On the prisoner's dillema (Is revolution the answer?)

Blake's comment reminded me of a Prisoner's Dillema exercise back in high school (bear with me all of you who've heard this story, the point will eventually come along). Basically, when setting up a prisoner's dillema, an artifical controlling force has to prevent the society-as-a-whole from rising up and putting down 1) those who are pissing in the well, and 2) those who are controlling the system which allows them to piss in the well.

Now, in our SUV situation, the artificial controlling force is government and laws which (currently) allow (and encourage) the SUV owners. You can change the situation by overthrowing the government (by lobbying, voting or armed revolution) to avoid or correct the incentive.

In our high school, I was part of an "enrichment" programme for the gifted, and one of the problems they decided to set up was a prisoner's dillema with cookies (we were high school students, cookies weren't the point). This was a fairly involved version of the exercise, with lobbying and political processes where you could try to form coalitions (or trick people into thinking they are part of a coalition).

My friend Darren and I looked at the scheme and immediately realised that there was an artificial barrier being put in place to support the anti-social behaviour. So, we used our lobbying time to arrange with all groups that, were we (Darren and I) to overthrow the government (teachers), they would stand aside and accept an equal distribution of the wealth held by the teachers in order to be able to guarantee all possible arrangements (due to the particular rules of distribution, we were able to offer better shares for everyone than any situation other than one where everyone save one went "blue", and with two of us in the revolution, we could guarantee that without the revolution there would be at least 3 "reds" (though we'd normally vote blue, it was necessary to get the short-sighted on board)).

It was a moderately peaceful revolution. I simply escorted the male teacher out of the room. I'm not exactly an imposing person, but he wasn't a huge man either, and he seemed to "get" that we were simply solving the problem they'd presented in the best possible way. Darren had considerably more trouble with the female teacher, who seemed to see it as a loss of control, devastating to the "point" being made. Darren wound up having to bodily pick her up and carry her from the room.

Weird to think what would have happened these days, probably would have been charged with assault and/or thrown out of school. Even "gifted" students don't have much lattitude these days from what I hear. Guess that's good if you're trying to create a society of lambs.

Anyway, long story short, the revolution was successful. We distributed the wealth, then allowed the teachers back in to rejoin society. However, the "wealth" being mere cookies, they prevailed upon us to allow them to run the simulation again, but without a revolution. Interestingly, without any risk of a revolution, the "reds" who were previously willing to accept an equal share showed through in classic greedy style, and their simulation worked perfectly well, with the 4 or 5 reds convincing others they would vote blue, then turning around to grab the entire pot for themselves.

Which I guess is my point. If we're all just willing to sit back and take it, the world falls all to hell as those who don't understand that society is a collective will to sacrifice something to gain more in total game the system and muck up the works. With the masses so hugely sedated, though, is there really any risk to the plutocrats and oligarchs of North America that even a effective political movement, let alone an armed rebellion, will rise against them?

I know, I know, "aren't I a pacifist?" No, actually, I'm not. I see society as a mechanism that requires a willingness to work within it as far as it can go, but also a willingness to step outside it and fix it when it is broken. Rebellion must be the last recourse, but if you forclose the possibility entirely, you make it too easy for the wolves to take control; rather than being a meadow leading to a good life, it becomes a pen holding sheep for the slaughter.


  1. Blake Winton

    Blake Winton on 06/24/2005 3:26 p.m. #

    Of course, these days, in our SUV situation, we have the alternate controlling force of the price of oil, which seems to be getting higher and higher. At some point, all but the richest will figure out that the benefits they're getting from their SUVs aren't nearly worth the price they're paying. My best hope in this case is that SUVs get larger and larger, to drive that day closer.<br />
    <br />
    Also, don't start the revolution until after your Cinemon demo! It sounds like a really neat product, and I'm looking forward to seeing what it can do, and hearing about the good and bad things that happened along the way.<br />

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