Nash Totalitarianism

In joyful commemoration of the delightful occasion of Fidel Castro’s death.

Around 1990 a friend of mine visited Cuba. At an outside café she conversed with a native, who told her that a security agent was tailing her and that after she walked away, the agent would approach the native and question him about their conversation. The native surreptitiously identified the agent. After the conversation was over and my friend had walked a few tens of yards away, she looked back. Sure enough, the person identified as a secret police operative had approached the native and was questioning him.

It seems clear that the citizens of such a country oppose the state because the state does things like this, and the state does things like this because the citizens oppose the state. That is, totalitarian regimes are, at least in part, self-fulfilling prophecies: The State censors information, is suspicious of those who have contact with foreigners, and jails advocates of liberalization because it knows the people hate the State. And the people hate the State because it censors information, is suspicious of those who have contact with foreigners, and jails advocates of liberalization.

This particular self-fulfilling prophecy is an example of an important concept in game theory, Nash Equilibrium.

A Model

Consider a state with two possible moves: totalitarianism, T, and democracy, D. (By “state” I mean the permanent fixtures of the government—the Department of Education, the Intelligence Service, etc.—not necessarily a particular political party.) The state would rather persist than be dissolved.

Suppose the polity has two moves: oppose the continued existence of the state, O, and acquiesce in the state’s continued existence, A. Naturally, we assume the polity would rather have democracy than totalitarianism.

Also assume the state will definitely survive if the polity acquiesces, whether the state is playing T or D. If the polity opposes the state, the probability of the state being destroyed is positive but less than one if the state plays T, and is one if the state plays D.

Finally, suppose (optimistically) that both players prefer democracy to totalitarianism, ceteris paribus, and that opposition requires effort and risk, so the polity would prefer acquiescence to opposition if it didn’t care about the nature of the state. The payoff matrix is

State’s moves on rows; polity’s moves on columns
Acquiesce Oppose
Totalitarianism Polity: 0
State: 7
Polity: 5
State: 5
Democracy Polity: 10
State: 10
Polity: 6
State: 0

This payoff matrix captures the features mentioned in the previous paragraphs. To see this…

First put your hand over the Oppose column. Looking at the Acquiesce column, i.e., the polity acquiescing to the state’s existence, we see that the state would rather have democracy than totalitarianism. (Since the state’s payoff with Democracy, 10, is greater than its payoff with Totalitarianism, 7.) This embodies the hopefully-not-too-optimistic assumption that if the population is cool with it, the state would rather exist with democracy than totalitarianism. (If the state is indifferent, or would rather have totalitarianism, then the problem is even worse than this payoff matrix depicts.)

Next, put your hand over the A column. Looking at the O column, that is, the situation in which the polity opposes the state, we see that the state would rather have totalitarianism than democracy (since 5 is greater than 0). That is to say, the state wants to stay in power, so given that the populace opposes it, it will choose to do things like implement censorship, follow people around and monitor their contact with foreigners, etc.

Next, put your hand over the D row. Looking at the T row, that is, the situation in which the state is totalitarian, we see the polity would rather oppose the state than acquiesce in its continued existence. (Since the polity’s payoff with Oppose, 5, is greater than its payoff with Acquiesce, 0.) That is, people dislike totalitarianism.

Finally, put your hand over the T row. Looking at the D row, that is, the situation in which the state is democratic, we see the polity would rather acquiesce in the state’s continued existence than oppose it. (Note 10 is greater than 6.) That is, people like democracy.


There are two Nash equilibria: (T, O) and (D, A). This is because…

(1) Given that the state is totalitarian, the polity’s best response is to oppose it. And given that the polity opposes it, the state’s best response is to be totalitarian.
(2) On the other hand, given that the state is democratic, the polity’s best response is to acquiesce in its continued existence. And given that the polity acquiesces in its continued existence, the state’s best response is to be democratic.

The democratic equilibrium is unanimously preferred to the other one, i.e., both players get a payoff of 10 in the (D, A) equilibrium, and a payoff of only 5 in the (T, O) equilibrium.

If both players agree that the (D, A) equilibrium is better, what’s the problem?

Yeah, about that…

Getting Yanked Toward Nash Totalitarianism

One of the implicit assumptions above is that the political situation is not hit by random shocks that might perturb it. But everything in life is actually hit by random shocks. A big shock might be a war, which necessitates (or at least could be argued to necessitate) more controls on speech, etc. (“War is the health of the state.”) This could bounce us into a totalitarian situation, which quickly ossifies into an equilibrium – the bad equilibrium. See, e.g., Russia circa World War I.

Why doesn’t the state simply announce its intention to democratize and then do so? Such an announcement would be credible, since (D, A) is a unanimously-preferred Nash equilibrium. Right?

One reason this might not be possible is that the state may be subject to random shocks to its preferences, such that it occasionally has temporary episodes of stronger preferences for democracy—e.g., liberalization periods a la Gorbachev—which the polity knows are temporary. For this reason if the state democratizes the polity may quickly vote it out to ensure it doesn’t revert to T a short while later. Such a possible reversion is not captured in the above game because that game has nothing about a preference for T, in fact it assumes a preference for D.

When we think of totalitarian regimes in the real world, though, we think of them initially becoming totalitarian for some reason, some reason outside the above game (i.e., a reason other than that it happens to be a Nash equilibrium). For example, a state implements suboptimal economic policies that induce emigration (bluntly, everyone’s starving to death; they’re desperate to get the fuck out of Dodge). In order to staunch the emigration the state imposes border controls, this makes the people hate the state, so they oppose it and the state finds it necessary to censor information, jail dissidents, etc.

Thus a larger, more accurate game would have the state making a joint choice, choosing its political nature from {D,T}, while choosing other policies, e.g., economic ones, subject to constraints on the joint choice, e.g., blatantly suboptimal economic policies are not tenable with democratic political policies. Given this, the problem is that the state has announced its intention to choose D but also its intention to maintain suboptimal economic policies; the polity knows this is not tenable in the long run and that the state will eventually find it necessary to revert to T. So the polity optimally chooses to take advantage of the liberalization to eject the state while they can. Of course, the state knows this will happen,(*) so it won’t take a chance on liberalization.

The shocks affecting the state could be shocks to preferences (i.e., a larger preference for democracy) or beliefs, (i.e., true believers who believe the state’s desired policies are compatible with democracy and that the polity also believes it). E.g., Mikhail Gorbachev believed socialism would work, given a bit of openness, so he thought Marxist economics + D was a possible choice. He found out differently.

It may also be that the state cannot in fact credibly commit to choosing democracy. For example, the head of state—the Gorbachev—may actually prefer democracy, while the nomenklatura below the head of state are opposed to it, e.g., because they’ll lose their jobs (think of employees of the secret police agency or the censoring bodies, etc.) This is not captured in the payoff matrix above because it models the state as a unitary actor. If that is relevant then the state cannot in fact credibly communicate a preference for democracy. In fact, the state has a direct preference for T. In that case the Nash explanation of T is unnecessary—the explanation would shift more to a path-dependency explanation: once I’ve got my job in the Ministry of Censorship I want the T regime to persist, since my job is terminated if the regime is dissolved.

None of this suggests that totalitarianism is inevitable. It certainly suggests we always have to be on our guard, and that in setting up institutions, we must make it THE priority to keep government’s power limited.

* To be motivated to avoid liberalization, the state need not believe that its desired economic policies are long-run incompatible with democracy. It need only believe that the polity believes that.

Oh Canada!

After Trump’s victory, many U.S. lefties have said they want to emigrate to Canada. In significant part this is because they abhor Trump’s desire for more selective policy on immigration to the U.S. However, Canada doesn’t just admit anyone; they have standards:

So, many of these doofuses won’t get into the society they want to go to, to flee the horrors of a country with limited immigration, because it won’t take them due to its limits on immigration.

This isn’t just funny, it’s like, self-referentially meta-funny.

Correia’s The Christmas Noun

A heartwarming Christmas story from Larry Corriea:
The Christmas Noun

Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer had been driven insane with a desire to kill.

All the other reindeer had laughed and called him names… Until one day it pushed poor Rudolf over the edge into a berserk killing frenzy. He took out Dasher and Prancer with a meat cleaver, Donner and Dixon with a garden weasel, and Blitzen… Poor Blitzen… They’d never found his head….
Rudolf was sent to the toughest joint at the North Pole. The day he arrived he killed a polar bear with a shiv made from a plastic spoon, just so everyone would know not to mess with him. Rudolf has spent the time since then preparing for his inevitable revenge, lifting weights, getting prison tattoos, and terrifying the sugar plum fairies.

After he escapes, Rudolf lays his thing down:

“It’s time to deck the halls… with blood.”

(Via The Dark Herald.)

Entryism, part whatever of an ongoing series

Slate Star Codex:

Bloomberg notes that There’s No Shame In Joining The Trump Administration if your goal is harm reduction, and if you agree you can apply here. If you have some kind of useful political/administrative experience, this might be an unusually easy route to getting a position of power where you can do useful things like lobby for foreign aid and alleviate the effects of various Trump policies.

In other words, infiltrate the just-elected administration to disrupt and subvert it. Fortunately, the Electoral College shenanigans must have put the incoming administration on notice about its opponents’ attitude toward elections they don’t win.

Ah, I remember well – it seems like just a couple of months ago! – when the left pretended to be was shocked that a person might not accept the election’s outcome unconditionally.

UPDATE: From the same link, Drama Queen Alert:

A few people emailed me to say that they have friends or family members who attempted suicide for Trump-related reasons. I’m really sorry about that and I hope they’re okay. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, consider checking out the National Suicide Hotline at [phone number omitted so drama queens don’t clog up the system’s resources – N.], which also has a special webpage on election-related suicidality.

Is there a person so dead of soul that they don’t find this hilarious? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: One would have to have a heart of stone to read these thespian antics without dissolving into tears…of laughter.

“I’m so terrified that Trump is going to kill me, that… I’m going to kill myself!” You cannot buy comedy like this.

The Inverse Bechdel Test

Female psychology and fiction: Thoughts inspired by (the first 53 pages of) A Darker Shade of Magic, by Victoria Schwab.

I’m a dimension-hopping wizard. You’d think the author would be able to do something interesting with me.

This novel suffers from a common problem with its beginning.

1) The problem: Not much happens in the first 53 pages, where I paused to record these thoughts. E.g., the opening scene has the magician Holland conversing with a prince. But we don’t hear much of the conversation and it’s not enough to pique our interest. Worse, the initial conversation between another magician, Kell, and a King doesn’t realize its promise. When Kell delivers a letter from a monarch in one universe to a monarch in another, we expect some earth-shaking development that will precipitate the story: A declaration of war or something. Instead, we get a polite inquiry about the recipient’s health: The royal equivalent of “Howya doin?! Arite, check ya later!” Huh? Something should have happened there. Fifty-three pages in, almost nothing has happened.

2) Why does this problem occur? Note: The first 53 pages are almost 100% super-alpha males – kings, princes, and powerful magicians – and almost 100% of their “screen time” is them talking to other super-alpha males. Of course alpha males, especially super-alphas like kings and princes, are intrinsically fascinating from a female point of view. But from a male point of view, well, no.

In the funniest example of this problem, a prince (super-alpha) discusses his birthday party plans with his parents (King (super-alpha) and Queen) and brother (powerful magician and adopted prince; super-alpha). To a male reader, this is like some accountants planning a birthday party. Maybe the author and her female readers are rapt, because ALPHA MALES!!! But this male reader, and I imagine most male readers, are thinking, “Planning a birthday party? Why are we being shown this?”

In fact, this scene is actually two entirely different scenes, depending on the audience. For the (female) author and female readers, the scene is OH MY GOD, SUPER-ALPHAS!!! For a male reader, the scene is some accountants talking about a birthday party.

There’s nothing wrong with women being attracted to alpha men, any more than there’s something wrong with men being attracted to young, beautiful women. But if a novel is intended for both sexes – as opposed to being romance porn for women – it should not contain scenes like the above. I’m not objecting to porn, I’m just saying, sort out your goals and intended audience before you start writing.

All of this leads me to propose, for female writers, an analogue of the Bechdel Test (the test feminists use to assess female roles in fiction). The Inverse Bechdel Test is:

Would a scene that features men be equally interesting if the men were all accountants?

If not, you might be letting female sexual preoccupations overwhelm your authorial professionalism. Honestly ask yourself whether the scene should be there.

Index page for my Red Pill in Fiction posts:

The Mind Cannot Foresee Its Own Advance

There’s a proposition that if you’re rational, the future evolution of your beliefs is unpredictable to you.

This is relevant to everything, including, importantly, politics.

It’s easy to explain why it’s true:

Suppose you’re rational. Then anything that is predictable based on your current information, you have predicted. (Presumably you weren’t shocked when the sun rose this morning.) In other words, predictable events are already incorporated into your beliefs.

It follows that the only thing left to change your beliefs over time is new data that wasn’t predictable.

That immediately implies that if you’re rational, the future evolution of your beliefs over time is unpredictable to you.

(Thus the title of this post, a quote from economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek.)

Contrapositive: If you can predict the future evolution of your beliefs, you’re not rational.

The implications are kind of astounding.

For one thing, there’s an old notion that “social advancement” is objectively assessable, and we can predict how society’s views will evolve as society becomes more advanced. We do this by looking at the recent direction of changes in our beliefs, and inferring that in the future, they will continue to change in the same direction.

WROOOOOONG! (Insert grating buzzer sound here.)

If you’re thinking this way, you haven’t really understood your own notion of what it means to be advanced, if your notion of “advanced” involves rationality.

E.g., suppose in 1933 everyone had said, “Hey, we just repealed Prohibition! So obviously what a more advanced society than us would do, would be to go further in the same direction and FORCE everyone to drink alcohol!”

Ah, not so much, no.

While that example is fanciful, try this one:
In the past, it was illegal in some areas to wear the clothes of the opposite sex. Now we’ve gotten rid of those laws, and some seem to think a straight-line extrapolation of that change implies that the next, more advanced step is to fine businesses for calling a woman a woman. Apart from the question of whether this is really a straight-line extrapolation of anything, that’s not the way to forecast society’s more advanced beliefs anyway.

Actually, if you’re rational, the path of your beliefs through belief space will be what’s called a random walk, or, more poetically, a drunken walk. That means that for your beliefs to change in any direction is equally likely, in an expected value sense. It won’t be a continuation of their past direction (except by coincidence).

See the link above for what a random walk looks like.

It looks like chaos.

This isn’t saying reality won’t be like the past – you can expect that Earth’s gravity will be tomorrow what it is today – it’s saying your beliefs’ future trend won’t necessarily be like their recent trend. In other words, if you revised your estimate of Earth’s gravity upward today, you can’t conclude that you’re probably going to revise it upward again tomorrow.

It’s easy to see why this has to be the case. Otherwise you’d say something like this:

“I currently believe Earth’s surface gravity is 9.81 meters per second per second, but I expect to receive new information tomorrow which will make me believe that it’s 9.82 meters per second per second.” That would be fucktarded, in technical terms. Obviously if you really anticipated that, then your current belief is that it’s 9.82!

An implication: If you’re not perpetually surprised by the changes in your own beliefs over time, you’re doing something wrong intellectually.

If you’re rational, every now and then the change to your beliefs will be very large. Some propositions that seem outrageous to you today will seem indisputable to you some number of years from now.

Sweet Troll Job!

This is one of the best troll jobs I can recall. (Via xenosystems December 2016). The only other contenders are trolling Hillary What’s-her-face into attacking Pepe on her campaign web site (“That cartoon frog is more sinister than you may realize”) and Godfrey Elfwick (Winner, Best Overall Body of Work).

To get the flavor of it, you have to read the comments, which are simply epic in their trolling trollyness. Whoever triggered the dorkwads at Columbia with this pamphlet is possibly the Grand High Ascended Master of Troll-Heim.