Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

84. Hierarchy, Obedience and Largesse

Note: This post is the eighty-fourth in a series about government and commercial ethics. 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 which inspired this series.

Last post, I talked about how we model the precept of 'Be loyal'. This week, let's look at a cluster of other Guardian syndrome precepts, 'Dispense Largesse, 'Respect Hierarchy' and 'Be Obedient'

In a lot of ways, the Commercial and Guardian syndromes are opposites. The commercial syndrome shuns force and upholds honesty while the Guardian syndrome lauds force and deception when used to advance our shared interests. The Commercial syndrome calls for efficiency while the Guardian syndrome calls for rich use of leisure and so on.

The topic of hierarchy is another instance of this opposition. While the Guardian syndrome includes military-type hierarchical precepts such as 'Respect Hierarchy' and 'Be Obedient and Disciplined,' the commercial syndrome calls for 'Dissent for the sake of the task' and 'Come to Voluntary Agreements.'

In what sort of situation is a hierarchy useful? As Joseph Heath points out in 'The Efficient Society' it seems like there are a lot of such situations, as most of our life, our working life in particular, revolves around hierarchical structures. Heath figures that the hierarchy is more efficient and that, "The most effective hierarchies are ones in which subordinates have enough loyalty to the organization and to its leadership that they obey without needing to be forced" (emphasis added).

Heath adds that hierarchy's core virtue is that, "it helps us to avoid collective action problems"

By 'collective action problems' Heath is referring to prisoner's dilemma situations with multiple participants.

But what is meant by more efficient. In his book 'The Efficient Society' Heath generally means Pareto efficient (meaning some people are better off, nobody is worse off) but he's not specific in his discussion of hierarchy.

The classic prisoner's dilemma looks like the following:

Let's assume for now that without a hierarchical structure, Bob and Doug would end up in the uncooperative outcome with a total result of 2 (1 each) but that by forming a hierarchical structure with Bob in charge, now they end up at the 'cooperative' outcome with a total result of 10.

But whereas in the standard cooperative resolution the fruits are divided based on some predetermined formula, in this case the person at the top of the hierarchy could, by virtue of their superior rank, simply take the whole 'cooperative' result for themselves. If this were to happen, then the final outcome would still be efficient in this sense of achieving the best total result possible, but it would no longer be Pareto-efficient in the sense of providing a gain to all involved. The sucker at the bottom of the hierarchy ends up worse off than before.

Within the altered world of hierarchy, it makes sense for Doug to cooperate, even getting nothing out of the deal (because now Bob is his superior/boss and can punish him if he doesn't cooperate), but he'd be better off scrapping the whole notion of the hierarchy (i.e. starting a revolution) and going back to how things were before.

Commercially minded folks (e.g. economists) will be thinking to themselves that this can't happen because then the underling will just go somewhere else where they can get a better deal. But that's commercial thinking - in the guardian world, there is no 'competition' and there is nowhere else to go

In the Guardian world, the recourse is not to competition, but to force. In order to secure continued obedience Bob could resort to force as well, but it would probably be better for everyone if he instead decided to share some of the cooperative gain with Doug.

Thus brings us to the final precept I wanted to discuss in this post, 'Dispense Largesse.' The current round of uprisings in the Middle East is showing the difference between places (Oman, Jordan, UAE) where leaders practiced the guardian precept of dispensing largesse and places like Tunisia and Libya where leaders instead accumulated billions of dollars in their own private bank accounts (obviously there's a lot more going on, but I feel confident that the role of largesse is certainly a factor).

In game theory terms, the largesse plays a critical role in securing buy in (obedience and respect for) a hierarchical arrangement which is more efficient in dealing with Prisoner's Dilemma type situations. We end up with something like the following:

Maybe it doesn't seem completely fair (who put Bob in charge, anyway?) but everyone is better off (in absolute, if not in relative terms) under the new hierarchical system than they were in the old uncooperative outcome.

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