If We’re so Smart, Why Haven’t we Won?
by DataPacRat


Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

“Liberty is not a cruise ship full of pampered passengers. Liberty is a man-of-war, and we are all crew.”
—Kenneth W. Royce

If life without a tyrannical government is so obviously so much better than life with one, why aren’t we already living in a libertopian paradise? Why does anyone at all support a government with the authority to do nasty things to them?

These aren’t rhetorical questions; if we really do want to push our societies closer to the libertarian principles we profess, then we need to have an accurate understanding of what stands in our way, so that we can figure out which methods will and won’t advance our cause.

At least one part of the answer may come from the part of game theory surrounding the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. This is a classic thought experiment; in one version, you and someone else are both arrested and facing a jail term. There is only minor evidence against each of you, so you’re facing 1 year in jail. You have two choices; you can ‘cooperate’ with your fellow arrestee and stay silent; or you can ‘defect’, which will reduce your sentence by 1 year but add 2 years to his. And he faces the same choice; and neither of you can communicate with each other until you’ve both made your decision. The paradox comes from the fact that both of you would prefer that the both of you cooperate, resulting in a 1-year sentence each, than both of you defecting, resulting in a 2-year sentence each; but that no matter what the other person does, you get a better result by defecting than you do by cooperating. Similar sorts of problems, where you have the choice of improving your own situation at the expense of someone else, crop up in a wide variety of contexts. For one example, I might face a decision as to whether or not to steal from you, and you might face a similar decision from me. If lots of people decide to steal from other people, then society becomes a rather unpleasant place to be—especially compared to what it would be if most people decided to not steal.

True Prisoner’s Dilemma problems are actually quite rare in real life, because people have found several ways to get around the basic form of the problem, resulting in different payoff results. And, intriguingly, the main forms of these solutions correspond closely to the groups whom El Neil referred to in his recent “Political Geometry” article as paternalistic, maternalistic, individualistic, and fascistic; what I referred to in “Revisiting Meade” as Reds, Whites, Blues, and Greens; and what popular media might call Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, and Slytherins.

One solution is that if there’s someone who’ll punish anyone who defects, then the costs of defecting will tend to rise and outweigh the benefits, thus discouraging anyone from defecting. In fact, if you tilt your head and squint, then from a certain perspective, having such a punishment system in place is to the benefit of everyone involved, since they don’t expect to face the costs of punishment themselves, and having the system in place means that everyone is more likely to cooperate than defect. When the Dilemma in question is about whether to steal or not, the punisher takes the form of what we know as government—and this is the solution favored by the Greens. Even if a government goes beyond this role and causes all sorts of mischief, from the Green perspective, having a bad government is better than having no government at all.

Another solution is that if you can predict that the other person in the Dilemma will tend to act the same way you act, then you are safe in cooperating, since you know that the other person will make the same choice. In political Dilemmas, this takes the form of having a code of honor, and is favored by Reds.

The third solution is that if you actually care a good deal about what happens to the other person, then you won’t want them to be harmed by your own defection. Such compassion is an attribute of Whites.

Finally, if news about whether you’re the sort of person to cooperate or defect can be spread widely, allowing other people to predict the choices you’ll make, then your desire to get a good result in future Dilemmas can override your desire to get the best score in this particular Dilemma. And, as you might guess, truth-loving Blues often enjoy calculating the details of such reputation-based systems.

And all of the above is a pleasant diversion of an analysis; but even if it’s a good model, what good does it do in bringing us closer to libertopia?

Part of the answer comes from the notion that power-hungry Greens gain part of their support by convincing people with other values to help them. For example, they might use the explanation “to protect the children” to gain White support for a law, or say something about “an affront to our national honour” to gain Red support for a law… and once the Greens have the support of the Whites and Reds, they don’t even need to try to get the support of the Blues, though they’ll certainly grab hold of any Blue supporters they can get.

Therefore, if we want to reduce the support of Green-style government, one tactic might be to try to convince the Reds, Whites, and Blues to withdraw their support—by showing them that the Green way isn’t the only way there is to prevent the troubles of mass ‘defections’. You could try pointing out to motherly Whites that it’s possible to strangle someone with too-tight apron-strings, and that it’s really in the long-term best interests of the people they care about to let them grow up and make their own mistakes. For a Red, you could try figuring out which codes of honor are most compatible with libertarian-style property rights and least compatible with Green government, such as Robin Hood style redistribution, or that certain military orders should be disobeyed; and promote those forms of honor as being superior to whatever code the Red currently follows. For Blues, it might be worth pointing out the advantages of everyone being held to the same standards, and getting them interested in whistleblowing programs.

A number of other similar actions can be taken, depending on what it is a person values most highly. Unfortunately, no single such persuasion attempt is going to completely transform society into a paradise. Fortunately, every supporter taken away from the Greens; every person convinced that options other than authoritarian government can allow them to live their lives in peace; every individual who becomes, if not a full supporter of our political goals, then at least a fellow traveler; will make it that much easier to do whatever is necessary to remove unpleasant tyrants from power.

Not to mention, it’s something that any of us can do, if nothing else to help pass the time until a better plan comes along.

Thank you for your time,

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