One of the conversations on America’s Debate recently was on the topic of whether certain kinds of taxation can be considered theft. It’s a common enough meme. Many people seem to feel that government is like a store, where every individual taxpayer is entitled to at least a dollar’s worth of goods or services for every dollar paid in taxes. Nobody complains if they get more, of course, so it all ends up a little like Lake Wobegon (“where every child is above average”), but there’s no shortage of people who whine about getting less. Clue #1: government is not like a store. The government is responsible to the people collectively, not individually, and sometimes benefits do not flow back to the same people who paid the taxes to create them. I used the example of fire or ambulance service. It doesn’t matter that the direct benefits are not distributed evenly, or that many of the people who do receive direct benefits are destitute; we’re all better off for having such services available. Likewise we’re better off having laws and courts that enforce contracts, protect us from thieves, and generally provide a business environment in which markets are truly free and competition can thrive. I might not benefit directly from apprehension of a particular thief, but I do benefit from the fact that thieves in general get caught.

This brings me to my real point, which is far more general. Regular readers know that I’m a big fan of game theory, and particularly the Prisoners’ Dilemma. One of the most interesting results in game theory, particularly in the work of Robert Axelrod (who has written two books and numerous articles on the subject), is the idea of cooperation between players arising spontaneously, i.e. without explicit collusion or even communication. What’s often overlooked is that spontaneous cooperation is only one example of a more general case: the success of a strategy based on heuristics rather than concrete knowledge about outcomes. You might not know, in any particular case, whether doing X will work out well, but you certainly can know that if you always do X you’ll do better over time than if you always avoid doing X. It’s a type of reasoning very familiar to game players. Without being able to foresee exactly how it will play out in the current game, a player might very well know that allowing a particular exchange or pawn structure to occur just seems to invite disaster time after time…so s/he avoids it. A particularly interesting example is the “poisoned pawn” that shows up in many openings. It’s hard to explain to a non-player, but the basic idea is that sometimes taking what seems to be a free pawn can be a grievous error. Sometimes the error is obvious, such as when a bishop or queen gets trapped. Other times the error is extremely subtle, such as when removing the pawn opens up a powerful line of attack for the opponent twenty moves later (b- and g-pawns are notorious this way).

The same sort of reasoning is just as applicable in human affairs. Certain behaviors are simply self-defeating, not because of immediate or direct retaliation but because they upset the social order in a way that just always seems to rebound on the original miscreant. There’s a reason every religion and culture has come up with ideas like karma and the Golden Rule and “as ye sow” and so on. They’re the real-life equivalent of the chess player’s “I get screwed whenever I do that” knowledge. There’s often a threshold effect too, best illustrated by a lesser known example from game theory – Rousseau’s Stag Hunt. A group of people want to hunt a stag, which can only be hunted successfully by a group acting in concert, and then only sometimes. But there are also rabbits in the woods which, while valued less than stags, can almost certainly be caught even by a single individual…especially if everybody else is off hunting stags. If everyone stays committed to the stag hunt, a feast is likely (though not certain). If too many people leave the group to hunt rabbits, though, there’s no chance of a venison feast. (Some of you might recognize this as being very similar to the more recent Tragedy of the Commons.) The point here is that societies and governments are more like stag hunts than anything else. Everyone thinks they’re the only one hunting rabbits, so they think it’s OK, but when everyone’s hunting rabbits we all get cheated out of a stag. The laissez-fairies are not the kings of competition, as they like to portray themselves; they’re the kings of degrading competition, so they can “get ahead” on a shorter, poorer track.

The systemic effects of either selfishness or selflessness far exceed anybody’s ability to predict consequences. Sometimes it’s worth adhering to a rule not because a reward is anticipated but because thousands of years of experience have taught us that it’s the right thing to do. We might not understand exactly why, it might seem less compelling than our rationalizations for selfishness, but it’s the right thing in the long run nevertheless.