Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Citizens' Dilemma

There's a thought experiment known as "The Prisoner's Dilemma". Go read about it on a source of your choosing. (Want to save a moment? Try https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma.)

The Prisoner's Dilemma is conventionally cast in terms of two prisoners. But let's imagine instead an arbitrarily large population of prisoners all involved in the same crime and all faced with the same choice to free themselves at the expense of their co-conspirators. "The Prisoners' Dilemma", if you will.

The Prisoner's Dilemma (and by extension, The Prisoners' Dilemma) is cast in terms of "the other". As citizens, we see ourselves as a free people. As a free people, we are not prisoners. The lesson of the thought exercise - that cooperation is the only stable long-term strategy - is lost on us as free people. We need not take our advantage of our fellow prisoners in order to secure our own freedom; we are already free.

So let me propose a thought experiment titled "The Citizens' Dilemma". For the prisoner's action of confessing to his partner's crime in order to secure release, substitute the citizen's action of diminishing another citizen's rights in order to expand one's own rights.

Both the Prisoners' Dilemma and the Citizens' Dilemma have but one stable solution: cooperation.

In both thought experiments, to violate cooperation is to set in motion a cascade of in-kind events that ends only when the disparity in equity is maximized: one prisoner has freedom; one citizen has rights.