The Law of the Jungle

Ben and I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Jonathan Anomaly, a faculty fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics and a visiting professor at the Duke/UNC program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.  Dr. Anomaly’s field, often called PPE for short, might sound dry.  But it’s one of the most interesting areas of the social science.  In fact, it seems to be more of a way of thinking about all disciplines than a discipline in itself.

Rhino-Banner-1.jpgOur conversation that night drifted through many topics, but all were somehow relevant to PPE.  To familiarize yourself with the field, consider one of the most basic PPE thought exercises: pollution.  No one likes dirty air.  So why do we pollute?  Well, consider my morning commute to work.  I alone reap the benefits of working, but everyone shares the cost of breathing my car’s emissions.  The pollution I create is immaterial, but what happens when everyone uses my logic?  My readers in LA already know the answer.  Laws limiting pollution are necessary, because individuals alone cannot be trusted to limit their own pollution for the sake of everyone’s comfort.

Another collective action problem recently caught my attention.  Animal lovers, consider switching to another blog post at this time.  In May of this year, the last known rhinoceroses in Mozambique—about 15 in all—were killed by poachers.  The worst part: the game rangers in charge of protecting these animals were paid off by the poachers, and actually helped the poachers track the rhinos.  Now that I’ve ruined your day, let’s analyze this situation from a PPE perspective.  Well, poaching in general sounds a lot like my pollution example.  Everyone enjoys biodiversity, probably even the poachers.  But poachers value money more than they do biodiversity.  When a poacher shoots a rhino for its horn, or an elephant for its tusk, he alone reaps the benefit of selling the prize.  Meanwhile, everyone suffers, since we all lose some of Earth’s most majestic creatures.  Such collective action problems can only be stopped by the rule of law.  In this case, the law prohibits poaching, and game rangers (supposedly) enforce this law.

This brings us to the Mozambique case.  Clearly, the law alone wasn’t enough to stop poaching.  Why not?  Well, the rangers were poorly paid, and Mozambique’s organized poaching gangs gave them a better offer.  Of course, the rangers lost their jobs, and face disciplinary action.  Still, colluding with the poachers might have been the rational choice.  A single ranger’s options may well have been:

  1. Don’t help the poachers, and other rangers don’t help poachers.  No cash bribe, all rhinos live, keep job.
  2. Help the poachers, but other rangers don’t help the poachers.  Cash bribe, some rhinos die, might lose job.
  3. Don’t help the poachers, but other rangers help the poachers.  No cash bribe, all rhinos die, might lose job.
  4. Help the poachers, and other rangers help the poachers.  Cash bribe, all rhinos die, lose job.

Option 1 sounds great, but it risks option 3, which is the worst of all.  Option 2 is quite tempting because, after all, just because you turn doesn’t mean your peers will.  Of course, even if they do turn, at least option 4 still guarantees cash.  In sum, choosing not to help the poachers is a dangerous gamble, while choosing to help them guarantees a reward.  Of course, option 5 is also a possibility:

  1. Don’t help poachers.  Get killed by poachers.  Rhinos still die.

Members of poaching gangs are often heavily armed and extremely dangerous.  Many are ex-soldiers.  They’re unopposed to killing both animals and humans, and are well able to do so.  Now aiming for option 1 seems like even worse a gamble.  And, even if the poachers don’t kill you for your disobedience, let’s not forget option 6:

  1. Don’t help poachers.  Report poachers to government.  Get fired, since government officials are paid by poaching gangs to fire nosy park rangers.  Dishonest rangers take your place; rhinos still die.

Option 1 is becoming less and less likely by the minute.  The ugly truth is that, in a world as corrupt as Mozambique, honesty becomes irrational.  One lone altruist can hardly hope to protect the rhinos, even if he wants to.  It would take a society of altruists—and not just that—it would take a society in which we all trust in each other’s altruism.  Pipe dreams.  The real solution lies outside of Mozambique altogether.

African poaching is fueled by demand overseas: the rhinoceros horn is viewed as an essential remedy in East Asian traditional medicine.  Of course, rhino horn is completely useless as a cure.  It’s made of keratin, the same stuff that makes up your fingernails.  But, as long as the Chinese and Vietnamese are paying top dollar for pseudoscientific remedies, poaching will remain too profitable to fail.  Only education can put an end to the erroneous belief that rhinoceros horn has any potential as medicine.  And only then will poaching cease to be profitable.

In the meantime, however, a good understanding of the problem from a PPE perspective can’t hurt.  After all, here in the US, efforts to reduce pollution and protect the environment, beginning with the environmental movement of the 1960s, have had some success.  Let’s hope that the same can be true of efforts to save our tusked and horned friends in Africa.

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4 comments on “The Law of the Jungle

  1. Ben says:

    Nice article. I’ll try to explain how the collective action problem is related to the social contract and the origins of government.

    The nuances of the standard “collective action problem” are described clearly in your discussion of the “Ranger’s Dilemma”. Though we’d all love Case 1 (the “Reward”), we’re simultaneously tempted by Case 2 (the “Temptation”) and afraid of Case 3 (the “Sucker”). We all, inevitably, end up in Case 4 (the “Punishment”).

    Thus government is born. Though we’d each, individually, most prefer the Temptation, we know that it’s impossible: the unrestrained “state of nature” can only yield the Punishment. If, however, we band together and collectively agree to allow only the Punishment and Reward (barring the Temptation and Sucker through coercion), we each, deprived of the choice to thwart each other, have no alternative but to cooperate. And the Reward is a hell of a lot better than the Punishment. This is called the “Social Contract”. It’s fully rational, then, for us to support laws which in fact limit our own freedoms.

    Naturally, of course, enforcement of these laws must be absolute for the scheme to function (a la Thomas Hobbes, the government must be “Sovereign”). Herein lies the failure of Mozambique: absent a truly sovereign government, the rangers can “get away” with taking bribes — and so can the officials overseeing them.

    Which suggests the next question: who can enforce cooperation within the sovereign itself? The only answer seems to be a robustly designed Constitution — the very focus, in fact, of a PPE subfield called “Constitutional Political Economy”. America seems to have done quite well.

  2. Richard says:

    I don’t know how well America is doing compared to Mozambique, the corruption may be less damaging domestically but internationally it’s not so clear. Part of the problem for Mozambique in this scenario is that it fails to instantiate the right kind of Power structure. Ideally, the sovereign holds the people in check and the people are united in holding the sovereign in check, in a reciprocal way. If the people cannot hold the sovereign in check, then if the sovereign is corrupt the sovereign ceases to be an equal player in the rational decision making game and is instead merely a fixed factor of guaranteed corruption with respect to which the players must make their decisions. If the sovereign were not corrupt, or was properly held in check by the population, then the Rangers Case is just like the prisoners in the prisoners’ dilemma. They and the sovereign would benefit collectively from choosing not to collaborate with the poachers. If everyone in this game, both sovereign and poachers, knows that everyone else is rational, then everyone knows that everyone can see that if everyone pursues what is rational for the individual, then the effect on the collective, and so the individual, will be worse. So everyone should be altruistic. And then the Prisoner Dilemma iterates and we have one of the individuals wanting to forgo altruism in the hope everyone else won’t. But everyone knows that everyone knows this, so again they think: ‘just be altruistic’. And then the problem recurs again and again and again … We have to find a way to stop the endless oscillating between each option; to overcome the stalemate. Although a true prisoners’ dilemma almost never really arises in the real world, if we could guarantee the reciprocal power structure between governed and governor, then it could arise. Then, solving the prisoners’ dilemma might create a morally Utopian society, because the solution might involve guaranteeing that people value the happiness of others over their own happiness; then being rational will amount to being altruistic. This is a flaw with the prisoners’ dilemma; in the real world (which is arguably less vicious than the idealized scenarios of self-interested parties found in Economics) one of the prisoners might value the freedom of his accomplice for altruistic reasons more so than his own freedom. But here is a hilarious catch: if both parties in the dilemma are PERFECTLY altruistic in the sense that each wants the other to benefit more than itself, the prisoners’ dilemma returns. An imperfect form of altruism whereby each party wants the other to benefit exactly as much as itself would be better. There are a lot of interesting issues here. Shame about the rhinos though.

    • Josh says:

      Haha, “shame about the rhinos though.” I don’t know if I’m convinced of your sincerity.

      I agree with all your points, including the thoroughly-amusing “altruistic prisoner’s dilemma”. It’s interesting that, if everyone just realized that everyone knows that it’s best to be altruistic, then prisoner’s dilemmas would be solved easily. I think the central problem, then, is incomplete information. People, frankly, are not convinced that everyone knows that it’s best to be altruistic. Even if they thought that everyone knew, they might be worried that THE OTHER party didn’t know, or thought that the first party didn’t know, and so on. This post certainly is relevant. The situation gets convoluted quickly, which is why the “defect” option appears convincing.

      Unfortunately, it’s usually the case that not every party is rational. Or, at least, we can’t be convinced that they are.

      • Ben says:

        “if everyone just realized that everyone knows that it’s best to be altruistic, then prisoner’s dilemmas would be solved easily…”

        Best for whom?! The difficulty of the prisoners’ dilemma lies precisely in that rational behavior demands us to defect. In other words, it’s “best” for the individual to defect. Of course, each party realizes that the other knows this, and that they each realize this itself, ad infinitum.

        It’s true, of course, that it’s “best” collectively for both parties to cooperate — in the sense, if you like, that thus the maximum total utility is achieved. But this fact, or knowledge of this fact, isn’t sufficient to engender cooperation, for the reasons I described above. Indeed, the more people know about the game, the worse the hope is. Thus it’s not clear what sort of “information” it is in virtue of which you think people would be more willing to cooperate.

        If the prisoners’ dilemmas were iterated, then it would be another story. In this case, tit for tat tends to succeed, and this strategy typically leads to cooperation. Even in this case, though, “information” or lack thereof plays no role in inducing the cooperation — the iteration is the relevant variable.

        In general, I don’t see the idea of “information” as relevant to the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, the prisoners’ dilemma is effectively defined by the inability to transmit information between the two players. If players were allowed to collude, or to play together, it would hardly be a prisoners’ dilemma. Maybe I’m thinking too literally here. In any case, you shouldn’t decry misinformation, but rather the environment in which peoples’ interests happen to clash against those of their fellow humans (and animals).

        Here’s perhaps a less overly rationalistic interpretation of what you were trying to say. What’s needed is not “information”, in any strict sense, but rather “elevation” of people to a level where they have faith and trust in each other, along with an understanding of the cruel game they’re being forced to play. That, I acknowledge, could help.

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