Posted by: The Amoeba | April 3, 2009

We Are All Just Prisoners Here

A couple of days ago as I write this (3 April 2009), I complained about how attempts by the Hawai‘i State Legislature to come up with a sensible budget in these straitened economic circumstances were being sabotaged. At a time which, more than most times, calls for cooperation among all citizens (one would think), representatives of every interest group, large and small, are instead running through the legislative halls chanting “not me, not mine”.

The post attracted the interest of folk who are distressed by this phenomenon (thanks, Kitty, Cherie, Gary, and Ian, for your shoutouts) and can’t figure out how come people don’t show common sense.

Meanwhile, the mathematicians are looking at the State House behavior and saying “Yep, that’s about right.”

How come? Because, in any group, each member experiences a tension between serving the self and serving the community. And, believe it or not, the people who study these things for a living have found that, in the short term, it pays to act selfishly in most situations. Ants and rats, fish and birds, not to mention apes and monkeys, have the same problems we do.

This pattern has been observed so many times, it has been reduced to mathematical equations. Math games based on those equations, such as the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, replicate nature, including human nature, with chilling accuracy. In fact, the name of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game itself comes from observation of human nature: the inmate of a prison cannot escape confinement without the aid of others, but cannot enlist that aid without running the risk of the “help” betraying the inmate to the jailers or otherwise cheating. Cheating is the “selfish” answer – and, in most versions of the game, especially the simpler ones, it is the winning strategy.

In the case of the birds (follow the link above, it’s a cartoon and it’s great), the game accurately predicts that individuals will act selfishly (and mutually destructively) even though each individual would have done better, over the long term, to cooperate with its neighbors. Because a long-term strategy based on cooperation depends on your being able to survive being double-crossed in the short term, and few players are willing to take that risk.

Thus, in the State House, I suggest, no group is willing to be the first to volunteer a budget concession, lest it get stomped to death by the non-cooperators stampeding in to snatch the concession, and anything else they can grab.

How is it, then, that We the People ever got to the point of having a Legislature to complain to about how it disburses its no money? I suggest that, unlike birds, people have the ability to record their experiences, learn from them, and pass that learning to other people. A human society should be able to identify successful long-term strategies for the survival of the society and its members, and implement them, rejecting short-term, risky gains precisely because it knows what the consequences of those risky gains might be.

Only one small problem. A society that has the power to enforce a long-term common-good strategy in the face of more-lucrative-sounding individual options is probably one that most Americans would reject out of hand. Social codes would likely be far more rigid and uniform, and personal liberties, whether de jure or de facto, would probably be sharply curtailed.

And you’d probably spend a whole heck of a lot of time in church / synagogue / mosque etc. Think about it. What is the message of the typical sermon? Don’t do that! You might win today, but tomorrow it will bite you, and your community, in the butt. We are here to help you resist temptation, to do the long-term “right thing”. And we are God is here to beat you up if you don’t.

Such a society might have an easier time instructing its citizens what they are to do, and punishing those who stray from the designated path. But I reckon it wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun.

Then again, neither is the prospect of various individuals standing over the steaming wreckage of Hawai‘i Government, shouting “Where’s mine?

  O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions expressed are mine, as a private citizen.



  1. We have a Legislature to complain about because most people put there head in the sand and don’t vote so the same fools keep getting elected over and over and over again and become so out of touch with reality that they do what they want when they want and how they want. Dan Inouye comes to mind, Ted Kennedy…look how long they’ve been in office. Enough is enough. So I believe it is us that locks the cells and puts us into prison, with our elected officials as the stupified guards.

  2. An interesting post. I’m similarly frustrated. But I think one dimension missing from most of the social experiments is leadership. Those of us who are not completely cynical, to wit, not me, are susceptible to being called if someone will risk calling. That’s why, I suppose, someone stands in front of those churches, synagogues, Gurdwara’s and Mosques.

  3. pennsyltucky was muy frustrated a few years ago with its legislative leadership, especially a midnight pay raise it gave itself.

    cah-ching! the voters voting a bunch of the top people out of office. and replaced some of them with total putzes. but a good change was made. and now other people are gearing up to run. there’s got to be some good people in that mix.

    Or so I hope. Hope rises eternal. I just hate it when it kicks me in the arse as it rises.

  4. Thom, my thought is that most people don’t vote because, by the time they’re given a chance, their choice is between (ahem) Dude and Dude, and they know it. The real choices are made by the select few in caucuses and party committees, and their choices are determined by how We the People act (as opposed to what we say). Most of us are not yet in desperate enough straits to participate in the real selection business. Which leaves the selection to the crackpots and professionals (not to mention the professional crackpots) of (mostly) the special interests, who do make it their business to be present where the electoral rubber hits the road.

    Doug, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” I can’t respond better than did Yeats.

    Sauerkraut, there may or may not be good people in that mix of yours. I suspect, however, that the people that are really needed at times like these can’t be elected, because they will insist on telling the truth. While most people insist on a choice between left-handed and right-handed lies.

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