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It Might As Well Be Me

In a few recent sources (mostly podcasts) I have come across a recurring theme which relates to many current world problems. It’s what I call the “it might as well be me” syndrome. Actually, it might have been called that by others as well but I can’t find it anywhere so I’m claiming naming rights here!

This syndrome results from the idea that if anyone is going to do something which itself is bad then it might as well be me who does it. For example, if a resource, such as fish, is being overexploited then eventually the last fish will be taken. If that is going to happen anyway then I might as well be the person to take that last fish before anyone else does, since the end result is the same.

The same applies to many environmental and social phenomena, such as global warming, war, and exploitation of any natural resource.

What did the person think as he cut down the last tree on Easter Island, for example? He must have known that it meant disaster in the long term but he did it anyway. But since someone else was going to do it if he didn’t it was actually entirely sensible for that person to do it, just like it’s entirely sensible for individual countries to continue to pollute the atmosphere or decimate non-renewable resources because other countries would do the same thing if they didn’t.

It’s a classic case of the “prisoner’s dilemma” where a prisoner must either inform on his fellow prisoner or not, but where the punishment he receives depends on both his and his fellow’s actions. If neither informs there are few negative consequences, but if one does and the other doesn’t the informer gets off free but the person informed on has a harsh punishment. The best response is to stay silent as long as the other person also says nothing but that risks receiving the worst punishment if the other person does say something against you.

This phenomenon relies on individuals acting independently and exhibiting no collective wisdom and, as I said above, it’s the basic cause of many of the world’s problems. Why should a fishing company avoid overfishing and why should a forestry company log sustainably when they know that their competitor might not follow the same rules? Competition is usually touted as the solution to all of our problems but (although I admit it can produce good outcomes) the reality is that it actually the cause of most of them.

It’s a difficult problem to solve because being greedy and acting in what seems like an illogical and immoral way is actually the only sensible approach in these situations. It is actually entirely rational to act that way in a competitive environment where trust is uncertain. The prisoners’ should both betray their partner and individual countries or companies should act in the most self-serving way possible even though the final outcome for both will be worse.

The best solution is to remove the environment where these rules apply. We should base our economic and political systems more on cooperation than competition or we should introduce a higher authority than simple market pressures and have extremely strong controls in place to prevent individual behaviour being detrimental to the long term future of the majority.

That has been contrary to accepted wisdom for many years. But current economic dogma is increasingly obviously a failure. The outcome of neo-liberal economic strategies is clear both through the predictions of gaming theory and the actual observations of what is happening in the world. We should start making the necessary changes now rather than waiting for them to be forced on us. Do we want the whole world to end up like Easter Island?

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