Government is an Edifice of Trust

The Prisoner's Dilemma (P.D) is the game theory parable in which two prisoners are separated by the police and offered a deal: Betray the other, and go free, while your colleague serves three years; if you sit mute, and your colleague betrays you, you serve three years; if you both betray each other, two years apiece; if you both sit mute, one year apiece.

What makes the P.D. a wonderful metaphor for most human interactions is that we would always cooperate with each other, and sit mute, if we trusted each other and were thinking about our mutual long term interests. Yet most human beings also have one eye on the prize, and the prospect of walking free is not indifferent. Therefore, selfishness and short term interest will frequently prompt us to take our shot--whereupon, in a repeated series of exchanges, we are likely to settle down to betraying each other on every round, serving two years in prison each time when we might be serving just one.

Government is the mutual structure we form when we decide to stop betraying each other in every round of the P.D. Man's first step out of the Hobbesian war of all against all is when he recognizes several things: his enemy, the other, has become familiar and his actions predictable and not entirely inimical; secondly, the benefits of cooperation are patently obvious; third, the future has a shadow--there are immediate and painful consequences of betrayal.

All of this can happen in a state of chaotic nature, as we know because even animals play the cooperation card in the P.D. To pick just one well-known example, the cleaner wrasse scours the mouths of predatory fish large enough to eat it in one bite; it cooperates by taking the risk, and the larger fish, sensible to the benefits of having their parasites removed, cooperate by refraining from eating it. If the wrasse can play the cooperation card, we as humans can learn to do no less.

For humans, government follows naturally from a decision to stop betraying one another. While primitive humans in small tribes might easily mediate the question of what, exactly, were the rules and tokens of cooperation and betrayal, larger agglomerations of people needed to have a rule-making body, a rule-interpreting body, and a leader who could avoid deadlocks between the other two groups, as well as setting the tone for the entire enterprise. Here are the three branches of our democracy, executive, legislative and judicial.

Government, then, is our compact to stop betraying one another in the P.D. It is our way of collectively taking actions which we recognize as necessary but which most of us would lack the will to do if they were not universal. Among a better species than ours, for example, taxes might be unknown and each citizen might simply voluntarily contribute the amount of money best calculated to allow the collectivity to pay certain necessary and agreed expenses. But humans, if they tried to institute a voluntary system of taxation, would be squarely back in the most dubious zone of the P.D.: paying your tithe equals cooperation, while failing to pay it is betrayal without consequences, and sooner or later everyone would fail to pay, rather than receive the sucker's reward of paying for the poor while his neighbor buys a new barbecue set.

Another way of phrasing this: government is what we create in order to live permanently in the zone of Kantian categorical imperatives. We identify those things we wish everyone would do (or refrain from doing) and then create an edifice that assures that the maximum number of us will act according to the imperative. Democracy is the glue that makes sure that we are acting according to a truly majoritarian impulse, not merely a tyrant's idea of a categorical imperative.

Civil liberties--embodied by the Bill of Rights in this country-- are the protections we assemble within our edifice to guard against the tyranny of the majority. Here our categorical imperatives tell us that even the will of the majority is bounded by certain moral requirements. In order to make sure that the cooperation card does not turn into a betrayal of someone else in our multi-player game, we define the circumstances under which the multitude (or its government) can go no further and must respect the will of a minority.

The problem, however, is that once we create the edifice of trust, we turn it over to bureaucrats and politicians to manage.

The first class--the bureaucrats--have existed at least as long as writing; some of the oldest inscriptions from Sumerian and ancient Egyptian times are not songs or stories, but administrative records of the contents of warehouses. Any job that must be done, of creation, distribution, or even destruction, can be broken down by the human mind into a series of steps and a corresponding distribution of labor. Someone then comes forth to make the determination as to who does what; it must also be decided who is to provide the raw materials, and who is to receive the product. Also, a record of the proceedings must be kept. Whether the job is to store grain and divide it up during a famine, to murder all available Jews, or to monitor abused children in New York City, all bureaucratic tasks have an air of similarity about them. In a recent essay, I quoted a memorandum from a German engineer during Nazi times, whose task was the testing of a van used to murder Jews; he wrote of the shifting of the "cargo" during the venting of the gas and the necessity to clean up "thick and thin fluids" afterwards. Similarly, abused children in New York City become files to be closed. Bureaucracy diffuses responsibility, so no-one can really be blamed; it also attracts task oriented people, who dive into the details and all too frequently lose sight of the meaning, the heart, of the task itself. By definition, a bureaucracy cannot exercise compassion, because compassion itself defies the necessary identification of the subject, the Jew or the child, as a thing. Nor can a bureaucracy exercise leadership, or even be led; leadership is a jerky, impulsive thing, fed directly from the heart, or, if it is to survive, a marriage of the head and the heart. Bureaucracies are all superego, without any ego or id; everything is a detail; there can be no leaps of faith. A democracy which grows a large bureaucracy to carry out the tasks of the executive branch is like a sailing ship proliferating anchors.

Bureaucrats concentrate so much on the task at hand that they lose sight of the poles of betrayal and cooperation, and in fact forget that they are players in a P.D. Therefore, they are morally neutral, evil by effect more often than by design. An evil genius, like a Hitler, may have created the bureaucracy and set it free; but the people who inhabit it are usually morally vacant, rather than actively evil, for evil itself involves a form of heart and leadership of which they are not capable. A worse class, because it is so often consciously immoral, is the politician; he is a sanctimonious fraud who, pretending to play the cooperation card, engages in a series of betrayals.

Politics has been defined as the art of deciding who gets what when; but, if it was carried on with mutual respect and compassion, in obedience to categorical imperatives, we would hardly call it politics. The national debate would center only on issues, and never interests. But politics, as we know it, is the art of knifing people who didn't vote for you, in order to give benefits to those who did; even worse, it is the art of knifing the people who voted for you, in favor of the people who gave you money. As I have mentioned before, the shadow has no future for politicians; the public memory is too short; they can play out their little betrayals without the fear of any consequences much more profound than losing an election. Whether I decide that there should be no guns anywhere, because my constitutents don't want them, or decide that your district should teem with illegal guns in the hands of desperate children, because my constituents (or contributors) don't want any restrictions, I have played the betrayal card. Cooperation involves a search for the national middle ground--something the American people seem desperately to desire but which their politicians have forgotten how to achieve.

To sum up, the irony and tragedy of the human condition are expressed by the following: We perceive that we are players in the Prisoner's Dilemma. We make a compact that we will play the cooperation card, and form governments to aid us. Then we turn them over to the bureaucrats and politicians to administer.

The one gleam of hope--sometimes--is the third branch of government, the judiciary who are called upon to review the effects of the deeds of the other two branches. There are three kinds of judges. Some are bureaucrats, and others are politicians. But the third type are scholars, who care passionately about the never-ending story of the law, and whose deliberations are (at least sometimes) informed by compassion. It is this third and balancing branch that helps us avoid the consequences of some of the worst of the betrayals practiced by the other two.