The Ethical Spectacle September 1995

Between Welfare Recipients and the Rest of Us

There is a second simultaneous game of Prisoner's Dilemma taking place, between welfare recipients and the rest of us. The whole U.S. population exclusive of welfare recipients constitutes one player, voting on which card to play, while each welfare recipient individually decides whether to cooperate or defect.

For the collective "U.S. Citizen not on welfare" player, cooperation means willingness to contribute some percentage of income taxes each year to the support of the indigent. Defection means refusing to support the indigent via tax funds, and, accordingly, voting for politicians who will cut welfare.

For the individual welfare player, cooperation means getting on welfare as late as possible, as little as possible, and for as short a period of time as possible. It means searching hard for a job, or acquiring the skills to find one, and not having more children while on welfare. Defection, however, means regarding welfare as a birthright, not seeking to avoid it or get off of it, staying on it as long as possible, and raising as many children as possible.

As with any Prisoner's Dilemma, if we could all cooperate we would be in the best possible situation collectively. We, the nonwelfare players, wouldn't gripe about paying our taxes or seek to avoid supporting the poor. For their part, the poor would be very well behaved, and never give us any reason to regret supporting them during their hard times.

In my business, there is a speech I must give employees from time to time about how corporate rules must often be pitched to protect us against the bad apples, even though the majority of employees are honest. We have nondisclosure agreements because of the employees who stole data, and so forth. Similarly, social policy tends to be pitched to protect against defectors on the other side. The fact that "tit for tat" is the most stable of strategies in the Prisoner's Dilemma dictates that this is correct. We must reward cooperation and punish defection. But, of course, the other side is concerned to do the same thing. How does a welfare recipient punish defection? There are a number of available alternatives: crime and radical political action are two of them.

Cooperation breaks down when one side or both decides there is absolutely nothing to be gained from it. In Nazi Germany, the Jews cooperated in their own destruction; the Nazis found a form of defection that looked to desperate Jews like cooperation, and they boarded the cattle cars. The message of the Contract Republicans seems also to be that the only cooperation we seek from the desperately poor is that they vanish. The message is that we do not care how they do it: die, leave or metamorphose into something else; just don't disturb us on your way out.

It is possible to defect because we believe the future has no shadow for us. The poor will complacently die, or vanish, or get jobs and cease to be a burden. Some of course will, while others will defect in the only ways available to them. "Yes," you say, "some will resort to crime, and some will riot, but to continue welfare to prevent such a defection is to give in to blackmail. Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." You will, perhaps, in the next breath extend your indulgence to the right wing militiaman who has been driven too far by government interference. If he picks up a gun, it is regrettable, but understandable. If so, you have just had a failure of the imagination: you acknowledge that too much government is a defection triggering a punishment, but you cannot see that too little government may be the same. The desperate man or woman says: I am here, I want to live and work, but no-one will give me a job, or train me, or help me. I will not die. So what do you expect me to do?

For the future really does have no shadow for the desperate. Our belief that there are no consequences in defection is based on self-deception. Theirs is based on the reality that no shadow can be worse than the death resulting from their cooperation, so there are no consequences to defection.

If we do not somehow climb back on to the ground of mutual cooperation, a hard rain is gonna fall. It may take five years or twenty, but we will see it in our lifetimes. It is not an America I care to live in.