Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Calculus Of Deceit

[As I'm utterly exhausted -- packing the C.S.O. off on her annual holiday away from me and seeing to it that she makes her flight can be a real trial -- have another chestnut from Palace of Reason days. This one from July 2004 seems relevant in light of the ongoing Clinton email scandal and the sparring surrounding it. -- FWP]

Curmudgeon Emeritus -- Francis W. Porretto

Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson, and now Sandy Berger...all liars, all the time. Well, at least it's an improvement over the "Bush Lied! People Died!" chants of the Left. There's actual evidence against Clarke, Wilson and Berger.

Does it matter to you? If your answer is no, you're an example of the effect I have in mind. If it's "yes," come along with me. Let's see if we can't find a counter-agent to one of the worst political perils of our time.

Back in March, the Curmudgeon wrote feelingly about one of the anti-American Left's most effective tactics: the deliberate pollution of the public discourse with lies. Each individual lie is refutable, but they're put forward in such quantity and with such velocity that the natural tendency of the listener is to abandon the conversation, leaving the field to the Leftist.

Alongside the mindless repetition of hypnotic slogans, the torrent of lies is the best shaft the Left has in its quiver -- not because it expects its assertions to convince many listeners, but because the fewer persons are willing to participate, the better the Left's chance of prevailing over enfeebled opposition.

The horror of the thing is that anyone with an IQ above room temperature can work this out from first principles and available evidence, yet knowing it for what it is doesn't dampen its effects.

The engine of doom is powered by the disproportion between the rewards for honesty and the penalties for deceiving -- and for being deceived.

An honest man doesn't expect to profit hugely from any individual undertaking. Ten percent is a large return on investment; three to five percent is more likely, especially today. That's why it takes most of us -- the non-genius portion of the population -- a whole lifetime of damned hard work to amass a comfortable estate and security for our twilight years.

But to succumb to a single act of deception can cost everything one has. The Nigerian bank scam phenomenon, which induces the credulous to part with identifying information about their bank accounts in return for a promise of riches, is a good example. (It's also a good illustration of the master principle of the confidence game: look for a mark who believes you can get something for nothing.)

Essentially all human enterprise requires the extension of trust to one's coworkers, vendors and customers. This is necessary just to be able to trade for the materials needed for one's own work, and to enlist the services of others to do what one cannot do oneself. And all that for a five percent return! So, as the probability rises that one of the trusted will use his position to commit larceny, the probability that one will extend one's trust in the first place decreases far faster, entirely due to the disparity between risk and reward.

Political engagement is much like that, even if the rewards are usually non-material. Americans participate in the political system, to the extent that they do, because they believe it to be both a duty and an investment. The sense of duty arises from the conviction that we're a part of something larger, and owe it some degree of engagement on that basis alone. The sense of investment comes from our several beliefs that favoring this policy over that one will bring about an improvement in conditions that affect our lives and the lives of those we love. However, any rational citizen will know that his vote has a barely infinitesimal chance of affecting the outcome of any given ballot.

Both duty and investment are undermined by a persistent campaign of deceit.

In the simplest manifestations, it's easy to see how this operates. If Smith espouses a particular platform while campaigning, but proceeds in a contrary direction once elevated to office, those who voted for him feel betrayed and disheartened. It's an order of magnitude worse when the politicians of both major parties regard campaign promises as non-binding instruments solely important for gaining office. Why should Jones bother to vote if his vote has that little chance of bringing about the changes he desires? Worse, if his vote has as much chance of electing a villain or thief as a trustworthy man, however hard he tries to be attentive to events and thoughtful about policy prescriptions?

The more complex scenarios involve one's assessment of the probable response of others like oneself to a political milieu saturated with deceit. Apparently, each of us uses his reactions of disgust as a model for the reactions of others, postulates that the whole electorate will see things the same way, and then estimates the probability of a desirable result from engagement. If Jones's personal disgust over political deception is sufficiently high, he'll assume that everyone else's will be, too, even if he can see through the lies without difficulty. He'll then inarticulately predict mass disaffection from the process, and fulfill the prediction by will his fellow citizens.

Mathematician Martin Gardner called this "renormalized rationality." Political scientist Robert Axelrod wrote about it extensively, and most accessibly, in his book The Evolution Of Cooperation.

The system oscillates as honest men move out of engagement with it, despairing of ever making it fit for human consumption, and back into it, determined to impose trustworthiness on it by personal example and force of will. The stablest terminal state is a system utterly ruled by lies, all of whose participants are ethically numb. These will not be the most virtuous of men. Worst of all, our absence from the field is exactly the condition that benefits them the most.

The torrent-of-deceit effect cannot be countered effectively by a campaign of truth and honorable dealing. The payoffs are too different, and the underlying dynamic unopposable. The only countermeasure that has a chance of working is silencing the deceivers -- an approach fundamentally at odds with our national character and veneration for freedom of speech.

Yes, I'm worried. Despite the accumulating revelations about our latest crop of liars, I hope you are, too. It might not fix the mess, but at least we'll have one another for company.

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