Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

(This essay is an elaboration of Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).

Imagine that I offered each person in a group the following deal: You can agree to give me $30, and in return I’ll give $10 to each and every person in the group, including you. I’ll give the $10 to everyone, whether they paid $30 or not, for each person that does pay $30.

Each person is faced with an offer to pay $30 dollars in return for, to him or her individually, $10, a bad deal for that individual (a loss of $20). But since everyone else in the group also each gets $10, for any group with a membership of more than three people, it is a bigger return to the group than cost to the group. If there are 10 people in the group, and everyone makes the deal, they each pay $30 and each get $100 in return, for a net gain of $70. However, if one doesn’t pay, he or she gets $90 outright (9 people taking the deal times $10 to each person in the group) while each of the others only get a net gain of $60 ($90 minus the $30 paid in). The individual incentive is not to pay in, even though everyone is better off the more people who do, with everyone coming out ahead if 3 or more people pay in. Those who don’t pay in, however, always do better than those who do (the “free rider problem”).

This dynamic is a major underlying force in the generation of social institutions, which to a large degree exist to overcome this collective action problem. There are many scenarios woven throughout our collective existence in which people benefit from some form of cooperation (even those forms that establish the rules for competition, such as the enforcement of property rights in service to the functioning of markets), but are tempted by individual incentives to cheat or fail to act cooperatively. Our laws, our contracts, our governments, our social norms, our ideologies, all are laden with mechanisms that have evolved with the purpose of creating mutual commitment mechanisms, enforced either externally by social institutions or internally to one’s own psychological make-up. Combined, they form social institutional technologies which are robust sets of memes self-replicating and spreading throughout our shared cognitive landscape (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

It has always been a dynamic at the heart of intertribal and international relations, in which sovereign societies must strategically interact in a world with limited international legal enforcement mechanisms. With increasing political, economic and cultural globalization, and information, communication and transportation technologies make the world ever smaller and more tightly integrated, examining these dynamics is one critical component of understanding the shared geopolitical landscape in which we live.

“The War of the Woods”:

Imagine that long ago, two countries, Apestonia and Pulgalandia, had a forest on their border. Both countries desperately needed the wood in the forest, because it was both their primary building material and their fuel. Each country was faced with the choice of either dividing the forest evenly, or attacking the other and trying to get more of the forest for themself.

There are 1000 acres of forest between the two countries. If the two countries agree to draw their border right through the middle of it, they can each have 500 acres of forest, which they both desperately need.

But if one attacks quickly while the other one is planning on sharing the forest evenly (and so isn’t prepared for war), the one that attacks will capture 700 acres of the forest, 300 acres will be burnt or destroyed during the fighting, and the other will get zero acres. Since they are militarily evenly matched, if they both attack each other at the same time, 400 acres of forest will be destroyed in the fighting, and they’ll each end up with 300 acres of forest.

Here’s a table that summarizes these choices and outcomes:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate(attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 500 Acres Apestonia: 0 Acres

Pulgalandia: 700 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres

Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 300 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres

Each country faces the following logic: “We don’t know what the other country will do. If they decide to cooperate (not attack first), we will get 500 acres if we also cooperate, but 700 acres if we don’t (if we attack unprovoked). Therefore, if they cooperate, we are better off not cooperating (attacking). If they decide not to cooperate (to attack), then we will get zero acres if we cooperate (don’t attack), but 300 acres if we don’t (if we attack). Therefore, no matter what the other country does, we are better off attacking.”

However, if both countries follow that logic, they each end up with 300 acres, though if they had cooperated and split the forest, they would have each ended up with 500 acres. So, while each country has an incentive to attack, if they can find a way to commit one another to cooperation, they both benefit.

So, even though they have a conflict over the forest, they have a shared interest in finding a way to commit one another to cooperating for mutual benefit. This is often the case, with war being costly in blood and treasure, and peaceful coexistence (and even mutually beneficial exchange) being far more conducive to general prosperity.

Historically, real tribes and countries have faced this challenge. Some have said, “Okay, let’s agree to cooperate, and to make sure no one cheats, we’ll exchange hostages.” And then each country would send an important member of their own society (often the ruler’s daughter to be raised by the other ruler as his or her own) to go live with the other society, so that if either cheats, that hostage can be killed in retaliation. Later, countries sent the children of royalty to marry the children of royalty in other countries, sort of as “permanent hostages,” but also to bind the countries together so that they can act more cooperatively.

In the modern world, we’ve developed a much more elaborate system of international diplomacy, with embassies in each other’s countries, and treaties, and international organizations (like the United Nations). The European Union, whose roots go back to post-WWII efforts to create economic ties that would diminish the chances of resumed warfare, is perhaps the most advanced example of emerging international political economic consolidation

Not just internationally, but within nations, overcoming this collective action problem is a big part of why we’ve created many of the social institutions we’ve created. Our Constitution, our laws, even our religions, have developed in many ways to help make it easier for people to commit one another to mutually beneficial actions even when they have individual incentives to cheat or act in non-cooperative ways.

With modern technologies, modern weapons (such as nuclear weapons), modern transportation and communication technologies, an increasingly global economy, increasingly global environmental and natural resource issues, all nations in the world face many collective action problems. Our increasing political globalization is a complex tapestry of conflict and cooperation woven within this underlying logic.

So far, we’ve assumed that the countries were equally matched, and looked at the cost-benefit analysis of each when considering whether to attack the other or to live in peace. But what if they weren’t evenly matched? What if one was militarily stronger than the other? How would that change things?

If Apestonia were more powerful than Pulgalandia, then Apestonia would capture more forest than Pulgalandia would if the two went to war. If Apestonia were to attack first, perhaps it would capture the whole forest against the weaker Pulgalandia, losing only a small portion (let’s say a tenth) in battle. This outcome can be seen in the lower-left square of the two-by-two table, in which Apestonia attacks first and captures 900 acres, while Pulgalandia ends up with zero.

Conversely, if Pulgalandia attacks first, it will gain the advantage of surprise, but will still be facing a superior force, and might manage to capture and control 300 acres against Apestonia’s 500, 200 being lost to the destruction of war. This outcome is summarized in the upper-right square.

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 900 Acres

Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 600 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres

If they both attack each other at the same time, more forest will be lost to the destruction of battle, and neither will have the benefit of surprise, but Apestonia will still come out ahead. This is reflected in the lower-right square.

Because of the difference in power, when they negotiate a peace in which neither attacks, Apestonia can demand more of the forest than Pulgalandia. This is reflected in the upper-left square.

The logic that the two countries face is still similar to the logic that they faced when equally powerful. Neither knows what the other will do. Apestonia says to itself, “If Pulgalandia cooperates (doesn’t attack), we can get 800 acres for also cooperating (not attacking), or 900 acres for attacking. If Pulgalandia doesn’t attack, we are better off attacking. If Pulgalandia does attack, we can get 500 acres for not attacking first (only reacting to their attack), and 600 for attacking first, so, again, we are better off attacking. No matter what Pulgalandia does, we’re better off attacking.

Similarly, Pulgalandia is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia do. They say to themselves, “If Apestonia doesn’t attack first, we get 200 acres for also not attacking, but 300 for attacking, and if Apestonia does attack first, we get zero acres for not having attacked at the same time but 100 acres for having attacked at the same time. Either way, we’re better off attacking.”

But they both know this, and both know that they’d be better off not attacking one another. So, just as before, they need to invest in some way of committing one another to cooperation.

But the pay-offs can look different as well. It may be that, while the weaker Pulgalandia has incentives to attack no matter what the stronger Apestonia does, Apestonia gets a stronger benefit from cooperation. In the chart below, Pulgalandia still is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia does, and Apestonia, knowing that, knows it has to attack to get 550 rather than 500 acres. This is reflected in the table below:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres

But the most Pulgalandia can possibly get is 250 acres, if they attack before Apestonia does. Apestonia can just say, “look, we’ll give you 300 acres, 50 more than you can possibly get by attacking us. We’ll keep 700, which is more than we can get in any other way. If you attack, even while we are planning on cooperating with you, you lose 50 acres. You have no reason to attack, and we’re both better off than we can otherwise be.”

This is reflected in the table below, in which neither country has any incentive to do anything other than cooperate:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres

This is an illustration of how power is exercised among nations (or factions within a nation), even without having to exert any military force at all to do it. Nations know their relative power to one another, and when they negotiate treaties and deals they negotiate agreements that favor the more powerful. When the United States was formed, the more powerful (populous) states made sure that their power was reflected in the new government (by having representatives in Congress proportional to their population). When the United Nations charter was drafted, the most powerful nations insisted on forming a “security council,” that had far more power over the organization than other nations did.

Weak nations sometimes have the power of threatening to create problems for stronger nations, and thus get concessions to keep them calm. But nations also sometimes have leaders or governments that cease to act rationally, like the current government of North Korea seems to not be acting rationally.

Of course, if, in the end, the United States, worried about an irrational nuclear armed North Korea, gives them large amounts of aid to keep them from causing problems, then it will have turned out that North Korea’s “craziness” was pretty smart after all…. Strategies that “trump” rational considerations can be very rational strategies, including various ways of binding oneself to a limited range of options in order to increase one’s own bargaining power, or behaving in ways which make an opponent question one’s rationality in order to make them more accommodating for fear of erratic responses.

The scenarios presented above are highly simplified, leaving out many factors, such as uncertainty (real actors in such situations don’t know what the exact outcomes of various combinations of choices will be), more complexity in available options (not just binary choices), more interacting actors (not just two), more conflated issues being bargained over (not just a single resource), more costs and benefits to be considered (not just the amount of that single resource gained or lost), factional conflict across levels (different interest groups and political parties vying for different outcomes due to differing material interests and political ideological orientations), less centralized decision-making (not a single ruler making unlimited autocratic decisions, but rather in various ways collective decision-making processes impinging on the negotiations between actors constituted in that way), and various intrusions of emotional and irrational considerations, that even rational actors have to take into account.

But the complexity of the real world does not mean that abstraction from it is not a helpful tool in understanding underlying dynamics. Rather, it is a way of isolating individual dimensions of those underlying dynamics, gradually adding in enough of the complexity to begin to capture a deeper and subtler understanding of how our social institutional landscape really functions.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

I finally clicked on and opened this little treasure trove of wonders on The Economist website (, and discovered (at the top of a string of interesting posts) a post which suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that foreign participation in American democracy (ala foreign money financing political speech) is only just and right, since American hegemony means that American decisions increasingly directly and indirectly affect the lives of foreign nationals.

As I’ve argued before (, there isn’t really such a vast difference between “empire” and “federalism” as we sometimes pretend. The Tea Partiers, as sometimes happens, are actually right to conflate the two, though wrong in the oversimplistic moral-political judgment they impose on that similarity: Such political consolidation generally yields both aggregate and broadly (if not equitably) distributed benefits that shouldn’t be disregarded. It also involves the institutionalization of uneven distributions of power and influence.

As many people around the world viscerally realize, American hegemony is not really that far removed from American empire, just as Roman hegemony during the late Republic was not all that different from the Roman Empire that followed. And the Southern states that rebelled in defense of slavery were far more accurate than the Northern zeitgeist acknowledges when they (the Confederates) claimed to be heirs to the revolutionaries, fighting against a centralized federal/imperial government telling them what to do.

Of course, the American Revolutionaries themselves weren’t all that anti-imperialistic a mere 13 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when they were still proud and loyal British citizens. It was their disappointment in the wake of the French and Indian War over a set of British policies that was less favorable to them than they would have liked that quickly eroded their love of empire (the policies in question included the abandonment of the long-standing British policy of “salutary neglect,” sparing the colonies the taxes levied on everyone else in order to give them an opportunity to grow prosperous, which they did; the protection of the Indian tribes in the newly acquired Ohio Valley from colonial expansion; and tolerance of the French language and Catholic religion in the newly acquired Canadian territory).

Our attitudes (like those of our founding fathers) toward political consolidation and centralization are generally situational, less indignant when it is serving our interests, and more indignant when it isn’t. Two ideological cross-currents have entered that stream, one which views any exercise of power over those who are not constituents of that power (i.e., members of the electorate of those who exercise it) as unjust and unacceptable; and one which, bizarrely, sees any consolidation of democratic agency within the nation (over those who elect their representatives) as an affront to liberty, but at least a significant faction of which is not particularly concerned about exercises of power abroad (over those who have no democratic say in the matter), except to the extent that it inconveniences them. (To their credit, another faction of this latter group are true isolationists, but, as I hope I make clear below, though that may be more consistent, it isn’t at all functional).

Both of these ideological cross-currents to some extent confuse the issue, the first by positing that humanity is best served by the eradication of all injustice (something that, if successfully prosecuted, leads to universal destitution), and the second by thinking that humanity is best served by the eradication of all power (other than, for some, that which the nation projects abroad), something that, if successfully prosecuted, leads to social disintegration and a very dramatic contraction of wealth and well-being (whether at the national or global level).

While I am not unaware of the beneficial, if not necessary, role of hegemony in the world, simply because the preferable path of global confederation is too obstructed by a tangled and brutal mess of vested interests to keep pace with the overwhelming need for some degree of global governance, I certainly recognize the injustice of it, and even more so when hegemony is exercised particularly irresponsibly (as it was throughout the first eight years of the new millennium). I’ve written about that demand for global governance (Problems Without Borders ), and about the aristocratic arrogance with which that demand has been met, when it’s been met at all (Lords and Serfs on the Global Manor: Foreign Aid as Noblesse Oblige ). But social organization, perhaps in all forms, involves some distribution and exercise of power (even decentralized normative control does). That’s just a reality we have to deal with, and far preferable to the alternative (a Hobbesian “war of all against all”).

The issue isn’t that the power exists, but rather how it is distributed, how it’s checked and balanced, how it’s contextualized to best serve the interests of those under its umbrella and to protect the vulnerable from abuses. We should want to live in a world capable of organizing across national boundaries to face international challenges and take advantage of international opportunities. But we should also want it to be done, to whatever extent possible, in a way which does not, systemically and consistently, serve the interests of some at the expense of the interests of others. We should want it to be done democratically.

America no longer trusts the world enough to be in the vanguard of its democratization as a world. We have, for some time, exercised our hegemony with disdain for the voice and will of those over whom we are exercising it. This is neither just, nor, in the long run, functional. Maybe it’s time we returned to the dream of Wilson and FDR that we usher in a new age of international organization, and sought ways to give those over whom we reign some small voice in how they are ruled.

I am not, of course, suggesting that we extend rights of direct or equitable participation in American democracy to the world’s population, but rather that we continue what had been evolving for two centuries or more; the gradual forging of a weak but functioning overlay of global governance. From the Concert of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, through the League of Nations, to the United Nations, the modern developed world (repeatedly abandoned by the United States in the effort) has haltingly and imperfectly tried to forge workable institutions comprising a weak overlay of participatory global governance, each incarnation a little stronger and more functional than the last.

The United Nations is hopelessly flawed, it is true, but so was The United States under the Articles of Confederation. Hopeless flaws invite hopeful reforms, not an abandonment of the challenge the flawed institutions arose to meet. We probably need a new incarnation of this necessary part of the global institutional landscape, one which has more direct subnational representation and less deference to often parasitic national governments that don’t necessarily represent their people’s interests, and more participation of transnational, extranational, and supranational organizations that are key players on the world stage. But America has to continue to aspire to be more than a mere hegemon pursuing its own interests in the global arena; we must aspire to be the “leaders of the free world” we have so long claimed to be, and, as leaders committed to democratic ideals, continue to seek and find ways to include those who are led in the decision-making processes which affect them.