Folks, you are about to be hit with a BIG IDEA.
It’s not entirely my big idea, but I’m willing to hang some tinsel on it and take credit for it.
First, a brief set-up, and then (and I will make an announcement in BOLD CAPS) comes the Big Idea.
Okay, the set-up:
I’ve written a dozen or so major essays since I hung my shingle over this little corner of cyberspace, and received wonderful e-mails about all of them. But two – the last two – have generated a very specific response: more passionate; desperate, even.
The first was Tribes, which basically posited that there were people who relied on themselves and people who relied on the State. The second was Seeing the Unseen, which took a look at conspiracy theories and the mental illness required to believe in ‘chemtrails’ and the 9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB pathology.
Those both generated reams and reams of heartfelt sentiment, and that sentiment was much the same time and time again.
I thought I was all alone, people said. And I see this sense of despair and resignation spreading all across the web; from individuals in comment sections, or in lonely posts on obscure blogs.
Now here’s what’s interesting: this response is the same, again and again, although the stimulus is different. It might be increasing public irrationality and paranoia, or falling educational standards, or unchecked illegal immigration, or activist judges. Maybe it’s tolerance of crime, or endless lawsuits, or general mean-spiritedness. Perhaps it’s rampant defeatism, cynicism, a lack of common decency, and the sense that courage and honor are dying qualities that time is passing by.
And maybe it’s the dawning realization that our elites in politics, academia and entertainment (which controls our mythology) are leading the charge not to salvation but to the cliffs that seem so obvious to so many common people.
Something seems to be failing, something essential, as if all the nails and glue that hold a house together were dissolving all at once. And many people – perhaps you are one of them – watch all this happening and feel powerless to stop it.
Well, you are not alone.
So many stimuli, and always the same response: has the world gone mad?
What do those stimuli have in common?
HERE COMES THE BIG IDEA.
THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA
Not too long ago, just in passing, my friend Richard Riley pointed me to a famous case in game theory called The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Now we need to really understand this, because if we do I think many of our present troubles will become clear.
Here’s how Wikipedia presents the case:
Two suspects, A and B, are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both stay silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a two-year sentence. Each prisoner must make the choice of whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows for sure what choice the other prisoner will make. So this dilemma poses the question: How should the prisoners act? The dilemma can be summarized thus:
|Prisoner B Stays Silent
|Prisoner B Betrays
|Prisoner A Stays Silent
|Each serves six months
|Prisoner A serves ten years
Prisoner B goes free
|Prisoner A Betrays
|Prisoner A goes free
Prisoner B serves ten years
|Each serves two years
In deciding what to do in strategic situations, it is normally important to predict what others will do. This is not the case here. If you knew the other prisoner would stay silent, your best move is to betray as you then walk free instead of receiving the minor sentence. If you knew the other prisoner would betray, your best move is still to betray, as you receive a lesser sentence than by silence. Betraying is a dominant strategy. The other prisoner reasons similarly, and therefore also chooses to betray. Yet by both betraying they get a lower payoff than they would get by staying silent. So rational, self-interested play results in each prisoner being worse off than if they had stayed silent.
Okay, we can simplify this:
- If I screw you, but you don’t screw me, I win very big and you lose very big.
- If you screw me and I don’t screw you, I lose very big and you win very big.
- If neither screws each other, we both suffer mild punishment.
- If we both screw each other, we both suffer medium punishment.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma, therefore, is an analogy we use to test the results of how people treat each other.
Now, if this game is played one time, the winning strategy invariably is to Screw the Other Guy. If he doesn’t screw you, you get off free. If he does, you serve two years. But if you didn’t, and he decided to screw you – ten years. No one wants to risk that. Screw the Other Guy is the only smart position, and when the game is run thousands of times on computers it comes out the very clear winner.
But! What happens if the game is played again and again, against the same person? Does Screw the Other Guy continue to be the best strategy?
It does not!
The best strategy for a repeating game (called the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma) is not Screw The Other Guy, and — surprisingly at first glance — it’s not Always Cooperate With The Other Guy, either.
The winning strategy is Tit-for-Tat. That is, you do to the guy what he did to you last turn. If he cooperated, you cooperate. If he screwed you, you screw him back. Over thousands and millions of computer runs, using every strategy from complete aggression to complete forgiveness, Tit-for-Tat “wins” every time – that is, it results in the least jail time for you.
Robert Axelrod examined this outcome in a book called The Evolution of Co-operation. (That word ‘evolution’ having great power in this context, as we will see in a second.)
By analysing the top-scoring strategies, Axelrod stated several conditions necessary for a strategy to be successful.
The most important condition is that the strategy must be "nice", that is, it will not betray [Screw the Other Guy] before its opponent does. Almost all of the top-scoring strategies were nice. Therefore a purely selfish strategy for purely selfish reasons will never hit its opponent first.
However, Axelrod contended, the successful strategy must not be a blind optimist. It must always retaliate. An example of a non-retaliating strategy is Always Cooperate. This is a very bad choice, as "nasty" strategies will ruthlessly exploit such softies.
Another quality of successful strategies is that they must be forgiving. Though they will retaliate, they will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to play betrayals. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge, maximizing points.
The last quality is being non-envious, that is not striving to score more than the opponent (impossible for a ‘nice’ strategy, i.e., a 'nice' strategy can never score more than the opponent). Therefore, Axelrod reached the Utopian-sounding conclusion that selfish individuals for their own selfish good will tend to be nice and forgiving and non-envious. [And, they will hit back when they are hit first, and keep hitting back until the opponent stops Screwing the other Guy; upon which they will revert to cooperation.]
One of the most important conclusions of Axelrod's study of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma is that Nice guys can finish first.
(Emphasis and brackets mine – BW)
Now things get really interesting. In The Prisoner’s Dilemma, these behaviors are expressed as choices made by individuals. But now substitute entire cultures, where the cultural norm is made up of these choices, and what do you see?
You find the easy, knee-jerk reaction is to form a society where everyone tries to screw everyone else. It’s the short-term approach, and it makes sense in the short term. Presumably all robbers and cheats want to maintain short-term relationships with their victims. If they had to meet them again (if the game was iterated) this strategy would be, shall we say, somewhat less successful and the victims would begin to Hit Back.
When I look out into the Third World, this is what I see: short-term strategies for immediate gain at the cost of long-term success. A swarm of trinket vendors on a beach in Mexico all need to make an immediate sale in order to eat that day, even if the cost is being so annoying and frustrating to the tourists that it prevents them from ever returning. Short term gain, long term loss.
I make no value judgment on that behavior, because it works on some level or it would not be so prevalent. In societies where short term values trump long-term ones, it is easy, safe and stable to Screw the Other Guy. But in the long-term, nothing of consequence grows, because nice, forgiving and non-envious are advanced strategies that require a topsoil of general goodwill, trust, and respect for the rule of law.
Societies that embrace these qualities will always out-compete those that don’t.
You want to know what that short-term gain mentality looks like in the real world? Here you go:
Do you see any long-term disadvantages to an arrangement like the one above? I mean, aside form the obvious fire risk, who is actually paying for all that stolen electricity? And in a Screw the Other Guy society, why should he pay? He spends money, for what gain? Why not just steal it like everyone else? And when no one pays, guess what happens to the electricity. It goes away.
But as we see from The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, there is an unnatural island of stability that is far more successful, and it is not simply trusting everyone and being all-cooperating all the time. That strategy is the worst, because it rewards being screwed by competing strategies that eat it for breakfast everytime. It is de-selected. It vanishes from the gene pool, so to speak. You see no society like that in the real world, and now you know why. Are you listening, Marxists? It doesn’t work.
But Tit-for-Tat combines generosity and toughness. And look at the terms used to describe the most successful strategic version of Tit-for-Tat: Nice. Retaliating. Forgiving. Non-envious.
Now, this is where my own analysis kicks in, because frankly, nice, retaliating, forgiving and non-envious pretty much sums up how I feel about the West in general and the United States in particular. The web of trust and commerce in Western societies is unthinkable in the Third World because the prosperity they produce are fat juicy targets for people raised on Screw the Other Guy. Crime and corruption are stealing, and stealing is Screwing the Other Guy. It’s short-term win, long-term loss.
Alright, now here come the brass tacks:
If you think about it, all of our laws – and indeed, the very idea of respect for and equality under the law – are written to protect Tit-for-Tat, because Tit-for-Tat produces the best results. You may sell your product at a profit, but if you lie about what it does we will call that fraud and you will go to jail because successful societies start nice but retaliate against those that decide to Screw the Other Guy. The punishment of fraud is what gives us confidence in the claims made by other products. Retaliating against Screw the Other Guy is not mean-spiritedness or a lust for revenge. It is essential to protect the confidence needed to stay focused on long-term wins. And that’s how, in theory, you build a cooperative society.
You retaliate against those that take advantage of the common trust. In other words, you punish the cheaters.
If you do not punish the cheaters, you have an “always cooperate” society that produces, consistently and rapidly, the worst possible outcome because it encourages – it selects – competing nasty strategies, by providing them with what I can only describe as a food source. Without retaliation against cheaters, cheaters thrive because that becomes the smartest strategy. There’s nothing “kind” about non-retaliation, nothing noble or good. Non-retaliation is suicide. Plain and simple.
Remember all those stimuli I mentioned before? What do they have in common?
Cheating in class (or getting a diploma without passing the required tests), cheating by crossing the border illegally, cheating by committing crimes and not paying for it, cheating by bribery and corruption, cheating in general rewards Screw the Other Guy as a social strategy and makes chumps of the people who need a level of societal trust – they need retaliation against Screw the Other Guy – in order to continue to cooperate. Society needs to retaliate against cheaters because not to do so flips the coin from cooperation to betrayal. And that’s the end of everything we have worked for and cherish.
And – and – you don’t need to be a master of game theory to know this in your bones. Because if you are offended by cheaters, it is because you are being betrayed into – you are in fact being forced into – becoming a cheater and betrayer yourself. Always-cooperating dies quickly: if you never betray and the other guy always does, he goes free and you get 20 years every time. (In other words, he’s out getting high while you work to support him.) Sooner or later, even the most dense moralist gets the message.
When a tipping point is reached – when enough people are allowed to cheat – the system swings to a different stability mode (the default mode) and Screw the Other Guy becomes the only rational choice.
The rational choice. Think about that for a moment.
Does that make you angry? It damn well better. And if it does, then you are not alone.
The more I thought about this, the more amazed I became. I could waste the rest of your day coming up with examples, but let’s just pick five quick ones to show how several real-world cases can be found to demonstrate the enlightening quality of this idea. In order of increasing societal relevance:
1. You are in a line of cars on the freeway heading for a high-traffic exit ramp. The line slows. The line is the most efficient and fair way to get the cars off the highway – first come, first served. But people are using the faster surrounding lanes to get to the head of the line and merge at the last instant. When more cars end up bypassing the line than are waiting in it, being in the line no longer makes sense. Cooperation flips to Screw the Other Guy as the best strategy, since so many people are merging at the exit the line now barely moves at all. These haphazard merges slow not only the exit lane, but also the surrounding ones as people decelerate to find a last-minute merge opportunity. It becomes a safety hazard. Everybody loses. And your willingness to commit homicide increases perceptibly.
2. You are in a relationship. You are nice, forgiving and non-envious. You may think it is loving and kind not to retaliate when you are treated unfairly, but you’d be wrong. Anybody with any self esteem knows that if you are being wronged, you cannot just continue to take it. You must punish behavior that tries to take advantage of your good nature, in order to maintain the self-respect and reputation you need in order to be treated well. Failure to retaliate will lead to more and more abuse. Failure to retaliate makes Screw the other Guy the optimal position for the other person: they can behave as selfishly and recklessly as they like with no consequences – what’s not to love?
Every one of us sees this every day, either in our own lives or those of our friends. Rachel Lucas raised this example when I was floating this theory. She said, “You have to teach people how to treat you.” Exactly so. One way or another.
3. Criminals need a lawless environment in order to prosper. When simple laws enforcing common decency – excessive noise, public urination – are not enforced, the signal goes out that this is a retaliation-free zone and the invisible skull-and-crossbones flag of Screw the Other Guy flies from every building. This is why where you find broken windows you will find every manner of vice under the sun and moon. Because if people can break windows without retaliation, then they know the rules and they know what strategy to play.
New York City now has a lower crime rate than London. Why? Because Rudy Giuliani and Bill Braxton made it a policy to enforce the small laws. My father managed the Taft Hotel briefly towards the end of his career in 1979. On a visit to Times Square in those days you kept one hand on your wallet and the other was used to shoo away the pamphleteers hawking live sex shows. Now Times Square is like Disney World. I have walked out of the Viacom building after edit sessions ending at 2:00 am and walked through Times Square with complete confidence.
London, on the other hand, not only confiscated citizens’ handguns, they actively prosecute the few souls still willing to defend their own property. The London Police – once the envy of the world – now openly admit that they will not prosecute entire classes of crime. They have, in short, done precisely the inverse of what Giuliani and Braxton did: they have refused to retaliate, refused to punish the criminals and in doing so destroyed the trust needed for people to live in their own homes without fear. They have paid a large price for that already and I hope they have their checkbooks opened because they are a long, long way from being finished.
4. Large numbers of non-citizens want to live in the United States. Large numbers. A society can only assimilate so many people in a given year. If millions and millions of people come here illegally, they are loading the system to capacity at the expense of the honest, decent people who are doing the right thing by applying to immigrate legally. If we reward illegal immigration with amnesty, we have allowed the illegals not only to screw our own people and laws, but even more so they harm their own countrymen who are trying to get here by cooperating.
The biggest losers in our inability to control illegal immigration are the legal immigrants. What benefit do these honest people gain from playing by the rules? This is as clear a real-world example as you are likely to see of the lack of retaliation flipping a system from cooperation to betrayal.
And, by allowing this to happen, you also set a precedent, which I think is even more destructive: you are saying not only to the illegals but to the entire society that laws are for chumps. Cheaters win. How much of this do we need to be immersed in before everyone realizes the smart move is to flip from cooperation to betrayal? How much damage does it do when the very people sworn to uphold the law – uphold the rules that allow this amazing cooperation game to continue — are the ones who seem most enthusiastic to reward cheating? Finding out the cops are in on the crime is enough to drive even the most stout-hearted person to despair.
A steady diet of this message is not going to end well.
5. Everything the West has achieved – all the science, prosperity, security and freedom – is based upon the free exchange of ideas. We tolerate offensive ideas so that this free exchange of information may continue. Disagreement is the crucible of wisdom. The price we pay for this cooperation is the daily offense we suffer at the exposure to ideas we find distasteful.
However, when radical Muslims living in the West demand that their religion not undergo these same stresses and trials and turns violent – burning buildings or killing those who disagree with them – well, we as a society have a choice. We can be “always cooperating,” which rewards that behavior, or we can retaliate, which punishes it.
Which do you think – reward, or punishment – is likely to produce more of this savagery, and which less?
And frankly, which behavior is more worthy of contempt: slapping someone repeatedly in the face, or watching someone thank his assailant for doing it to them? That is not moral superiority. That is the neurosis of the masochist.
If you are not built that way, then you are not alone.
Okay, everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it. When so much of this lack of rigor and disregard for right and wrong is in our faces every day, what is a decent, law-abiding citizen to do?
Protest in the streets? Yeah, that’s effective. I think it was Heroditus who said, “We old-skool niggaz don’ roll like that, yo.”
So what’s left? Well, the further off the beaten track the better the adventure. You may find this next briar-ridden path leads to an interesting garden…
Chances are you have no idea what the term The Remnant refers to. Four years ago I certainly did not have the slightest clue. But just when I started this weblog adventure, some very good friends gave me an essay by a fellow named Albert Jay Nock. It was called Isaiah’s Job.
In it, Nock talks about a very peculiar conversation God has with his messenger. Nock writes:
[T]he Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. "Tell them what a worthless lot they are." He said, "Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don't mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you," He added, "that it won't do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life."
Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job – in fact, he had asked for it – but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so – if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start – was there any sense in starting it? "Ah," the Lord said, "you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it."
Albert was a very highly educated fellow. He observes that, strangely enough, Plato himself used precisely the same word – Remnant — when referring to the same group, the people whose force of character was the mortar that held ancient Athens together. Curious…
He clarifies that he is not talking about an educational or aristocratic elite:
As the word masses is commonly used, it suggests agglomerations of poor and underprivileged people, labouring people, proletarians, and it means nothing like that; it means simply the majority. The mass-man is one who has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles steadily and strictly as laws of conduct; and because such people make up the great and overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the masses. The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those who are unable to do either.
I have been, and remain, a staunchly anti-elitist individual. I find the idea of belonging to a special group the most dangerous philosophical ground you can stand on. But what is remarkable about this Remnant is that the people that compose it seem to be drawn completely at random. It is not a philosophy. It is a frequency. You are on it or you are not. And this is not a million-dollar lottery win, either: it is a call to face unpleasant facts and impending hardship. It is a quiet summons to duty. It often makes one uncomfortable, and, most often, this unfocused, vague desire – this need – to do something useful most often makes one feel very much alone.
What’s remarkable about the Remnant — to me, anyway – is the sheer unpredictability of its composition. Perhaps that homeless drug addict, panhandling under the overpass… perhaps he will be the one to run into a burning building while other decent and good people stand idle, waiting for something to happen.
Waiting for someone to happen.
During the 1992 L.A. riots, a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled from his vehicle and nearly beaten to death by a mob of enraged blacks. Cinderblocks and fire extinguishers where hurled at his head. The police had been told not to enter the area. He was rescued by other black neighbors, who at great risk to themselves waded into that fury and took him into one of their own homes. He eventually recovered.
That was Remnant. Not the actions of Delta Force operators or other First Responders – the obvious assumption — but rather of decent, ordinary people who showed extraordinary decency and courage when the moment called them.
And what did the passengers of United Flight 93 have in common? Men and women, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor… who knows, and more importantly, who cares? They were motivated to do extraordinary things – not all of them, for most of the people remained in their seats. But some of them (enough, as it turned out) heard that ancient and distant call, heard that tone, that frequency – and likely saved the Capitol building, symbol of our government; not to mention all the people in and around it.
That is Remnant. That is the strength, the foundation, the core, the essence of civilization and decency in the face of barbarism and murder.
If this sounds like a fun thing to be then I have not been making myself clear. Nock elaborates:
[I]n any given society the Remnant are always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them… You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness; and this, I should say, is just the condition calculated most effectively to pique the interest of any prophet who is properly gifted with the imagination, insight and intellectual curiosity necessary to a successful pursuit of his trade…
…If, for example, you are a writer or a speaker or a preacher, you put forth an idea which lodges in the [subconscious] of a casual member of the Remnant and sticks fast there. For some time it is inert; then it begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man's conscious mind and, as one might say, corrupts it. Meanwhile, he has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first instance, and even perhaps thinks he has invented it; and in those circumstances, the most interesting thing of all is that you never know what the pressure of that idea will make him do.
I was myself “corrupted” by this idea of the Remnant four years ago. The more I think about it, the more it haunts me.
Because if you understand and believe that some people carry within them an inextinguishable spark, not of intellect or courage even, but rather of character, then you eventually come to the point where you realize — as did Nock and Isaiah and Plato – that mere numbers of people mean nothing. For if these men are correct, being outnumbered a thousand to one is irrelevant. And about a thousand to one is the number that Isaiah is given by God when he asks how many of the Remnant there may be.
Now you may be thinking that I am positioning this for you to consider yourself the Remnant and Your Humble Author the latest incarnation of their Prophet. I can assure you I mean no such thing. Because the maddening and magnificent thing about this quality of character is that it cannot be hustled, preached to, manipulated or organized:
He may be quite sure that the Remnant will make their own way to him without any adventitious aids; and not only so, but if they find him employing any such aids, as I said, it is ten to one that they will smell a rat in them and will sheer off…
… they take his message much as drivers take the directions on a roadside signboard – that is, with very little thought about the signboard, beyond being gratefully glad that it happened to be there, but with every thought about the directions.
This seems to me to be exactly right. If I take Nock at his word – and more and more I am inclined to do exactly that – then Nock was simply transmitting a message “in the blind,” with no hope or thought to who might read it, or when. And that idea (as he predicted) has burrowed deep into my mind – so much so that I too now feel compelled to re-transmit it in a way that Plato or Isaiah or Albert Jay Nock could never have imagined: at the speed of light to magic lanterns scattered across the entire planet.
One in a thousand of the world’s population is 6 million people. If luck breaks a certain way, this message might reach one percent of that one in a thousand. But the beautiful thing is… that will be enough. Because we are not powerless. There is, indeed, something we can do.
(Part 2 continues below or by clicking here)