The Game Theory of Holiness Spirals

If a social process is accelerating, why is it? Is it because of, say, learning? (E.g., a new technology: The more people use it, the more non-users see it, so the faster it spreads.) Or is it because there are game-theoretic reasons for it? The latter is obviously the case with a holiness spiral.

Holiness Spirals

A holiness spiral is when a group of people try to outdo each other in expressions of ideological piety. Other terms are signaling spiral (because people are competitively signaling their faith), purity spiral (I’m ideologically pure!), and Left Singularity. The last term is due to the fact that the current holiness spiral in the western world is a leftist phenomenon.

A key part of such a spiral is that one attacks people to one’s right, but not to one’s left. Indeed, participants are expected to attack those to their right as an expression of piety. The driving dynamic is that it makes sense to say, “That guy’s not holy enough! Attack him!” but it does not make sense to say, “That guy’s too holy! Attack him!”

As far as I know, Jim of blog.jim.com came up with the concept of a holiness spiral/ left-wing singularity, and if he didn’t, he’s certainly doing more with the concept than anyone else. (See e.g. here: http://blog.jim.com/war/recap-on-the-left-singularity/)

As noted, the current holiness spiral is a leftist one. An example of the leftist acceleration:

• The time from gay marriage first being mentioned, to the moment leftists started calling opponents of gay marriage “bigots,” was about 15 years.

• The time from the start of Transvestite Lib to the moment leftists called a man who refused to kiss a tranny a “bigot” was about 3 years.

The process was well articulated by whatever asshole leftist came up with the slogan pas d’ennemis à gauche: “No enemy to the left.” (It started in Revolutionary France; see e.g. http://www.newoxfordreview.org/article.jsp?did=0701-whitehead and was, unsurprisingly, important in Soviet Russia: https://infogalactic.com/info/Alexander_Kerensky)
That established the dynamic. It would have happened anyway, but this slogan certainly accelerated it. It explicitly created the incentive to attack people to one’s right only, thus created the incentive for every leftist to try to get to the left of— to out-holy— every other leftist.

There’s only one way that ends. If everyone is rushing to get to the left of everyone else, obviously there will be acceleration to the left, which will never stop until it hits the most extreme possible situation: Genocide or an attempt at genocide that starts a civil war.

We are not at overt civil war yet, but we have entered the start of it. Consider our political situation right now: We are obviously living in Chapter One of every history book about a civil war ever written.

The Game Theory

The central problem of a holiness spiral is that the advantage is relative. That is, what determines whether the mob attacks you is not your absolute position, but your position relative to everyone else. That’s what creates the incentive for the perpetual leftward movement and the acceleration of that movement.

Importantly, when the participants in the holiness spiral realize they’re in a holiness spiral the problem becomes worse, not better. There are two key moments in a holiness spiral. The first is when is when a typical participant in the spiral notices that the movement to the left is accelerating. The second key moment is when a typical participant not only notices that the movement left is accelerating, but realizes that everyone else must also be noticing that. Then he starts thinking game-theoretically:

If some holiness spiral participant, call him Fred, notices the rapid leftward movement, then he has an incentive to move leftward too, to stay in the middle of the group. In fact, to be safe, he has an incentive to move left a little faster than he expects other people to move. That will leave him a margin for error, so that at worst, he stays in the middle, and at best, he’s a little to the left of the average, so he’s somewhat more holy than average.

But eventually Fred thinks: “Hmm, but presumably a lot of people are thinking the same way I just did. So they’ll also try to move more rapidly to the left.” For example, if the average belief is that the movement will be 10 miles per hour, then everyone actually has an incentive to move at, say, 12 miles per hour. That way there’s a margin for error, and at worst you outpace the average person a little to the left, which is always safe. (Being to the right isn’t safe.)

Note the logic here. For everyone to expect movement of X miles per hour is actually not a Nash Equilibrium, because if everyone believed that, then they wouldn’t behave that way; they’d move faster. Thus we have a proof by contradiction: Assume everyone expects movement of X mph. Then they have incentive to actually move at X+2 mph. Thus the acceleration.

But of course, it’s even worse than that. Because once Fred thinks game-theoretically, drawing the conclusions I’ve just drawn, he realizes that everybody else is, or will soon start, thinking that way too. So Fred’s incentive is to move leftward at 14 mph. That is, suppose everyone at first anticipates movement of 10 mph. Then their reasoning process tells each individual he’d better move at 12 mph. But it occurs to him that other people might also reason this out and move at 12 mph, so he thinks, “Hmm, actually I’d better move at 14 mph.” And so on.

Plainly this process has no sane limit.

This is why Jim notes that a holiness spiral cannot last forever; it must be forcibly stopped either by civil war, someone seriously stepping on the brakes with hardcore punishments for trying to out-holy everyone else, or until everybody goes as extreme as possible. The most extreme possible position is that everyone who’s a sinner must be tortured to death immediately, and indeed, that is where these things often end up. E.g., various Communist states’ purges in the 20th century.

Killing a Spiral

There are other possibilities, of course. For example, if I correctly recall the history of the Salem Witch Trials: At some point the Salem Witch Persecutions simply became too extreme, with everybody at risk because anyone could accuse anyone else of being a witch, and no one was safe. And it became obvious that some innocent people were being executed, when people standing on the gallows refused to confess and recant, and went to their deaths instead. So the thing was stopped, apparently by a sudden public agreement that the entire thing was BS and had Gone Too Far. Everyone just woke up and said, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Or the incentive to speak up became overwhelming, since you were likely to be accused of being a witch and sentenced to death even if you remained silent.

It would be good to try to push things in that direction, the Salem direction. The most obvious example is to make it clear to white people that this is tending toward the most holy thing of all, as leftists currently define holiness, which is torturing all white people to death. They won’t succeed, but the civil war they’ll force upon us will certainly create an astoundingly large pile of bodies. ’Twere best avoided. Getting white people to see where this is headed is one way to increase the number of people pushing back. And most of the western world is still white. Important: Spreading the idea of the holiness spiral increases the incentive for those participating in it to move leftward faster, but it increases the incentive for everyone else to resist.

The reason that participants in a spiral participate in it, beyond a certain point, is that they perceive it (correctly or not) to be their safest option. As more people oppose the HS, it becomes safer to exit the HS. That’s crucial.

It is, in fact, one reason the left tries to prevent people from realizing that there is widespread opposition to left-wing ideas. They know that a preference cascade can ruin their entire plan.

PREFERENCE CASCADE is indeed a kind of equal and opposite dynamic to a holiness spiral. It’s an important part of our conceptual and practical toolkit as we try to fight the HS.

A preference cascade can occur in an environment of widespread preference falsification, which is when everyone lies about their preferences. It could be because you’d damn well better lie – e.g., in 1940 in the USSR, you’d better say that Stalin is wonderful, or else. Or it could be just because you don’t want to say things that you’re afraid will make you unpopular, perceived as foolish, etc. A preference cascade is when enough people say, “The orthodoxy is bullshit!” and that can encourage others to join in, etc., until the orthodoxy is destroyed.

Such a cascade is exemplified by the little boy shouting, “Hey! The Emperor’s not wearing any clothes!” This can lead to other people – it doesn’t have to be everyone at first – saying, “Yeah, that’s true, he’s not wearing any clothes!” Then more people chime in, and so on, until the explicit consensus has converged to the truth, that the Emperor has no clothes.

Note though that there are always evil people who actually enjoy attacking others; indeed that’s who starts a spiral in the first place. So just pointing and laughing at leftists, even after the preference cascade, may not be enough. It is very plausible (Jim again) that some sort of firm incentive will be necessary to robustly discourage continued participation in holiness signaling.

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Memetically Engineered Super-Meme

Version 1.0, subject to revision. This is the “meta” parts of the meme; the actual substance of it is a different topic.

1. If you follow the rules you will live forever after your physical death, in perfect bliss.

2. If you do not follow the rules you will be tormented forever after your death.

3. Our triumph is inevitable.

4. It is forbidden to spread the Word by force.

5. It is obligatory to spread the Word by persuasion.

6. It is obligatory to spread the Word by example.

7. It is obligatory to spread the Word by reproduction; it is obligatory for a believer to have as many children as possible.

8. If adherents of other ideologies attack you, you are always permitted, and obligated when it is safe for you, to respond with the maximum possible violence. Show them no mercy; kill all aggressors.

9. Refrain from violence against believers and unbelievers alike, unless they commit violence against you, take or damage your property, or commit fraud against you, or threaten to do any of these things.

10. Refrain from theft and vandalism against believers and unbelievers alike, unless they commit violence against you, take or damage your property, or commit fraud against you, or threaten to do any of these things.

11. Refrain from fraud against believers and unbelievers alike, unless they commit violence against you, take or damage your property, or commit fraud against you, or threaten to do any of these things.

Numbers 4, 9, 10, and 11 have a recognizably libertarian cast, probably because when I first drafted this I was a libertarian. The idea is to minimize unnecessary conflict. Libertarianism in its basic scheme is practical. “You don’t fuck me and I won’t fuck with you” is practical, and indeed is the basic behavior of the vast majority of people in everyday life. Most people, most of the time, do not start street fights with most other people. Most nations are not at war with most other nations most of the time. Etc.

On the other hand perhaps there’s an empirical argument against them? How many of the meme complexes that we observe empirically actually explicitly have features 4, 9, 10, and 11, including unbelievers in their protection? This is a relevant question because the memes that we observe empirically are the results of memetic evolution, as surely as the organisms that we observe empirically are the results of biological evolution. If most memes don’t have those features, that tells us something about their viability. But I don’t know the empirical answer to the empirical question I asked. Maybe most memeplexes do have them.

On the gripping hand, societies that implemented something like those in their laws and culture became successful, powerful, and pleasant places to live, while they adhered to them, so there’s that.

A Political Science Thought Experiment

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex:

[I]magine a world with a magic artifact at the North Pole which makes it literally impossible to violate laws. The countries of the far north are infinitely orderly with no need for police at all. [NB: And Jews who don’t want to be marched into gas chambers are out of luck, since they can’t resist the edicts even if Nazis take power.] Go further south and the strength of the artifact decreases, until you’re at the edge of the Arctic Circle and it might be possible to violate a very minor law if your life was in danger. By the time you’re at the Equator, any kind of strong urge lets you violate most laws, and by the Tropic of Capricorn you can violate all but the most sacred laws with only a slight feeling of resistance. Finally you reach the nations of the South Pole, where the laws are enforced by nothing but a policeman’s gun.

Where would you want to live in such a world?

I don’t know, but that’s an awesome thought experiment. I wonder what would actually happen? I mean, in a world of well-meaning people, government would seem to be unnecessary. In a world with a mixed bag of people, I initially thought this: All the bad actors are going to congregate at the no-law place (the South Pole), thus ruining it for any well-meaning mellow pot-smoking anarchists who might just want to chill there.

But it’s not that simple. The game theory of the self-selection effect is fascinating. In the preceding paragraph, I was assuming that the “bad actors” range from garden-variety assholes who like doing mailbox vandalism, up to retail-level serial killers. BUT: The most evil people in history are not retail-level killers. They’re killers who got to the top of nations’ governments and implemented wholesale genocide, slaughtering people by the millions. These psychopaths would not gravitate to the South Pole. They’d gravitate to the North Pole, and do everything in their power to try to gain control of the laws.

Now where would you want to be?

A related thought experiment is this: To preclude any self-selection effects, imagine that the relevant regime is going to cover the entire planet. If you were the person who got to make that decision for the world, which regime would you choose for the planet?

That is not a trivial question, but I would choose the South Pole option, i.e., no enforcement but what humans themselves implement. After all, that’s what we have now, and even that is too much government.

Here’s a meta-question: Would you push a button that would randomly select a person from the world population to make this decision for the whole planet?

Me neither. A good case for limited-state democracy, with the emphasis on the “limited-state” part.

Another question: Just how are the laws to be made? I mean, are these unbreakable North Pole laws made by any dickhead who manages to cobble together a 5/9 majority of the Supreme Court? (Let’s be realistic about how our laws are actually made these days.) Or does it have to be at least a 75% – 25% majority in a popular referendum? Or what?

Time Inconsistency in the Mating Game and Other Games

In the comments here the talk turned to the game that goes on between men and women who are potential mates. On the temptation to cheat, one commenter ironically asks,

“At once, she wants to defect, but also to provoke a forced cooperation?”

The answer is Sure, this can make sense. The game theory of such situations, in which a person benefits by limiting their own future behavior, is very well-established.

For example, consider a powerful monarch who can default on his debts without his creditors being able to do anything about it. Since potential creditors know this, no one is willing to lend to him in the first place. (This problem doesn’t always occur, but it does if people have sufficient reason to worry that he’ll default.) If the monarch could be submitted to a more powerful entity that could make him pay his debts back in the future – and if this were commonly known – then people would be willing to lend him money today.

Thus it is true that both

(1) the monarch in some sense wants to defect (default on his debts)
and
(2) the monarch in some sense wants to be forced to cooperate (pay his debts back).

This sort of situation is pervasive and much of human custom and law is devoted to dealing with it. Speaking of male/female mating games, it is the reason that in most societies, marital infidelity is illegal. It is the reason that people are disgusted by those who lie, break promises, welsh on bets, etc. Societies that enforce such norms do better in the long run than those without them. And think of credit markets in general, never mind the above monarch. If the law did not force borrowers to pay back their debts, imagine how difficult it would be to borrow money in the first place. In extreme scenarios, credit markets would disappear entirely.

Put “time inconsistency” commitment into a search engine.

“Time inconsistency” refers to the fact that people’s desires can be inconsistent across time. E.g., at the time that you’re trying to borrow money, you’d like to be forced to pay your future debts back, because knowing that makes lenders willing to lend to you right now. But later, after you’ve gotten your hands on the borrowed money, then (if you’re an amoral asshole) you’d like to be able to default on your debts. Thus we have mechanisms that enforce “commitment,” which in this example means the law commits you to paying back your debts.

In general, people often can benefit by being committed to a course of action in the future, whether it’s marital fidelity or paying your debts back, etc.

SJW Mobs and Coordination Mechanisms

In my previous post The Revolution Eats its Own I noted in passing that the excuses that SJW mobs use to attack people are not important as such, even to the SJWs. Rather they function as coordination mechanisms.

That is, they’re a way of coordinating all the members of the attack mob on the same target. It doesn’t do any good for the ten million (or however many there are) attackers to each attack ten million different people. But if there’s some signal that lets all ten million of them focus on the same victim, they can do more damage, since the victim is overwhelmed, and the attackers will be safer, because any counterattack will be thinly spread over so many of them.

I once read an article about predators like lions and how the members of the pride focus on a single prey animal among a herd of, say, zebras, to chase down. Obviously lions can’t just say, “Alright, everybody, let’s go for the one on the left.” They need another way to coordinate. Turns out that what they do is focus on any individual zebra with a feature that makes it stand out. Each lion notices that zebra and knows the other lions will also notice it, so they can all coordinate on attacking that one.

We often hear that predators single out the weak and injured because they’re weak and injured, and I’m sure this is partly true, but it’s also partly because the one zebra that’s limping is standing out among all the ones that aren’t. To test this, the article mentioned, scientists studying the lions selected an arbitrary zebra and spray-painted its flank with pink paint. The lions all went after that one. The zebra itself is arbitrary; what matters to the lions is that they all focus on the same zebra.

Yeah, so you can see where this is going. SJWs obviously don’t give a damn about your posing next to a swastika in the sand at a beach six years ago. No, they didn’t really believe that if you disagreed with any Obama policy it’s because you’re “racist.” They use things like that to attack because they’ve settled on that sort of thing as a coordination device. A hundred years ago it was, I guess, “That guy said something irreligious!” Now it’s “That guy said something racist!” Nobody cares what you said. They just want a way for a distributed mob to coordinate on a victim.

(By the way, disagreeing with which Obama policy on gay marriage makes you racist? His policy from 2008 or his policy from 2012?)

Maybe we can use this somehow to hobble these pitchfork-wielding assholes. Can we introduce noise into the signal of whom to attack? That would disrupt the coordination mechanism. An obvious possibility is to pick a relatively minor SJW attack cue and signal-boost it. If enough of us start screaming “age-ist!” or “kink-shaming!” sufficiently frequently, it will swamp the major ones like “racism!” to an extent.

And of course, there are other benefits too:
(1) The proliferation of “bigotry!” accusations means that an ever-larger number of people are unsafe, and know it. This gives them an incentive to fight the whole “bigotry!” witchhunt.
(2) The sheer proliferation of idiotic “bigotry!” attacks makes them harder and harder to take seriously. Hilariously, the SJWs are doing this to themselves already. It makes you wonder how much of this crap is genuine, and how much is black-knighting pranksters deliberately disrupting the rage mobs. Memo to SJWs: When it’s impossible to tell you from your enemies trying to discredit you, you might want to re-think some things.

In summary, understanding “bigotry!” as a coordination device will facilitate the development of ways to fight it. Black knighting, in order to disrupt, distract, and lower their signal-to-noise ratio, will be especially helpful. After all, a large number of coordination mechanisms is a contradiction in terms; it defeats the entire purpose. Many coordination mechanisms is no coordination mechanism at all.

The Revolution Eats its Own, Part 2,307,114

Via Vox Day:

Two gender non-conforming queer gay tranny dudes, or whatever they call themselves (it’s complicated, of course) get eaten (and not in a fun way) by the rest of the SJW horde.

There is, or was, a gay musical duo called PWR BTTM (“Power Bottom,” I guess). One of its members, identified as “Mx. Hopkins” —note the absurd gender-neutral honorific —had an indiscretion from more than half a decade ago resurface:

in December, a photo surfaced of a young Mx. Hopkins beside a swastika drawn in sand at the beach. (Mx. Hopkins apologized publicly and said it was taken in 2011, “a time in my life where I thought being ‘politically incorrect’ was really funny…”)

An attempt to apologize to the SJW attack mob. (Facepalm.) Do I even have to tell you what happened after that?

…additional questions about Mx. Hopkins’s behavior began to circulate online, spurred by postings on social media accusing Mx. Hopkins of sexual misconduct and boundary-crossing behavior.

What the fuck does that mean? Pshhhhet, “boundary-crossing behavior.” Not so amped about being “transgressive” now, are ya, poochy?

“These allegations are shocking to us and we take them very seriously,” the band wrote in a statement… The band announced it would set up an email address through which allegations could be discussed and was seeking a mediator to monitor it.

LOL. What they thought they said: “We sincerely regret our actions, we’ll never do it again, we’re publicy apologizing so you guys win, plus we’re one of you, we’re on the same side, so there’s no reason to attack us!”

What they actually said, translated into SJW-speak: “There’s blood in the water and we’re defenseless and weak!”

Since the allegations… several companies and musicians affiliated with the band have ended their relationships. An album-release show at Rough Trade in Brooklyn was canceled, and several artists who were slated to support PWR BTTM on its coming United States tour announced they will no longer participate. The band was also dropped by its management agency…

How bewildering must this be to people whose bread and butter was the SJW-compliant nature of their act. But wait! There’s more!

Polyvinyl, which put out “Pageant,” announced on Saturday it would no longer work with PWR BTTM, or sell or distribute its album, in hard copy and on streaming services. It will offer refunds to those who purchased “Pageant” from the label.

Their management’s announcement from Facebook is typical of this genre of defenestration: it somehow manages to be preeningly self-important and fervidly groveling at the same time:

In light of the allegations involving members of PWR BTTM, Salty Artist Management will no longer be working with the band. We do not take these kind of allegations lightly and our thoughts are with victims and survivors of abuse who have been affected by this.
If you need someone to talk to, these organizations can provide information and support…

Seriously, why does anyone supplicate to an SJW attack mob? THAT DOESN’T WORK. Indeed it invites more attacks, because SJWs don’t attack you because they believe you did something wrong – try to get that through your head – they attack you because they like attacking. When you apologize, you’re literally just saying, from SJWs’ point of view, “I’m weak! It’s easy and safe to attack me!”

There is no amount of of compliance with SJW dogma that buys you safety. All the apologizing and setting up mediated disccussion forums to talk about the transgressions, etc., didn’t save them. Their being gay trannies didn’t save them. Their over-the-top groveling didn’t save them. There is no reason to cave in to SJWs. They’ll attack you anyway.

As commenter krymneth at Vox Popoli says,

There is no game-theoretic reason for a white male, even if they can make a few feeble checkmarks next to supposed victim statuses, to be an SJW.

…the slightest error and you will be ejected. The error need not even be real, accusations will do…

There is no payoff matrix whereby a white male can “win” with the SJWs, so… why bother? Or an Asian, or to some extent, anyone who disagrees with them. They’ve made it game-theoretically pointless to ever give them anything they want.

This is another way of looking at the futility of the SJW movement in the longterm. They are now structurally incapable of not ejecting huge swathes of their own supposed political base.

He’s right, of course, thank goodness. Note SJWs don’t care if it suffers from long-run futility (they just like attacking people in the moment), but that long-run untenability is certainly very good news for normal people.

Also, the errors or accusations don’t matter as such; they just function as a coordination device for the SJW rage mob. More on this coming up in my next post.

Well, whatever. There are now two gay/bi transvestites who have discovered, in a very costly way, that SJWs are not about “inclusion.” They’re about attack mobs searching for victims to lynch.

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.

Equilibrium

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.