“Order Requires Rulers” Arguments Fail

From time to time, some pundit heaves a sigh and delivers what he believes to be a devastating argument against the idea of a stateless society: “Without rulers, there would be no order. Therefore, people would do whatever they wanted. There would be chaos.”

This is the fallacy of “Assuming The Conclusion.” When you are allowed to pick your own axioms in such fashion, you can prove anything at all.

There is a well-known game-theoretic construct called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Briefly, a scenario is constructed where it is most advantageous for either of two parties to cheat, but disadvantageous for both parties to cheat, and a slighter advantage if both cooperate. A naive application of Game Theory predicts that both will cheat, seeking their independent advantage – and both will lose.

Oddly enough, in Real Life, both often cooperate. This is particularly true in a version called the Iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma, where both parties meet repeatedly and play the original game. A small, repeatable, predictable reward is better than a larger one-time reward. It turns out that if you cheat somebody, that person may not ever be nice to you again. You only get one chance to demonstrate that you can “win” by harming the interests of others.

Instead of assuming, per Hobbes, that all will be at war with all, why not ask a different question? There are many secure transport services, such as Brinks and Pinkerton. Their business is to pick up valuables from some locations and transport them to other locations. Perhaps they are paid a monthly retainer, perhaps a percentage of value, perhaps a fixed amount per completed transfer – in any case, their income depends on successful transport of X from A to B. This is a low-risk income stream; attempted robberies are rare; they have the means to deal with less-extreme efforts to steal the valuables. All they have to do is honor their contract, and they’ll have a predictable stream of income.

But driver Hobbes has a brilliant idea – or so he thinks! Hey, let’s steal the contents of our competitor’s truck – we’ll be rich! Why doesn’t this happen often? Why do the secure transport firms not switch to robbing each other’s trucks?

Robbery is a high-risk business. Simply transporting valuables means a certain low risk of somebody trying to take your stuff, with the attendant danger. But trying to rob a truck is a guaranteed risk; the drivers of that other truck will try to stop you. Why would you choose to shift from a moderate to a much higher risk?

The high payoff might motivate you. But it has to be very high, because of your reputation risk; if you are known to be a thief, you’ll not ever be hired to transport valuables again.

In my field – computer systems administration and security – a similar risk exists. As “root” or “admin” on many systems, administrators have great powers. It is possible to do great harm to one’s employer; to take away valuable information; possibly to arrange large transfers of valuables (such as account balances, or products shipped to your fake account). Yet this is extremely rare. Why? Because of the loss of reputation. When asked “what would it take to cause you to violate the trust of your employer,” those few sysadmins who took the bait answered “enough to live the rest of my life in comfort.”

Since this was a hypothetical, not a negotiation, this is not evidence that sysadmins would actually accept such an offer. It is, however, evidence of something known to every competent sysadmin. Part of what they sell is their skillset – the ability to fix problems efficiently. It’s a very valuable component. But a second part is their reputation for integrity. Employers don’t want someone entering their “vaults” of precious information who can’t be trusted to neither damage nor take what is readily available therein.

There are many such dilemmas in the world. Many people protect their reputation, secure bonds, check the reputation of their employees, and in other ways manage the risk of Hobbesian behavior. There are many avenues of business – such as secure transport – which could take either of two forks – steady accumulation of small honest gains, versus one-time acquisition of large, dishonest games. By and large, most people make the honest choice.

Ironically, those who are supposedly responsible for keeping the rest of us honest, are often less than honest themselves. Police have been caught pilfering stores, for example; or shaking down drug dealers for money. As enforcers of the law, in a system which gives extra leeway to the enforcers, many police officers feel entitled to bend the law – a fact not recognized by Hobbesian defenders of statism.

Before uncritically accepting the argument that order depends on a Supreme Enforcer, one ought to investigate alternative methods of introducing order. One ought to study the Iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma; one ought to ask why the world does not fall apart when police officers are not keeping an eye on things; one ought to ask why some police officers and government officials go bad; one ought to ask a great many questions. And one ought to mightily slap oneself in the face before ever succumbing to the temptation to assume one’s conclusions.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchmen?

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