sentence, and if neither squeals they will each receive light sentences. The two are unable to communicate with each other, and they must make their decisions in ignorance of the other's choice. There are four possible outcomes for each player in this game: getting off scot free, which we will say has an utility of four; getting a light sentence, which has an utility of 3; getting a medium sentence, which has an utility of 2; and getting a heavy sentence, which has an utility of 1. If we label the strategy of staying quiet "C" (for cooperation) and label the strategy of squealing "D" (for defection) then we get the following payoff matrix:
................................Player 2
................................C......... D
Player 1 C .............3,3....... 1,4
................D .............4,1....... 2,2
(where each pair of payoffs is ordered: Player 1, Player 2)
It is obvious from this that no matter which strategy the other player chooses each player is better off to defect, therefore the rational choice is to defect (In Game-Theory-Speak Defection is the dominant strategy). As this is the case for both players, the outcome of the game will be mutual defection. There is, howver, an outcome, mutual cooperation, which both players prefer, but because they are rational egoists they cannor obtain that outcome. This is the prisoners' dilemma.
More generally, a prisoners' dilemma is a game with a payoff matrix of the form
.........................C ............D
C...................... x,x .......x,y
D...................... y, z .....w,w
Where y>x>w>z . the convention is that the rows are chosen by player 1, the columns by player 2, and the payoffs are ordered "player 1, player 2" (Taylor 1987: 14)
Any situation where the players' preferences can be modelled by this matrix is a prisoners' dilemma.
Many people have proposed that the prisoners' dilemma is a good analysis of the provision of public goods and/or collective action problems in general, they have taken the preferences of individuals in cooperative enterprises to be modelled by a prisoners' dilemma. Firstly, the prisoners' dilemma gives an interesting look at so-called "free-rider" problems in the provision of public goods. In public goods interactions, free rider problems emerge when a good is produced by a collectivity, and members of the collectivity cannot be prevented from consuming that good (in Taylor's terminology the good is non-excludable) (2). In this case a rational individual would prefer to reap the benefits of the good and to not contribute to its provision (ie defect), thus if others cooperate then the individual should defect, and if everyone else defects then the individual should defect (3). Secondly the prisoners' dilemma is taken to be a good model of the preferences of individuals in their daily interactions with other individuals, such as fulfilling (or not fulfilling) contractual obligations, repaying debts, and other reciprocal interactions.
Given a game-theoretic interpretation of the claim in 1, and consequently a game-theoretic interpretation of the intuitive and Hobbesian arguments for the necessity of the state, we can reformulate them with the following argument
1. People are egoistic rational agents.
2. If people are egoistic rational agents then the provision of public goods is a prisoners' dilemma.
3. If the provision of public goods is a PD, then in the absence of coercion public goods won't be provided.
4. Such coercion can only be provided by the state, not by an anarchy.
5. Therefore public goods won't be provided in an anarchy.
6. Therefore then state is necessary for the provision of public goods.
7. The provision of public goods is necessary for a "good" society.
8. Therefore an anarchy won't be a "good" society.
9. Therefore the state is necessary for a "good" society.
I think the game-theoretic model is the best (and most plausible) way of interpreting these sorts of arguments. I think, however, that premises 1 to 4 are false. Against premise 2, following Taylor (1987: ch 2), I argue that the prisoners' dilemma is not the only plausible preference ordering for collective action, and in some of these different games cooperation is more likely than in the prisoners' dilemma. The static model of the prisoners' dilemma game is unrealistic in that most social actions reoccur. Thus I argue that a more realistic model is that of an iterated prisoners' dilemma where cooperation (under certain circumstances) is in fact the optimal strategy (following Taylor 1987, and Axelrod 1984). Thus 3 is argued to be false. Finally, I argue that premise 1 is false, that indeed we do and should expect people to be (somewhat limited) altruists (4).
Molly will continue with this essay in the next few days. Stay tuned for more of Newdick's arguments. in the interim be sure to look up another argument in the same vein, Jam Okis' 'Can
Cooperation Ever Occur Without the State ?'. Til tomorrow then...By the way, sorry about the way I have to present matrices here. I've run into this problem before on blogger. Hopefully the form given here is comprehensible.

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