How to decrease defection and encourage cooperation?

As I was saying yesterday, functional societies are places where people cooperate rather than defect (prisoner’s dilemma style), but now people are trying to advance their own personal interests by accusing others of defecting–that is, in effect, defecting against them. Our particular class and racial dynamics have exacerbated–or perhaps caused–this dynamic.

So how to change things? A few thoughts:

1. Government has the most obvious power to curb defection and increase cooperation, and indeed, this should probably be thought of as one of the prime functions of government. All societies require cooperation merely to exist, and more cooperation => more society.

Libertarianism has many fine points in its theory, but it deals poorly with multipolar traps. In cases where someone can profit themselves by being a free rider (defecting,) chances are they will–and they will pass on this advantage to their children, until you have a nation of cheaters. I remember an example from my own school days: A group of farmers gets together one year to higher a crop-dusting plane, and they all enjoy a larger harvest as a result. But the next year, the guy with the field in the middle of the area being dusted decides not to pay in. His field gets dusted anyway, just because it’s impossible not to dust it in the process, and so he gets all of the rewards of crop dusting without paying the price.

The government effectively solves this problem by eliminating the possibility of being a free rider. Everyone now has to pay a tax that goes to hire the annual crop-dusting plane, and you must pay your taxes or go to jail.

2. The vague–or not so vague!–sense that others are defecting while you are cooperating may just be instinctual. Therefore, it is probably in the interests of any government to put in place some kind of measures to make sure people aren’t defecting and to reassure people about this.

However, it is critical that such systems not get turned into further vehicles for defection.

For example, many (if not most) of the lawsuits corporations lodge against each other are totally bogus and exist for the sole purposes of A. inconveniencing the opposition and B. benefiting the lawyers. Millions upon million of dollars and hours of human labor are poured each year into activities that only serve to mutually weaken corporations.

In lawsuits over patents that actually get all the way to court, to give a sub-example, it is extremely common for the patent itself to simply get thrown out on the grounds that it is a bad patent that should have never been granted. (I’ve seen estimates between 25% and 77%.) In many of these lawsuits, a company will just scatter-shot sue a dozen or two different companies all at once over a clearly bogus patent, in the hopes that the sued companies will cut their losses and settle out of court. There are even businesses whose entire model is just to buy crappy old patents companies don’t want anymore before they expire and then sue everyone in sight. It’s called “patent trolling.”

Assuming we want patents to keep existing, then people have to be able to sue others for infringement, but patent trolls need to be shut down. The obvious solution here is to identify patterns of patent troll behavior and then punish the trolls for it. First, once a lawsuit has been filed, don’t allow the parties to settle out of court. They must go before the judge/jury. Second, companies that lose due to patent invalidation must pay the sued-party’s legal costs.

I could go on, but people who are actually trained in legal matters can do a far better job of recommending fixes to the patent system than I.

To make another example: there’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about whether or not the police are killing and imprisoning black people at higher rates than whites. The police should be (and be perceived as) trustworthy. This is a matter that the government should solve–figure out who is actually doing the defecting, publicize the results, and then do some trust-building between the police and their communities.

3. If white Yale professors think Yale needs fewer white professors and more black ones, the easiest way for them to demonstrate that they are not defecting against other white professors (who might otherwise receive those spots) is to give up their own professorships in order to make room for black candidates. Alternatively, they could just give up their paychecks to provide funding for the new positions.

4. People seem most willing to cooperate when they are all ethnically similar. Not only are they surrounded by people who are obviously behaving the same as they are, thus reducing concern about misbehavior, they have a genetic interest in cooperating. Defecting against your children or your siblings is a bad strategy in the genetic sense, because fewer copies of your genes end up existing, so people who defect against their own families tend to weed themselves out of the gene pool, leaving behind people who are good at cooperating with their kin.

Japan is an example of a society that is extremely ethnically homogenous. Just look at their little section in the graph at the top of the blog! (They’re on the far right.) Compare the smooth transition from yellow to cream with the jagged lines of the Uzbeks or the Bedouins. And the spirit of public-minded cooperation in Japan is extremely strong. The Japanese are clean, helpful, polite, and commit vanishingly little crime.

By contrast, high levels of ethnic diversity are correlated with high levels of violence, civil war, etc. in countries. There are a few exceptions to this rule, in countries that are so shitty that no one wants to move there, like Haiti. But in general, where people see themselves as ethnically different from their neighbors, they tend to defect on their neighbors.

Hartshorn ran a computer simulation of ethnic cooperation and defection strategies, with colored tiles on a board randomly assigned to cooperate or defect with tiles of their own color and to cooperate or defect with tiles of different colors. (4 different strategies in all.) In every simulation, the tiles that cooperated with their own colors and defected on other colors eventually took over the entire board.

So if two ethnic groups are living in close proximity, there’s a good chance that A. one or both of them will in fact be defecting, B. The group that defects more will actually benefit itself at the expense of the other, thus “winning”; and C. that both groups will become hyper paranoid about watching the other group for possibilities of defection, even if it isn’t happening. This is how wars get started.

The obvious answer to ethnic conflict is don’t have ethnic conflict. Only let people into your country who you would be willing to marry (in the hypothetical sense, not the literal,) and in such numbers that you can absorb them. You might also be able to let in people who are similar enough in behavior that you don’t really notice that they are ethnically different–for example, the Mormons are polytheists who tend to marry other Mormons, but they are generally polite, clean, hardworking, and easy enough to get along with. You could live next door to a Mormon and never even notice.

If the groups in a country do not effectively merge, you end up with two separate groups in one nation, which more often than not results in a bunch of people living in ghettos, and then you are very likely to fall into the mutual-defection trap. If having two (or more) separate groups in your country is inevitable (say, because they’re already there,) then I see two possibilities: A. try very hard to get everyone to think of each other as brothers and sisters in a metaphorical sense, perhaps through national holidays or forced conscription; or B. Give each group a bit of space so that they have fewer opportunities to defect on each other, and don’t set up systems that make people think defection is happening. Letting the Mormons live in Utah, for example, solved the problem of everyone thinking Mormons were weirdos back in the 1800s; letting the Amish be basically self-contained keeps them from getting into too much conflict with their neighbors today. (I think. I don’t have much experience with the Amish.)

Federalism was thought up as a way to let different people in different places effectively manage their own affairs. This system requires, however, that people actually abide by it. If we all agree that each community can educate its own children as it sees fit, and then one community decides it doesn’t have enough money for its schools, then the other communities have to be able to withstand the pressure to bail it out. Once you start bailing out other communities, they aren’t independent communities anymore but your wards, and they have to start abiding by your rules just as children obey their parents, or else we’re back to defection.

(Obviously helping each other out in times of environmental emergency may be perfectly reasonable.)



5 thoughts on “How to decrease defection and encourage cooperation?

  1. If comments about religion are not kosher here then please delete.

    What this reminds me of is the early Christian command to love one another. That must a been large part of the early success of the religion; defection was highly discouraged; cooperation within the group was made a tenet.

    That’s also why the modern liberal co-opting of Christian principles is so deadly to a nation, it makes cooperation a requirement, but only with people who will defect on you.


  2. “If we all agree that each community can educate its own children as it sees fit,”

    We don’t agree. Education should be handled privately. It’s is not a proper function of government at any level. Your premise is flawed. In your farmer scenerio you ignore the power of ostracism. Sure the farmer in the middle won’t have to pay for the crop duster but he will have to pay the price of being a pariah in his community. Few people can stand up to that.


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