Co-operation makes sense

Are you a sucker? Do you cheat? Or are you one to bear a grudge? For biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1978), such questions impinge on a subject of great importance: what is the most effective behavioural strategy to ensure survival in evolutionary terms?

By the title of his book, it seems that, for Dawkins, it was a foregone conclusion that natural selection would tend to favour, above all, behaviour that was nasty and ruthlessly competitive. As he says himself:

‘The selfish gene view follows logically from the accepted assumptions of neo-Darwinism. It is easy to misunderstand but, once understood, it is hard to doubt its fundamental truth. Most of the organisms that have ever lived failed to become ancestors. We that exist are, without exception, descended from that minority within every earlier generation that were successful in becoming ancestors. Since all we animals inherit our genes from ancestors rather than from non-ancestors, we tend to possess the qualities that make for success in becoming an ancestor rather than the qualities that make for failure. Successful qualities are such things as fleetness of foot, sharpness of eye, perfection of camouflage, and—there seems no getting away from it—ruthless selfishness. Nice guys don’t become ancestors. Therefore living organisms don’t inherit the qualities of nice guys’ (The Listener, 17 April 1986).

Yet Dawkins is at pains to disassociate himself from the rather pessimistic implications of such views for society. Interestingly, in the Horizon programme on television (on which the above article is based) called Nice Guys Finish First he related how, after the publication of his book, he was wooed by various people of right wing persuasion who saw his book as a vindication of their belief in a system of cut-throat competition. Conversely, he found himself under attack from the left, one critic going so far as to suggest that the impact of The Selfish Gene was partly to blame for the subsequent election of the Thatcher government.

But Dawkins insists that both sides had misunderstood the point he was trying to make. Paradoxically, the pursuit of self interest is not necessarily incompatible with being ‘nice’—that is, co-operative. This is what is confusingly referred to in socio-biological circles as ‘reciprocal altruism’. Since altruism implies the genuinely intended sacrifice of one’s interests, it is difficult to see how this fits in with the idea conveyed by the term ‘reciprocal altruism’, that if you scratch my back I will scratch yours and both will benefit as a result. It would be more accurate to call this ‘enlightened self interest’ no ‘sacrifice’ is involved.

Nevertheless, to show how this might operate, Dawkins refers to game theory—in particular a game called The Prisoner’s Dilemma:

‘In the simplest version of this game, two players have each to choose between two moves, Co-operate and Defect (hereafter C and D). Unlike in chess or ping pong, the players don’t move alternately but simultaneously, in ignorance of the other’s simultaneous move. If you and I both play C we get more (say $3) than if we both play D (say $2). If one of us plays C and simultaneously the other plays D, the D player gets the highest possible score (say $4) and the C player gets the ‘sucker’s payoff’ (say $1). So, from my point of view, the best outcome is that I play D and you play C. But if I calculate this, and play D accordingly, you are just as capable of working out the same thing and playing D yourself In this case we both only get the low payoff. If only we’d both played C, we’d both have got the comparatively high payoff of $3. But, if I work this out and play C you do even better if you choose D. Therefore, rational players will always play D and will always obtain the low payoff of $2. But—here is the paradox and maddening dilemma—each rational player simultaneously knows that, if only he and his opponent could somehow manage to enter into a binding contract to play C, both would do better’ (ibid).

Here Dawkins provides an example of how this situation could arise in real life. Take a group of friends who like to eat out at a restaurant and split the cost of the meal equally between them. There will always be the temptation for any one of them to order a little more than the others, knowing that the extra cost will be equally shared. Conversely, any one of them will realise that if they do not order as much as the others they will be subsidising their friends. Therefore, there will be a built-in tendency for each of them to order as much as they can get away with.

The worst that can happen in such a situation is that some of them will benefit at the expense of the others and perhaps as a consequence they will fall out with each other. Come what may, there will be both winners and losers. But it is possible to imagine a situation—even to point to real life examples such as the destruction of the herring industry through over-fishing in the early part of this century—in which this same competitive logic can result in everyone losing out.

In such a situation, no-one actually intends that as a consequence of each of them competing against one another they should eventually all lose out. Yet they are obliged, even in full knowledge of the fate that could await them, to continue with the very actions that will make that fate a reality.

This situation has been described by the American biologist, Garrett Hardin, as the Tragedy of the Commons (Science vol 162, 13 December 1968). As he puts it:

‘The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a reality At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximise his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in the commons bring ruin to all.’

Hardin’s solution to this tragedy of the commons is ‘mutual coercion’. An appeal to conscience, he argues, is altogether futile. Mutual coercion can be effected through, as it were, enclosing the commons and instituting a system of private property which will enforce a sense of responsibility among herdsmen as to the appropriate number of cattle their land can provide for without resulting in overgrazing. Since they cannot encroach on land owned by other herdsmen, the consequences of keeping too many cattle will be exclusively borne by them. This knowledge will therefore deter them from acting irresponsibly in the first place.

The problem here is that Hardin has quite obviously got hold of the wrong end of the stick. It is not the ‘inherent logic of the commons’ which ‘remorselessly generates tragedy’. The ‘commons’ simply provides the setting in which this tragedy is played out. It does not embody the cause of the tragedy itself—that is, the overgrazing of the land by too many cattle.

That cause lies elsewhere, in the dynamism of competition which compels each herdsman to increase his herd beyond the carrying capacity of the land since his own livelihood is directly dependent on the number of cattle at his disposal. Had the cattle, like the land, been the communal possession of the herdsmen then it would have been possible to make a rational decision about the total number of cattle. In that case, the livelihood of each herdsman would be directly dependent on their collective wellbeing, which in turn would rest on securing an optimum ratio of cattle to land. As it was, each was obliged to make what was the only rational decision open to him within an irrational framework of decision-making, with inevitably tragic consequences. So much for the view expounded by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations that the individual who ‘intends only his own gain’ is ‘led by an invisible hand to promote the public interest’.

‘In a reverse way’, argues Hardin, ‘the tragedy of the commons re-appears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons but of putting something in’. Just as in the case of the herdsman, a factory owner will be ‘locked into a system’ that will ensure that the commons are treated as a convenient cesspool for the disposal of waste products. The owner will see that it will pay to avoid the costs of purifying the pollutants by simply dumping them in the environment because the saving this represents far exceeds the environmental cost the factory may have to bear though others bear it as well. Rational self interest will therefore demand pollution.

Following Hardin’s suggestion let us assume that the commons have been enclosed. In theory, this would mean that anyone could prevent their neighbour from polluting their land just as the herdsmen could prevent their neighbour’s cattle from straying onto their land. Anyone who chose not to purify their pollutants would be obliged to contain them within their own property and bear the total costs such pollution entailed. But what sounds fine in theory will prove quite unworkable in practice since what we mean by the ‘commons’ embraces not just the land but the air and water surrounding us. These, as Hardin concedes, ‘cannot readily be fenced’.

A simple example will make this clearer. Suppose my neighbour decided to build a factory alongside a stream into which were pumped the factory’s effluents. Suppose I delighted in fishing but now with all the fish killed I could no longer pursue my interest. What could I then do? I could of course purchase the right of ownership of that section of the stream that flowed past my back door but my neighbour, upstream of me, could do the same and argue plausibly for the right to use that section of the stream as they chose. Of course, the consequence of my neighbour’s decision to site a factory on their property need not be confined to this. Its visual impact on the neighbourhood could depress the price of residential properties all around. The constant noise might disturb my sleep. The lorries carrying the raw materials it processed may congest the roads making commuting to work a hazardous slog.

If I were to grant my neighbour the absolute right to dispose of their property as they chose, it would be inconsistent of me to complain of the consequences. If, on the other hand, I sought to restrict the ways in which my neighbour could use their property then I would be asserting the need to retain the ‘commons’ as an entity in one or other respect—the tranquility of the neighbourhood or the right to fish in an unpolluted stream. We cannot live in a cocoon. Even capitalism itself, the most competitive and atomistic form of society that has ever evolved, cannot afford not to make some concession to this stark fact.

We see this in the way conventional thinking approaches the problem of pollution. Hardin himself points out that while (according to him), ‘our particular concept of private property deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth’ it actually ‘favours pollution’. The solution which he and many others suggest is the direct intervention of the state in the form of legislation to temper the excesses of competition committed by private citizens. ‘Mutual coercion’, apparently, will not suffice.

The weaknesses in this approach are twofold. It does not strike at the root cause of the problem—at the competitive advantage to be gained by minimising costs—in this case, the costs of purifying and disposing of pollutants in an ecologically acceptable manner—incurred by capitalist enterprises. It blandly assumes that the state is a more or less autonomous institution which presides over society and legislates in the interests of the whole community. But in fact the state is a class institution, financed through taxation by the very enterprises whose activities it seeks to regulate. Legislation is a matter of finely balancing the losses and gains that accrue to the capitalists themselves. Too lenient an approach might be politically unacceptable and excessively ruinous to the health of the workers who create the profits for the businesses that employ them. Too punitive an approach, on the other hand, can erode profit margins and drive investment into other parts of the world where regulations are more lax. And all the time, the dividing line between what is acceptable and what is not shifts as the economic climate itself changes the more desperate the plight of business, the more lenient does the law become.

This brings us back to Richard Dawkins. What does he think is the way forward? Political scientists tend to see so much of life as a Prisoner’s Dilemma. Many would argue that we therefore need to have some authority to take more of the decisions out of our hands rather like the way the state supposedly denies the option to a capitalist enterprise to release its toxic wastes into the environment by declaring this illegal. But as we have seen things don’t happen that way. The state, too, is enmeshed in the irrational framework that is capitalist competition.

Dawkins would set rather more store by the Law of the Jungle than the Law of the State as a model for encouraging co-operative behaviour. Suggesting that we have a lot to learn from the animal world around us, he gives the example of gulls which need to groom themselves in order to remove parasitic ticks. The difficulty arises in grooming their heads; which requires the co-operation of another gull. Gulls that cheated on other gulls would soon drive the suckers into extinction. But cheats themselves would eventually follow the suckers since there would be no gulls left willing to groom them.

What are the implications of this for society? Dawkins argues that we saw evidence of a tit-for-tat strategy developing in the trenches of the First World War. Soldiers would deliberately fire above the heads of their ‘enemies’ to signal their desire to cooperate in minimising the mutual damage they could inflict upon one another. Their alleged enemies would respond in kind. Such was the extent to which the ‘disease of peace’ took hold that after two years of this, the generals were eventually forced to completely re-write their battle plans turning instead to surprise tactics which served to destroy the unspoken trust that had been built up on both sides.

Though the insights that game theory has to offer are valuable, their possible application in the sort of society we have today—as the above example makes clear—is limited. We live in a world in which the means of living are monopolised by a small minority. Just as the hierarchical structure of an army invests a general with the power to command his troops so capitalist society itself can only ever be run in the interests of that capitalist minority. But the great majority of the population, the working people, whose interests are constantly thwarted by the dictates of capital, cannot do much to redress the balance within a social system which requires that we remain compelled to prostitute our working abilities for capitalist exploitation.

Real co-operation can only flourish on the foundations of social equality. Until then, for the great majority at least, we remain suckers with good reason to bear a grudge.