Tag Archives: Prisoner’s dilemma

If you cannot see how Anarchism can help you, then you might just be part of the problem.

The other day, an interesting question was posed to me by a commenter in Broadsnark’s blog who was asking how Anarchist principles (i.e. Mutual Aid and Direct Action) can help him in his current life:

35 yr. old male, struggling to survive in the trading pits of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with Fed controlled interest rates serving as the main cause of my detriment[…]The Fed is crushing my first entrepreneurial attempt, the state is delaying my second. What can I learn from, support, and make use of Anarchist principles in my day to day life both economically and in regards to my pursuit of making my life and my family the best for us, while living my life by standards that I believe are beneficial to my family, as well as my community?

This is undoubtedly a question that anyone who might be investigating Anarchism might be asking. “How can this philosophy improve my current conditions?” and it certainly deserves some consideration.

The first problem is in the way that this question is posed. It puts forth a lot of  premises that are incompatible in the first place and then asks how one would reconcile this. It’s obvious that the author of the comment has already decided that the State regulations is his primary problem and thus a beneficial solution should be one that has such a deregulation in the solution.  This of course only serves to exemplify further how people tend to choose their political orientation from their immediate short-term situation.

In this case, the author’s main issue is that in his current choice of work, the state regulation are constricting him being more wealthy. It therefore follows that whatever will reduce such regulations, will improve his life. Right-Libertarianism proposes to reduce such regulations as a general plan of action. Thus right-libertarianism is seen as the most viable solution. In a very similar way we can see how others might end up supporting one ideology over another based on the same short-term thinking. A factory capitalist might see the worker’s union as his main source of grief, since their collective bargaining is eroding his profits. He thus promotes ideologies such as neoliberalism which suggest that there should be no state protection of unions. A factory worker sees the power differential between himself and the boss as the source of his low income and thus promotes trade unionism which he believes will allow him to demand more.The truck driver sees the increased weight-based taxes on the roads as the source of his problem and thus supports socialization of costs and flat-rate taxes for all as a solution.

But the problem is that the short-term solution for each individual situation is not necessarily compatible with Anarchism. In fact, the whole profession which one might be in can in it self be something incompatible. Take the factory boss for example. His solution is one which would retain himself as  the boss and also improve his life as is. But within Anarchism there’s not supposed to be any bosses in the first place! Thus the whole question of “How can Anarchism help me improve my conditions as a capitalist boss?” is oxymoronic.

In a similar vein, asking how Anarchism can improve your life in Finance Capitalism is also flawed since Anarchism is anti-capitalist in the first place. It’s impossible for a theory opposed to a whole profession to offer any solution for improving that profession.

This of course is quite logical to lead people to reject Anarchism because it does not provide a solution to their immediate problems as they perceive it. After all, what is the point in espousing Mutual Aid when crass Individualism will provide a far better ROI? What is the point in espousing Direct Action when putting myself as an Authority will also provide me with the lion’s share of the wealth?

And this is the sticking point. The solutions that Anarchism provides is to point that your perception of where the problem lies is wrong in the first place. To put it into perspective, imagine playing various versions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in real life. Your standard solution is to defect, to look at one’s interests in the short term and expecting everyone else to do the same. Your solutions focus around either making it easier for you to defect, hide such defection, and make it harder for others to defect when you do. This will all maximize your own benefits. Anarchism is trying to explain how mutual co-operation is superior and how to setup a system where any kind of defection is either difficult or impossible to hide.

Those people asking me what solutions Anarchism offers in their particular short-term problems are akin to asking me how Anarchism can help them defect faster, smarter or sneakier.

If you see how the world works, you notice exactly this kind of pattern. All that Politics is, is a continuous tug-o-war between various competing factions pulling in different directions. The Truckers want flat-tax while those without cars want weight+mileage based tax (if any). The Finance Capitalists want more deregulation while the industrial capitalist want more regulation. The plutocracy want a stronger state and a powerful military to “open markets”, while the progressive small businessmen want as little state regulation and intervention as possible. The workers want more wages while the capitalists want more profits.

Politicians are only there to represent the various interests in a peaceful manner (i.e. to avoid the losing party from using force to equalize the game).

Each of those factions keeps looking at their immediate short-term interest and does not realize that in the game of defection you either have to have a “sucker” or everyone suffers. The original commenter for example does not realize that further deregulation of the financial capital will only mean that the current plutocracy, the big dogs will abuse the system far more than they do now. The small investors will suffer and most likely the cost is going to be taken by the middle and lower classes even moreso than now. The middle/lower classes have already seen this once so they are loathe to permit it again (if they can) so they oppose it in their own interests. Both factions in this case can have their own ideologies explaining rationally why theirs is the superior choice. The Neoliberals, Friedmanists, Reaganites etc on one side and the Keynesians, Krugmanites etc on the other. Both factions coming to blows and never reaching an agreement because their short-term interests are directly opposed.

The whole game of politics is simply the same thing, only spread out in thousands of different conflicts. And where two factions are opposite on one issue, they may become allies against a third in another.

Anarchism however suggests that all situations where such conflicting interests exist is flawed. If you have two competing factions, the answer is not to join one and seek to give it more power. The answer is to make such conflict obsolete in the first place so that the end result is mutual co-operation instead. The result of such co-operation always benefits both sides who co-operate more in aggregate, than defective practices. We ask that if any two such factions notice that they are in opposition to each other, that they look at the premises for such opposition and change the scenario itself, rather than fight out for dominance.

Of course, this is not always possible as very often one faction is perpetually on the winning side and co-operating will reduce their wealth. Think of it again in the context of a Prisoner’s Dilemma where one prisoner is forced to always co-operate while the other can defect at will. Obviously the defector will not want to change the rules of the game, even if it means both co-operating, for the current setup is far more to his own benefit than any alternative. In this case the current setup must be dismantled and smashed with force if necessary due to its inherent unfairness. The benefiting party will whine, complain, subvert, lie, obfuscate and finally fight to preserve things as they are due to the obvious way it’s gaining, but this will not change the exploitative nature of such benefits. It will not change the fact that mutual co-operation is the superior result and can only be prevented via some kind of applied coercion on one party and not the other.

Now to go back to the original question, it is clear that Anarchism cannot provide a solution within the defined premises. However it can provide the solution on how to redefine the premises so as to follow anarchist principles and that would necessitate a change of career for the author. He may not like it, he may wish to remain working in finance capitalism because it is exciting but it will not change the fact that his career is built on the exploitation of labour via usury and is only possible via state backing (i.e. corporate laws).

Is it possible that this might not allow him to maintain his current suburban lifestyle? Possibly. As much as it wouldn’t allow the luxurious lifestyle of the ruling elite either. But one must willingly close his eyes to the destitution others must suffer for such a lifestyle to be maintained in order to accept this in the first place. Those that oppose the systematic change required to improve the lives of everyone are the ones that are already at the top of the “foodchain” so to speak, who would be the minority which would have to lose some of their privileges in order for the rest to gain their basic human needs in life and dignity.

Unfortunately those at the top would never be convinced to let go of their privileges, no matter how good the arguments. Fortunately those at the top are the small minority and only because the vast majority is still convinced to play by the current unfair rules. We don’t have to convince those at the top. We only have to deprogram the propaganda from the majority.

Perhaps the OP will ask me now: “But you never answered my question. Why should I ever embrace Anarchist principles when my interest lies in simple deregulation?”

The answer to this question is simple: Your interest is irrational as it bring a collectively worse result, even if you end up benefiting from it in the short-term. You are already at the privileged few on the top of the world so you’re already at diminishing returns even if you don’t realize it. Equalizing the rest of the world in terms of power is the only thing that can improve your life by taking away the real causes of “pain” such as stress caused by having to maintain a luxurious lifestyle or the lost dignity when you have to cower before your “superiors”.

If you’re still not convinced. If you still believe that your life would be better if only you had more money, more luxuries, more power, then before you even consider Anarchism, I suggest a change of Philosophy first.

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How would Anarchists/Communists deal with the Free Rider Problem?

Free-rider
Image by schoeband via Flickr

A Free Rider is considered someone who consumes more than he should, or more than what is considered “fair”. In the more extreme case it is someone who contributes nothing but still receives the full benefits of society. In a more mild case, it might be the lazy person who manages to obscure the fact that he’s only working half the time.

Both of these cases are considered a problem because they present a prisoner’s dilemma to whatever they apply. If I work in a factory and can simply slack off half the time, this will bring me the benefit of living a happier, less tiring and stressful job. If this can pass unchallenged it will trigger others in the factory to act in the same way (defect) so as to get the same benefit. When a few people become free riders then it usually does not create an issue as others can cover for their loss without noticeable drawbacks. However when everyone, or a critical mass, defects then everyone suffers.

Free rider then must be somehow convinced or coerced to stop defecting from contributing what is expected of them, and societies have come up with various ways to work around this problem. In a modern nation for example, active coercion is used via the form of taxes to insure that everyone contributes their share. In a theoretical “Anarcho”-Capitalist society on the other hand, this problem is resolved through death1. The question occurs then, how would an Anarchist/Communist society deal with Free Riders.

The way I see it, there’s two necessary conditions that must exist to turn someone into a free rider. These are Incentive and Obfuscation. Incentive is the fact that in a prisoner’s dilemma the best result is when the other side cooperates as you defect. The greater the difference from the result of mutual cooperation compared to cooperation/defection, the greater the incentive to defect. Obfuscation on the other hand is the ability to hide your choice in the prisoner’s dilemma so as to avoid coercion or others defecting with you.

The greater the incentive and the easier the obfuscation, the more free riders you will get in your system until it collapses. A Capitalist system (wether a fascist, democratic or an stateless one) has such a a major issue with free riders because both conditions are high. It is easy to hide the fact that you’re lazy when your co-workers won’t care to give you away and the rewards for doing it are considerate (same pay for less work).  I want to show how in a Socialist society both of these conditions are severely reduced.

Incentive

Lets say we have a factory where our potential free rider is a worker. In a Capitalist run factory he would either be getting the minimum wage (the cost to survive) due to the commoditization of labour, or in the lucky case that the worker is living in a Bourgeois nation, he’ll be getting a decent one. Whatever happens then, the worker knows that he will be getting the same wage and it will also be unlikely that any extra effort will be rewarded.

But this is not the case in a socialist mode of production. Because the workers themselves reap all the fruits of their own labour any slacking at work will come directly out of one’s “paycheck” while any extra effort will increase their reward. Because of this, in our prisoner’s dilemma abstraction of the situation, the reward one receives from cooperating with others within Socialism are approaching the reward one receives via defection. The smaller this difference between rewards becomes, the smaller the incentive for one to defect

Obfuscation

The second condition is how easy it is for a potential free rider to hide the fact that he is slacking about. Within a capitalist company, the limited management finds it very difficult to tell apart who is the slacker as opposed to who is simply slower than others (but still trying) or who is having a bad time. And since other workers generally don’t rat on their colleagues, especially when working conditions are bad, it becomes quite easy to hide the fact that you’re avoiding work, and this only gets easier in direct proportion to the size of the company.

However when you have a company where every worker’s reward is directly affected by every other contribution, suddenly people who take but do not give stand out much more. And because  we’re talking about interactions between equals, workers will find it much easier to speak out and pressure the slacker socially to behave. Whereas it’s easy to hide from ( (or suckup to) the minority of the people who have the power to punish or fire you, it is not as easy to do the same when everyone you work with has a chance to notice, complain and eventually get rid of you.

Now you might have noticed that I’m mostly talking about workplaces as this is the main area where someone might try to free ride, but there’s also the case that one tries to escape working altogether. How can you tell then if your neighbour is contributing his part to the community for all the  benefits he’s getting back? Like the workplace, in a small scale community2 it is very difficult to hide the fact that you never seem to be doing anything. Sooner or later neighbours and other member will start adding 2 and 2 together and come to the right conclusions.

We also should consider that it’s very unlikely that any person would prefer doing nothing for most of his life. I think it’s in our evolved psychology to want to feel productive to some degree. Certainly there are subcultures where it seems as if free riding (on social benefits) is promoted, but how much that is caused by other social conditions is a big argument (ie are people free riding because they can, or are they free riding because the alternative low-paying crappy non-fulfilling jobs are a far worse option?)

Dealing with Free Riders

So I’ve argued how the number of Free Riders within an Anarchist/Communist society would be much lower than what we’ve come to expect from experience, but it’s still conceivable that a number of them will still exist. While it will be easier to be discovered and the rewards of them defecting will be marginal, some may opt for this method. Perhaps they are just that lazy or don’t care what others think etc. How will we deal with them?

Social Pressure

Humans are primarily social animals and don’t really want to live alone. When a free rider is discovered in work, his colleagues can easily make his life miserable by avoiding contact and/or being hostile, depending on how much he is slacking off. This type of pressure works even now to a significant degree and you very often see people quit from nice jobs because of office hostility. If this can work on people who can even be on the right (that is, not being lazy) then it will doubtly work on people who have to face their colleagues and their own conscience.

Outside work, the same thing can happen. Friends & Family will start urging you to do your part or abandon you if you don’t. Social contacts may become hostile and as the information spreads more and more, people around you will do the same. Imagine your grocery store clerk wordlessly giving you your necessities, imagine your postman “forgetting” to bring you the mail. You get the idea. I do not think there’s many who will want to be in this situation, especially if it’s their own fault for wanting to be lazy.

Ostracism

There is always a chance that a free rider will associate with other free riders in order to alleviate the effects of social pressure. As long as food and shelter are always provided, then one only needs to avoid social withdrawal in order to function in society and if they can find other like them, a subculture of free riders may be created that will be more resistant to social pressure.

Hopefully a future society will be a federation of communities whereas people cluster together with whoever they want to associate with. As such, each community will get to decide with whom they want to associate with and provide their communal resources. Were such a group of free riders to appear amidst the community, it would be relatively simple for the productive members of society to refuse to support them. Whereas this is impossible in a tax based welfare system, it would be fairly simple under Anarchism.

Leaving them be

It is very possible that even with the small incentive and low chance to hide, some people might still find a way to free ride in a Anarchist/Communist society and this is unavoidable in any kind of system really. For example in a taxation situation, you still have a lot of people who find a way to hide their true income or simply become invisible and only work through the black market. In the sense that these people keep using public services that the rest of us have paid for, they are free riding.

Well how about simply ignoring them? The number of such undiscovered free riders can never be large enough to be disruptive as this would mean that the method they achieve it would eventually leak to the rest of the community which would then take action. Trying to get rid of them through blanket measures is more likely to do more harm than good, as it may require authoritarian measures and the like.

So in the end you have a very small percentage of any community leeching off somehow in a way that does not incite others to do the same, we simply write it off as part of the waste. Among the people with special needs, the sick, the children and the elderly, a bunch of free riders will never make any difference.

A vulgar right-wing libertarian might here say that as long as there is any waste, as long as any person has the possibility to leech off his hard work, then the system is unacceptable. But the problem is that under Capitalism not only do the free riders abound but they also get to wield all the power. Who are they? Well, as per the initial definition, they are of course the ones who do not contribute anything by themselves and retain all the benefits of society. How do they do that? By simply turning their wealth to more wealth without having to lift a finger. They are the parasitic class who skim all the surplus value without having to break a sweat. They are the Capitalists.

Given the choice of a free rider in an Anarchist society – who can never have anything more than anyone else, nor exert any power over his comrades – and a free rider in a Capitalist society who not only gets to live the good life without even trying, but also get to be more powerful as time passes at the expense of everyone else…well I’d like to think that most can see which is the best choice.

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  1. To be fair, this is the position is espoused by this particular AnCap who seems to be a bit challenged in the empathy department. As such, it does not necessarily mean it’s the position espoused by all AnCaps, so a more accurate description instead of “death” would be “reliance on private charity, but possibly including death where charity is ineffectual”. H/t sblinn []
  2. since I generally advocate those I will argue from that point. []