Socialism and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Karl Marx

As we march towards the Secret Muslim Totalitarian Socialist Society, it seems that the earmarks of Socialism are everywhere. Taxes, an institution of civilization that have always been begrudgingly accepted as part of living in a community that serves public needs, are now “Taking from us to give to them.” Social Welfare programs, created to help keep fellow citizens from falling through the cracks into utter ruin, are now nothing more than scams used by The Lazy (code for Black People) to milk the hard work of True Americans.

I know all of this is true because I have coworkers that told me so. One of these particular True Americans ranted about how he always sees these welfare rats driving around in nice cars, never working. “They” are lazy and will never do any real work as long as society keeps supporting them. This is, generally, the Conservative standpoint, and it has its roots in a sociological understanding of Game Theory, specifically the version known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Via Wikipedia:

The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992), presenting it as follows:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

Or put another way:

How does this play out in society? Pretty simple in a system like ours. We would all be better off if everyone contributed their fair share, allowing us all to equally partake of the mutual benefits. Alternatively, we could all refuse to work and then society would crumble. The more realistic scenario is in between, a society where some people work and others do not and those who don’t (or don’t work as hard as others) benefit disproportionately.

Selfishness pays off, as long as some people are not selfish.

This is the reality of civilization. Not Socialism, civilization. Socialism (government mandated communism) actually gets around this problem by basically turning its citizens into slaves for the state. This is why I don’t want a Socialist society, and it’s why the U.S. is in no way Socialist.

This fear of ‘moochers’ is rational and based in established understandings of human nature, which is why I can sympathize with the Conservative view. But the far Right response to the problem strikes me as a kind of political Cold War in reverse, in which we strip our government further and further of all social programs and “entitlements” until the federal government is toothless and as symbolic as the British Monarchy and we return to the failed version of America that existed briefly under the Articles of Confederation.

It didn’t work then, it won’t work now.

So, what (the Conservative asks), we just let the moochers win?

Socialism In The Wild

While at work the other night, it struck me: I’m watching a miniature Socialist system and it’s exactly what the Conservatives fear. At my restaurant, the servers all pool their tips. It doesn’t matter if you serve 10 tables and the other server(s) only has 5, at the end of the night everyone splits the tips evenly. There is a logic to this sort of system (it doesn’t punish a server for having a particularly needy table) and generally it works well. A server has their own tables, but if they can help another table they should.

There’s no denying, though, this system also works in the favor of a selfish server who only looks out for him or herself. Since there are managers, food runners and other servers to do work, if one particular server chooses to do the bare minimum to get through the shift, it’s almost invariable that one of the other workers will be forced to pick up their slack and the lazy server’s pay will suffer none for it.

Remember that coworker I mentioned earlier, the one who is terribly annoyed by the moochers on welfare driving nicer cars than him? Let’s call him Cal. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Cal is milking the Socialist Tip system at work. He only takes food to a table if it’s his own, and usually when he sees a food tray coming he walks the other way. He’ll let a dirty tray of dishes build up and wait for a food runner to take it instead of just caring it back himself. And at the end of the night when the side work must be done, he disappears for upwards of twenty minutes.

But at the end of the shift, Cal’s share of the tip pool is no lesser. If Cal worked harder, it’s likely the guests would get better service and, thus, give bigger tips, but even if that wasn’t the case, working harder would get everyone out faster. In other words, everyone working together benefits everyone, but everyone else working hard while Cal twiddles his thumb benefits only him.

How is this allowed to happen? Shouldn’t someone call him out on it? Shouldn’t the management step in? Of course, and Cal has been called out on it, but the management is largely ineffectual. Cal knows that the managers are usually distracted and too busy doing other things to pay attention to work ethic.

Imagine both the stereotypical Conservative and Liberal responses to this problem. Liberals might suggest the restaurant add another manager whose sole job was watching the servers and making them work fairly. This manager would cost the restaurant more money to basically babysit adults who would resent the ever present eye. On the other hand, the Conservative would abolish all management, saying, “Hey, we’re all adults, we can govern ourselves.” Now there’s no one but servers on the floor and it becomes an everyone for themselves Wild Wild West.*

Neither solution is ideal. Neither solution is really even feasible. But in our politics, this seems to be the two choices we are left with as both sides of the debate are seemingly moving more and more extreme in their positions.

There is a middle ground, though, and I think both the Republicans and the Democrats will come to it when (if) they stop listening to their extremist factions (in reality, the leftist extremists have rarely had any real political power, certainly not in the way the Tea Party has; Obama is pretty damn Centrist).

The restaurant doesn’t need more management, it needs better management. Maybe that means paying a little more to either a) train the management or b) bring in stronger talent, but that cost wouldn’t be nearly as much as hiring a whole other manager. On the opposite side, once that better management is in place, we need to cut off the moochers. Have a server that consistently and blatantly abuses the system? Stop giving him shifts, especially on the busy nights, and if the problem is bad enough, lose him altogether. There are plenty of people looking for work, and some will work hard to earn it.

This sort of compromise doesn’t appeal to people on the edges of the debate, but for the rational middle this is an effective way to eliminate the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Will it be perfect? No, no system is, especially when you add in millions of independent factors with minds of their own. However, a solution that allows us to preserve a social safety net while cracking down on moochers is truly a win/win.

How does this play out in the real world? Well, it will require more of “our tax dollars” being spent to patch up the holes in the welfare system, but in the end that will make the system more effective, allowing these programs to fulfill their promise: Keeping the poor and downtrodden from falling between the cracks long enough to get on their feet and become productive members of our True American Capitalist Utopia. More productive citizens benefits everyone, even the rich (especially the rich).

In other words, we have to spend money to make money.

There will always be selfish people in this world, and no system of government will ever change that. But having no system of government will only allow that selfishness to spread like a disease. There is a reason we as a species came together to form civilizations and, eventually, governments. Left unchecked, our natural selfishness will kill us.

It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating: The solution to our selfishness is not more or less government, but more effective governance.

Give Em Something

*The other Conservative response could loosely be called Privatization: Get rid of the tip pool and just have everyone earn their own. I’ve worked in both types of restaurants, and while there is an appeal to not sharing one’s tips, there are plenty of ways this sort of system can be abused and plenty of ways that circumstances can cheat a particular server. When you work in a restaurant (or live in a society), there is no such thing as being truly, completely autonomous.

One thought on “Socialism and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

  1. This is pretty intense thinking. The either/or way of viewing the world. But, there is that centrist view point, the one with balance and the one that always seems to stop the pendulum from swinging too far in either direction. As a society, we cannot call ourselves a ‘great’ society if we leave our disabled, sick, elderly and disadvantaged to fend for themselves. We already have enough homeless and poverty stricken children that fall through the proverbial cracks. Remember the Great Depression? The far right wants private charities and churches to take care of these, (Dickens) and the far left wants social programs for everything (Communist Russia). But somewhere in the middle lies the happy medium. Also, do we want even more crime than we already have? Social programs do a service in providing grants and educational opportunities for people who would otherwise not have them. Already, higher education is out of reach for even middle class students unless they mortgage their souls – another frightening scenario when they all default on these huge loans. Also,with the elimination of social programs, and a poor economy, crime runs rampant, thereby ‘justifying’ more police presence and eliminating our civil rights, hence we end up with a police state – a true totalitarian system – read ‘The Gulag Archipelago’.

    I think the prisoner story is flawed because a great society depends on high ethics. Obviously prisoner’s don’t have ethics or they wouldn’t be there.

    The story about the tip sharing shows a flawed system of sharing – socialism. Capitalism does work by encouraging people to work hard to have the best tips and keep them for themselves with a taxation system that is fair. The restaurants that have the shared tip system will only attract the laziest workers, thereby never achieving maximum profits, as the service and quality will be substandard. A server with excellent skills will be looking for a better work environment in a highly rated restaurant with promotional opportunities. Capitalism at it’s best.

    We have already gone too far to the right. Our civil rights have been so eroded and violated in the guise of ‘keeping us safe’ that we now have unconstitutional searches and surveillance at every street light and corner, monitoring of all communications, police drones flying around and no freedom of speech without the swat teams hosing us down with pepper spray or worse. And let’s not think about the fact that we are completely controlled by government, large corporations, and banks lying in bed together. Just allow us to have our assault weapons. We need to live in fear so we can have more of this type of government. A bit of sarcasm.

    As Americans we must find a healthy balance of free thinking and grass roots movements to build small business with environmental and ethical standards, with state governments the driving force, rather than the federal govt., but this will take years and hard work and require people to get off their butts and vote for responsible leaders and good government policies. And stop listening to rhetoric and start actually thinking.

Comments are closed.