Blog by Lukas
The odds of any one individual getting the Corona virus are so far quite low, and the probability of severe symptoms or death even lower. Making individual decisions based on this low probability is therefore, on some level, the rational thing to do. But on a long enough time scale — which in this case could be a matter of weeks — self-interested rationality becomes catastrophic. For some it may be physical, and for others psychological, emotional, and spiritual.
Perhaps the most visceral example of self-interest creating collective chaos in recent times is Australian toilet paper hoarding.
I will analyse this phenomenon from three frameworks of Western thinking starting with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It goes like this: two prisoners are being interrogated. They have only two choices, rat on their mate or keep silent:
- If neither rats on the other, they both get one year in prison (two total years from a collective perspective);
- If one keeps his mouth shut and the other rats him out, the rat goes free and the one staying silent gets three years in prison (three total years from a collective perspective); or
- If they both rat on each other, they get two years a piece (four years total from a collective perspective).
If one’s individual goal is to avoid as much jail as possible, the most “rational” self-interested thing to do is to rat, because if you are acting in a self-interested fashion, so too might be the other prisoner. If you rat, you have a chance at going free, and your worst case scenario is only two years. Cooperating is a good option for the individual but is irrational because it cannot be relied upon and comes with the greatest personal cost. But this thinking falls down if one has confidence in the collective values of the other. The IRA were famous for fanatical silence under interrogation, such was each member’s commitment to the collective cause. For our prisoners, the cause could be a desire to collectively serve less time. Applied to our toilet paper example, it means that the decision to hoard toilet paper is like ratting on your accomplice. If you can’t rely on the other’s collective values, or even their spirit of selfish cooperation, it is best to join the hoarders. Best case scenario, you are fully stocked for months; worst case scenario, you will have a decent amount. Under no circumstances will you be left with none. (Image from here.)
Another famous idea is the “Tragedy of the Commons”, an 1833 essay now part of the Western cultural lexicon. This is the idea that a common resource, for example grazing land, can easily become depleted or destroyed by individuals acting in their own self interest, i.e. grazing their own herd without regard to the long term effects on the land. This was in fact an argument — a terrible one if you ask me — for the morality of the enclosure movement, which was the creation of legal property rights over what was previously common land in the Britain, the idea being that an individual owning land will take better care of it, because it will be within both their interest and power to do so. This could mean that rather than our being trusted to collectively or cooperatively manage the supply of toilet paper, an authority needs to “own” the supply. This is perhaps like supermarkets ‘taking ownership’ of the situation and setting limits on TP purchases. (Image from here.)
A third framework of interest, and perhaps most relevant to our toilet paper dilemma, is the idea of Commonize Costs — Privatize gains. Also called “Moral Hazard” during the Global Financial Crises, it is an individual maximising their self-interest by being selfish with any benefits derived from their interaction with a common resource and offloading any negative consequences to the collective. In the toilet paper case this is people hoarding a personal stash and leaving the consequences and chaos to others to deal with. They got in early and those who didn’t can be damned. If this behavioural trait is common in a group, those with the most community-minded instincts or values in relative terms lose out (i.e. those who didn’t buy extra TP because to ‘do the right thing’ and now have none). (Image from here.)
Looking at these articles on Wikipedia, it struck me how much that I think ought be deeply ingrained wisdom and self-evident knowledge has been studied intellectually and quantified as ‘evidence’. This is borne out by people acting like they need this kind authoritative guidance and advice before believing something is true. For example, the Tragedy of the Commons article mentions a study finding clear evidence that the culture of the people had something to do with how people treated common land! It is truly shocking to me that this needed to be studied. I do not wish to sound totally negative about the usefulness of these ideas. But it is clear to me they are fundamentally limited by ignorance of the worldview and cosmology from which both the behaviours and our attempts to understand them emanate. To me, the sheer complexity of systems at play in all of these circumstances call for indigenous thinking and science. From this vantage point, how to look after a common resources is self-evident, an idea antithetical to the Western scientific mind. (Image from here.)
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