Tuesday, January 18, 2005


When people live together in a society, there are invariably problems. Each individual, seeking their own personal flourishing, is apt to do whatever it takes to get what they want. In a society like this, life itself is impossible. In a society where one must watch one's back constantly, trust no one, and sleep with on eye open, no one can achieve the flourishing that they desire.

If, though, we can mutually agree to assure each other's safety in a sort of social contract, then we are all able to pursue the flourishing that we desire. When an individual in this society agrees to abide by simple rules against harm to others, they assure their own safety and freedom from harm.

While this initially seems contrary to the ethical theory I have promoted, it is in fact very in keeping with it. Assuming that all people in the society are seeking their own self preservation and the best possible life they can achieve, they will realize that the best possible life is not possible when subject to the whims of other, potentially irrational people. Yes, a situation might arise in which the best thing for one's own life would be to take another's, and a social contract like I propose would prohibit this, but the total utility of a secure society far outweighs whatever gains might be had by taking someone's life. Put simply, a social contract against harm to others is a non-zero-sum game.

It does not, though represent a Nash equilibrium. In a society where all abide by the rule of non-harm, one person breaking the rule stands to benefit over the others. The benefit and non-zero-sumness of the equation still stands, and rational people continue to desire the non-harm contract. Enter government, who we, the people, bestow the power of power upon in order to protect our safety. Looking at an isolated case, we can take the prisoner's dilemma; assuming that both prisoners stay silent, then they both stand to achieve the best possible outcome, but the Nash equilibrium would dictate that they both confess. If we bring in a third party to enforce non-harm between them, both stay silent and both can be certain of achieving the best possible outcome. Bringing in the third party, the enforcer, the government, pays off for everyone involved.

This right to life that the government gives brings with it a variety of things. First of all, on is unable to procure their own flourishing, the best possible life for themselves, without the ability to choose and act for themselves. Individuals know best what they want, need, and desire, and thus require the freedom necessary to achieve those things. Additionally, individuals need to be certain that the things they need to live, e.g., shelter, food, and water, cannot be arbitrarily taken from them, as this would be tantamount to taking life itself away. Necessary to a right to life is the right to private property. This is the true and real meaning of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (or property)."

Sadly, our current permutation of government has taken this rationale too far. The non-zero-sumness of this game is clear, but power-hungry politicians have corrupted the logic and tried to extend it to education, welfare, transportation, infrastructure, and agriculture. Any sort of game outside of the preservation and assurance of one's own life becomes entirely zero-sum. As an example, imagine the prisoner's dilemma with a third prisoner, one who was an accomplice who knew nothing and is up for 10 years of prison. The only way this third prisoner could have his sentence reduced is if one of the original two prisoners tacked additionally time on to their sentence, taking it from the third prisoner's sentence. They stand to gain only more time in prison while the third prisoner only stands to win as much as they lose. Sound familiar? It is the totally zero-sum game of the welfare state.

The specifics of this system will continue to be worked out in later posts, but for now the conclusion is clear: the sole purpose of our government is the preserve the central right to life of its citizens, including the corollary rights to freedom and the pursuits of happiness and property. This government, and only this type of government, creates a non-zero-game for everyone involved.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does the Pareto improvement to your many-player prisoners' dilemma require that the social contract be forced upon everyone by a monopolist? Can we imagine contractual negotiations between players that alter the incentive structures so as to arrive at the Pareto efficient solution as a Nash equilibrium? If many sets of these contracts are negotiated between players, why is a single enforcer necessary?

12:19 PM  
Blogger RCowan said...

I believe that is what a third party does; it causes the Pareto effiecent outcome to also be the Nash equilibrium. I can imagine that in certain circumstances the negative by-prouducts to choosing an otherwise beneficial action would cause someone to make a different choice even without the influence of a monopolisitc third party, but it seems clear that it is in most circumstances that the third party itself creates these negative by-products. In terms of the prisoner's dilemma, it is the existance of a third party policing the two players that creates the potential negative by-products to choosing to confess. It might be possible to create a social contract (by way of societal norms or something like that) under which these same effects could be had, but I cannot see how it would be more stable than a central authority that ensures our Nash equilibruims are always our Pareto efficent outcomes.

6:00 PM  

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