Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

56. Keystone Economics

Note: This post is the fifty-sixth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs.

"A chain is only as strong as its weakest link"


I was driving across the prairies a couple of weeks ago (long story) and I noticed the sign on the Manitoba border claimed that Manitoba was the 'keystone' province, and it got me thinking.

Wikipedia notes that,
"The term [keystone] is used figuratively to refer to the central supporting element of a larger structure, such as a theory or an organization, without which the whole structure would collapse,"
while also noting that the actual meaning of keystone is
"the architectural piece at the crown of a vault or arch which marks its apex, locking the other pieces into position."

It was the literal meaning that reminded me of an old figurative use of the word, one we encountered a few posts back from David Hume,
"The happiness and prosperity of mankind, arising from the social virtue of benevolence and its subdivisions, may be compared to a wall, built by many hands, which still rises by each stone that is heaped upon it, and receives increase proportional to the diligence and care of each workman. The same happiness, raised by the social virtue of justice and its subdivisions, may be compared to the building of a vault, where each individual stone would, of itself, fall to the ground; nor is the whole fabric supported but by the mutual assistance and combination of its corresponding parts."

Imagine a prisoner's dilemma type situation with more than two participants. For the sake of example, let's say 10 people. But the cooperative benefit is only gained if all 10 people cooperate. If even just one person defects, then the whole effort of everyone else is wasted. You could imagine a game where 10 people choose to put money in to a collective pot and if everyone contributes, the money is doubled, but any person is able to choose to take what the others have contributed instead of contributing themselves. Are there situations like this in real life? Well, in a military battle, only a single traitor can have a disastrous impact on his/her erstwhile allies. That may be one reason why treason is considered the most serious of crimes.

Or consider another type of prisoner's dilemma. In this one, the cooperative benefit is proportional to how many people cooperate. So if, say 7 out of 10 people cooperate, than there will some benefit, but not as much as if all 10 did. But now imagine that this dilemma is repeated over and over, and that people can see what the others are doing. After the first instance where the 3 defectors take advantage of the 7 cooperators, it seems likely that some of the 7 will cease to cooperate. As the number of cooperators drops, the number of people taking advantage of the remaining cooperators grows larger, and the pressure grows for everyone to defect.

In 'The Efficient Society' Joseph Heath gave the example of littering as a situation where if there is no litter, then people feel embarrassed to litter themselves, but if they are surrounded by litter dropped by other people, the situation reverses and they feel embarrassed to be the sucker carrying their litter to the garbage instead of just dropping it.

These sorts of situations resemble a hand on a clock face that can have one of two equilibriums. One with the hand pointing upwards towards 12 which is unstable because any perturbing of the hand (i.e. defection from the people in the dilemma) will cause the hand to fall toward the other equilibrium with the hand pointing towards the 6. The equilibrium at 6 is stable because, even if you give the hand a little push, it will return to the 6 due to gravity. Similarly, even if a few people try to start a move towards cooperation in the group prisoner's dilemma, unless they can get everyone involved, the effort is likely to fail.

Now, if you assume that people are hardwired to defect in prisoner's dilemma type situations then you might see the problem here as one of how to change the incentives of the situation so that it is in people's self-interest to cooperate. If, on the other hand, you believe that there are 2 (or more) types of people and that some people are inclined to cooperate while others are inclined to defect, you might see the question as being, how do the cooperators keep the defectors in line. This calls to mind another quote we encountered a while back, this time from Hans Ritchsl,
"This understanding of the fundamental power of the communal spirit leads to a meaningful explanation of coercion in the state economy. Coercion is a means of assuring the full effectiveness of the communal spirit, which is not equally developed in all members of the community. Coercion forces the individual to act as if he were inspired by communal spirit. Coercion is only the outer clasp and fastening of the community, but if communal spirit be lacking, coercion can replace it only in part."

The main point of this post is that there are situations where the best outcome can only be achieved if everyone (or very close to everyone) is on board. In these situations, giving people freedom of choice means nothing more than allowing defectors to frustrate the desires of cooperators to achieve a better outcome. Now, you could say (if you had a very good memory) that I'm just rehashing the points Tom Slee made in his book that we covered back near the start of this series - given a prisoner's dilemma type structure, giving people a choice leads to inferior outcomes. And that's true, but what I wanted to emphasize this time around was three things:

1) That the repetition over time of a Prisoner's Dilemma situation can mean that even in situations which don't necessarily have an all or nothing outcome at first, there might be an all or nothing outcome over time
2) In a multi-participant dilemma, full cooperation and monopoly behaviour are equivalent descriptions.
3) If a large group wants to achieve cooperation over time, given different behaviour types regarding defection/cooperation, it is likely to be necessary for an element of coercion or punishment to be employed by the cooperators against the defectors

This is different than simple economies of scale where a larger effort is more productive (per amount of effort) than a smaller effort. This is not a case of natural monopoly as much as it is a case of necessary or efficient monopoly.

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