Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mathematical Politics: Part 9

Games Theory Breaks DownMuch of the theory behind the 1980s free market revolution depended on the notion of human beings competently making ‘rational’ and ‘selfish’ decisions in favour of their own socio-economic well being. But there is rationality and rationality and there is selfishness and selfishness. It is clear that human beings are not just motivated by the desires guiding Adam Smith’s invisible hand. If the cognizance of politics fails on this point then those other motivations, some of them like the forbidden planet’s monsters from the id, will one day pounce from the shadows and surprise us. And the consequences can be very grave indeed.

The story of the Waco siege gives us insight into some of the more perverse perceptions and motives lurking in the human psyche, which if summoned have priority over the need to maximize one’s socio-economic status or even the need to self preserve. The perverse altruism of the Waco cult members was neither accounted for nor understood by the authorities dealing with the siege. No doubt the latter, with all good intensions, wanted to end the siege without bloodshed, but they appeared to be using the cold war model. They tried very hard to offer incentives to get the cult members to defect, using both the carrot (safety) and the stick (cutting off supplies and making life generally uncomfortable with psychological pressures). All to no avail. Even when the senses of the cult members were assaulted with tear gas and their lives threatened by fire they did not budge from the cult’s compound. The authorities reckoned without the cult’s perverse loyalty to David Koresh who by this time was claiming Son of God status, and was fathering ‘Children of God’ through the cult’s women. That’s nothing new either: Akhenaten, 3500 years before Koresh, thought and did the same, as have so many other deluded religious leaders. The irony of it! The socio-biologists have a field day on this point!

If anything the measures taken by the authorities stiffened the resolve of the cult members who saw in these attempts the very thing Koresh warned them of. Koresh had succeeded in reinventing, once again, that well known cognitive virus that ensures that its hosts interpret any attempt to get rid of it as a sure sign of the presence of Satan. Hence, all attempts to dislodge the virus have the very opposite effect and simply embed it more deeply in the psyche. Thus, like the efforts to wriggle free from a knotted tangle or the struggles of a prey to escape the backward pointing teeth of a predator, the bid from freedom by the most direct path only helps to consolidate the entrapment. The only way to untie a difficult knot is to slowly and patiently unpick it bit by bit.

Cold war games theory failed at Waco on at least two counts: Firstly the rationality of cult members was based on a false view of reality – they saw the authorities, a-priori, as the agent of Satan and Koresh as God’s savoir. Secondly the selfishness of the cult members was not that of looking after themselves. The greater selfishness was embodied in a loyalty to Koresh and his viral teaching. In the face of this the incentives and disincentives offered by the authorities were worse than useless. It never occurred to them that here were a group of people that were prepared to go for a “Darwin award”. (

As our society faces other issues where religion looms large, such as Iraq and Islamic terrorism, we may find that Smith’s invisible hand provides no solution.
To be continued....

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