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It seems to me that in countries with systemic corruption there is a huge game of prisoner's dilemma being played, with everyone making the 'wrong' decision.

Here's a fascinating quote from a book about Kenyan graft [1]:

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Where does each individual draw the limits of his or her compassion, beyond which duties of kindness, generosity and personal obligation no longer apply? I was raised in a household where my parents drew them in totally different places, according to their very different characters and backgrounds.

As an Italian, my mother grew up in a country whose government had given birth to Fascism, formed a discreditable pact with Hitler, and launched itself on a series of unnecessary wars which left Italy occupied and battle-scarred. There then followed a seemingly endless series of short-lived, sleaze-ridden administrations. The experience left her utterly cynical about officialdom. Although she dutifully voted in every election, the malevolence of the system was taken for granted, and she would happily have lied and cheated in any encounter with the state had she believed she could get away with it. But no one worked harder for her fellow man, for in the place of the state she maintained her own support network. An instinctive practitioner of what sociologists call 'the economics of affection', my mother had a circle of compassion drawn to include a collection of lonely acquaintances. She visited their council flats bearing cakes, sent amusing press cuttings to their prison cells, queued at the gates of their psychiatric hospitals. Hers was a world of one-on-one interactions, in which obligations, duties, morality itself, took strictly personal form, and were no less onerous for it. The glow she radiated was life-enhancing, but its light only stretched so far, and beyond lay utter darkness. Protecting one's own was vital, for life had taught her that the world outside would show no mercy. She was not alone in her ability to get things done without the state's involvement. 'Il mio sistema' Italians call it: 'my system'. Italy is, after all, the birthplace of the Mafia, the ultimate of personal 'sistema', and my mother's mindset was instinctively mafioso.

My father, in contract, was typical of a certain sort of law-abiding, diffident Englishman for whom a set of impartial, lucid rules represented civilisation at its most advanced. He was raided in a country which pluckily held out against the Germans during the Second World War and then set up the National Health Service in which he spent his career, and his trust in the essential decency of his duly elected representatives was so profound that he was shocked to the core by British perfidy during the Suez crisis, and believed Tony Blair when he said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When, as an eleven-year-old schoolgirl, I mentioned - with a certain pride - that I usually managed to get home without paying my bus fare, he explained disapprovingly that if everyone behaved that way, London Transport would grind to a halt. Remove the civic ethos, and anarchy descended. A logical man, he saw this as the only practical way of running a complex society. It also, conveniently for an Englishman awkward with personal intimacy, enabled him to engage with his fellow man at a completely impersonal level. Not for him my mother's instinctive charm, the immediate eye contact, the hand on arm. He felt no obligation to provide for nieces and nephews, and had a cousin come up for a job before one of the many appointment boards on which he sat, he would have immediately excused himself. Nothing could be more repugnant to him than asking a friend to bend the rules as a personal favour. What need was there for a rival, alternative sistema, if the existing arrangement of rights and duties already delivered?

My father's world view was typically northern European. My mother's characteristically Mediterranean approach would have made perfect sense to any Kenyan. In an 'us-against-the-rest' universe, the put-upon pine to belong to a form of Masonic lodge whose advantages are labelled 'Members Only'. In the industrialised world, that 'us' is usually defined by class, religion, or profession. In Kenya, it was inevitably defined by tribe

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Its-Our-Turn-Eat-Whistle-Blower/dp/00...




Great post and wonderfully illustrated!

The prisoner dilemma also ties into the tragedy of the commons: when multiple players decide to defect and exploit the commons to the fullest, then commons lose their value for all.

It is also related to temporal discounting - we prefer to pollute today and ignore the price tag we will face in the future.

We know so much about game theory yet we can't apply it in politics, because it requires long-term thinking and optimizing for the success of everyone as opposed to just a few. And we're in a point where words don't mean as much, we're flooded with propaganda from all sides and can't speak reason over the cacophony.


The n-player PD is also known as the public goods game, and is used to study cooperation as well.

Another meta-conclusion I would draw from our paper is that current game theory is insufficient to explain what we observe in real life, including politics, negotiation, and so on. It is folly to apply hyperrationality (strict economic modeling) to real human behavior, and part of the goal of our work is to stimulate more realistic models of what people do in these situations.


The PD is important because it's mostly the rational selfish actors who we need to worry about. Irrationally altruistic actors are rare, and irrational selfish actors tend to self-immolate or get arrested quickly. Many things go on during church socials that don't require any problem-solving on the part of game theorists; because widespread altruism is already a solution, just the hardest solution to actually get to.


>> "We know so much about game theory yet we can't apply it in politics" Oh, but we do apply this to politics, constantly; laws a re passed and enforced precisely to short-circuit a great many PDs; since if there's a large external penalty (even if infrequently applied) then short cuts may not pay. We tax everyone set amounts rather than ask nicely for contributions because that would set up a free-rider PD, etc, etc.

Of course, many political situations also exist where companies donate heavily and then ask for such penalties to be removed so they can sell worthless securities or not have their emissions monitored anymore. Democracy turns out to be pretty thoroughly corruptible, (but so do other forms of government.)


I think it's more that you have to understand game theory to follow it. Otherwise it's a descriptive language for understanding why things are.




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