Monday, August 28, 2006

Asymmetric Power and Rationality

As the old drumbeat starts in the direction of Iran, I've been thinking about the reasoning used by those in power and the reasoning they project onto those not in power. While the usual goal of diplomacy is negotiating ways to live together; really, underlying it all is the attempt to get people to do what you want them to do or at least to get them to stop doing what you don't want them to do.

This is especially true with the neo-conservative foreign policy of our current administration. The idea is that America, as the strongest and most prosperous corporate democracy, has reached the end goal of socio-politico-economic development and therefore has the right and obligation to bring along the rest of the world and align them with our national/corporate interests for their own good. Foreign policy is really a matter of bending others to our will.

Now, this requires getting inside the heads of those with whom you are negotiating and figuring out what would motivate or discourage them from acting. This requires understanding the rational processes of the other. Very often we hear that enemies of the US, be it Kim Jong Il in North Korea or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, are "crazy" or "irrational." Maybe they are, maybe they aren't; but in cases of asymmetric power, I'm wondering if we aren't seeing here a misunderstanding of rationality, a projection of rationality from the position onto a place where it does not belong.

You see it over and over again: the way the US deals with North Korea and Cuba, the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians,... The approach is based on the old Pavlovian notion of positive and negative reinforcement. If you push the left pedal, we give you a painful shock; if you press the right peddle, we give you a food pellet. Thereby we train you to push the pedal we want you to push. Indeed, the more you push the wrong pedal, the more painful the shocks will become. The more and the longer you act in a way that we do not approve of, the more difficult we make life for you -- all the time showing you that we will stop the pain if only you do what we want. Of course, the rational person prefers the absence or the eleviation of pain to the experiencing of pain, and so not allowing your will to be bent to ours under these circumstances is irrational because in acting in that way you are freely chossing pain where you do not need to be experiencing it. What kind of idiot prefers the stick to the carrot?

This is the reasoning of people who have something to lose and the foundational standard of rationality that they apply to everyone, regardless of their relative wealth, power, or circumstances.

But, of course, that sort of cost/benefit analysis is not the one made by those with less power. First, what is on the line is not just pain or no pain, but one's dignity and existence as a person or nation in and for itself. The surrendering of autonomy is a major cost that is not included in the calculation by the powerful. It may be the case that no carrot is worth suffering the stick that takes away one's soul and going along is to give in and give up more than merely spiteful resistance. Those who are in control think only on the operative level because they are never faced, muchless are not virtually always faced with questions on the existential level -- they know their basic status as a free agent is safe and only have to decide what to do as a free agent. Not so on the other end of diplomatic shotgun. It is not childish intransigence, as it may appear from the perspective of the powerful, but the fight to maintain one's self as an autonomous being, to preserve one's very humanity.

But further, there is something else in play here that makes such cost/benefit analyses seem problematic in the first place. The rationality of an act is context dependent -- the rationality of this bet is not just based upon an examination of this bet, but also other bets you have made. There are what we call "Dutch book" bets (apologies to Hanno) in which you have a series of bets, each one being rational by itself, but when taken together guarantee that the bettor will lose money. It is always irrational to take such bets.

But there is a similar, but subtly different case -- what SteveD long ago termed "Vegas book" bets -- which turn not on other bets, but other environmental factors. These bets are irrational all other things being equal, but may be rational when all other things aren't equal. Take the lottery -- what a bumper sticker I saw once referred to as a tax on those who can't do math. The lottery is usually a bad bet because the payoff is less than the odds of winning. The reward needs to be at least as great as the risk. If you are flipping a coin for money and not getting paid 2:1 for winning, you will lose money over the long run regardless. To play such games for purposes of winning money is therefore irrational. But suppose you need $100,000 quickly or a mobster will break your kneecaps and you only have a dollar in your pocket. The odds of winning that $100,000 on the lottery is less than 100,000:1, but what other choice do you have? You would be an idiot to not take the bet, even though it is a bad bet. If someone with a lot of chips raises in poker, it must be seen differently than if someone with fewer chips raises. What is rational when you are in control is different from how you ought to play when you are not.

The powers seem to be looking at those without much in the global political capital and assuming that they are going to play like those who have all the chips. When you have both little and everything to lose, you play differently. Seemingly bizarre actions become perfectly rational and the old equation of "they'll come around if we just make life difficult enough" fails to work. The true believers will hew and cry that we just haven't been tough enough on them. "We will break you." And the more they resist and fight back against those with much more power, the worse it becomes for them, the slimmer the odds and the more rational we make seeming irrationality.

If we want to have any hopes of being diplomatically successful and (if our intentions are actually noble) making this a better world, then, given that we hold most of the chips, it seems like those who make policy need a deeper understanding of the rationality of the powerless.