27 June, 2012

Altruism and deterrence

Alice Krige as the Borg Queen in First Contact
Alice Krige as the Borg Queen in First Contact (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm talking to some people about getting involved in an institute exploring global catastrophic risk.  What they do fits in with the textbook (still in progress), and with my next conference paper (working title: "Captain America Meets the Borg").

An interesting question came up regarding the promotion of altruism and deterrence as strategies to reduce global risk.  I hope they don't mind if I recycle some of my comments here.  I suspect my approach may be a little different than most, although to me it seems natural.  In fact, I'd characterize it as, in many ways, classically liberal.  I think James Madison in particular would approve.

I hate to admit it, but I’m something of a cynic on many of these issues.  Promoting altruism is a good thing in general, but I’d rather find a way to take advantage of selfishness, using personal payoffs to result in public goods.  For one thing, in a system where strong altruism is the norm, a selfish minority (if not so large that it is more advantageous to prey on one another instead of on the altruistic minority) has some structural advantages.  There’s a reason why some of the most successful people are clinical sociopaths: sane people are at a disadvantage when competing in stock markets, or as generals, or in presidential elections.  People who empathize too much hesitate and lose. 

(This is not to say you can’t have sane and caring success stories in these kinds of competitive areas, but they require special circumstances and/or compensatory talents.)

So the trick, much as Montesquieu observed, is to take advantage of those rare moments and set up a system where the predators are so busy contending with one another that they need to constantly curry the favor of the majority in order to  succeed, and where it is in the interest of most of the sociopaths to tolerate the long-term empowerment of the majority.

Of course, we might want to get rid of the sociopaths completely.  But sociopathology isn’t either/or.  It’s a continuum, and whoever is sitting in the long tail (whether Genghis Kahn or Bernie Madoff) is still in an advantageous position.  Besides, there will always be “mutations.”  And worst of all, since power accumulates around the sociopaths they are, in the long run, the ones who will be doing and implementing most of the designing.  The regulators get co-opted.  It’s built into the structure of the game.

Deterrence has a better chance.  Although there’s still the chance of suicidal decision-makers, one of the useful things about sociopathology is that people who value nothing over their own lives and profit can be risk adverse—if they can accurately calculate the probability and penalties for failure.  Thus one of the things we can do is increase transparency to the point that they can’t delude themselves that they are untouchable, and another is to encourage a balance of power in which those who can do harm are also subject to the greatest risk of retaliation.

So I guess I have more faith in selfishness than in altruism, IF the selfishness is enlightened self-interest, in a system where the desire for personal gain leads to the provision of public goods, and transparency is great enough, and the most potentially dangerous members of the group have the most to lose from actions that threaten the system as a whole.

Meanwhile, fragment power and disperse populations and encourage local resilience--because there will always be disasters and we need to plan to rebuild when they occur—while not allowing those preparations to encourage overconfidence and the “moral hazard” phenomenon. 

To steal a line from Robert Gilpin, I guess I'm a liberal living in a realist universe.  I'd like to rely on the goodness of man, but it seems to me the track record (and the structure of the system) makes that a sucker bet--especially when there can be so many lives on the line.  Better to encourage a system that can encourage and profit from the better elements of our nature, but doesn't rely on them so much that it can't survive disappointment.  

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