Monday, March 02, 2009

Taxation and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Taxation, where the cost of some activity is spread out proportionally instead of by specific use, is a perfect example of a Prisoner's Dilemma situation.

If I and my neighbor are subject to taxation, the "rational" solution for either of us is to have the other pay his taxes and avoid our own; we get the benefit of what the taxes pay for without personally incurring the costs. If my neighbor pays his taxes, I'm better off not paying my own; if he doesn't pay his taxes, I'm still better off not paying my own. On the other hand, we're both better off if we both pay our taxes than if neither of us do. That's a textbook example of a Prisoner's Dilemma in real life.

Hence I talk in Supply-side and demand-side communism about using the coercive power of the state to fulfill people's needs for survival: the government taxes everyone to pay for everyone's basic needs. The coercive power of the state is used not to make an individual do what is not in her best interest, but rather to counteract the Nash equilibrium and ensure for each person that his neighbor is not taking a "free ride" and acting in an exploitative manner. Without coercion to ensure fairness, everyone's "rational" decision would be to not pay taxes, to their mutual detriment.

12 comments:

  1. Ah, I see. I think we may be using different ideas of 'coercion'. I would say, not providing people with useful services (the postie doesn't deliver to you, the repairperson doesn't repair your stuff, etc.) can be a very effective deterrent, especially when combined with social disapproval. But I wouldn't call that coercion, because no force is involved, nobody is physically interfering with you. (withholding essential services like healthcare is in between)

    The difference is, a coercive society/government can potentially make people do things that are really against their interests - like with war communism. If all that society/the 'government' can do is withdraw some of the benefits of society, that can deal with most prisoners' dilemmas like this taxation one, but makes it impossible to really fuck anyone over because after a certain point they just decide that the benefits being withheld aren't worth it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Not providing people with needful services (food, shelter, etc.) is real coercion. Since I'm talking about the production and supply of needful services, I'm talking about using real coercion here.

    a coercive society/government can potentially make people do things that are really against their interests

    I understand this. I'd like to get to a completely non-coercive society... eventually. But given today's material conditions, we can't immediately eliminate coercion; we can only make it more equitable, sane and fair and humane.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "But given today's material conditions, we can't immediately eliminate coercion"

    I guess this seems no more convincing to me than 'given today's material conditions, we can't trust the government to use its power accountably'. They might both be true, they might both be false. Whether it's true that at the current juncture we can both 1) not realistically expect a pretty much non-coercive society in the immediate future, and 2) CAN expect that a revolutionary government will be inhibited (from within or from without) from expanding its power, and will eventually 'wither away' - whether that's true, is hard to conclusively show one way or the other.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm trying to chart out a middle course between defeatism (it's impossible to ever create a anarchist society) and utopianism (anything less than an anarchist society right now is a betrayal).

    It's kind of like the space program. The defeatists said, "We don't know how to get to moon, so there's no point in trying." A hypothetical utopian might have said, "Stop shilly-shallying around with Mercury's and Geminis; let's start building Apollo right now."

    I just don't know how to create an anarchist society right now. I have no fucking clue. I can at least conjecture some of what we have do to pave the way for an anarchist society, and some of the present-day impediments — such as capitalism — that must be cleared away.

    To a certain extent, I find utopian purists as frustrating as capitalist defeatists. I don't think it's feasible or practical to yak yak yak about how great anarchism would be and hope so many people adopt the ideology that an anarchist society just coalesces out of thin air. At the very least, you're fighting an uphill battle against a relentless, well-financed capitalist propaganda machine. We need some sort of ratchet, some way to consolidate intermediate gains, for truth and good to defeat money and power.

    The perfect should be a guide to the good; don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I totally hear what your saying. Ratchets are good, intermediates are good, no point expecting perfection from day one.

    But I don't self-understand as arguing against intermediate steps, I self-understand as mainly arguing against what I see as backwards steps. I'm thinking to myself - in whatever power passes from the bourgeoisie/bad guys to the proletariat/good guys, it's liable to involve the appearance of 'popular organisations', participatory bodies that will coordinate the masses in their strikes and insurrections and so forth (they may well draw upon or even be pre-existing such organisations). Example: the soviets of 1917 Russia.

    I think there's liable to be a great pressure towards making these organisations more state-like than they naturally are - setting up a central executive committee, bringing the militias under central control, establishing an espionage/counter-espionage spy or secret police agency, taking decision-making power out of popular hands and then relying on popular organisations to help impose it. Example: the formation of the Bolshevik government.

    My concern is that in the drive to 'consolidate' the gains that have been made, this is liable to actually mean, whether in the short-term or the long-term, 'rolling back' many of those gains. A civil war is not a good setting to expect accountable and fair governance.

    I mean, I don't know what sort of communism you roll with, but most Marxists, certainly the various strains of Leninist, would say something just as 'utopian' as I am: that the existing state apparatus can't be taken over, but must be abolished, and new institutions formed to replace it.

    I'm not against every approach that involves the state. Some state policies represent a meaningful advance. But I, along with my Leninist brethren, think there's likely to have to be a decisive break at some point, where it stops being about winning concessions and starts being about winning power. At that point there's likely to be popular organisations, and I while they may well not be wholly anarchic to begin with, I think they should be pushed in that direction, and the pressure towards statism should be resisted.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think there's liable to be a great pressure towards making these organisations more state-like than they naturally are - setting up a central executive committee, bringing the militias under central control, establishing an espionage/counter-espionage spy or secret police agency, taking decision-making power out of popular hands and then relying on popular organisations to help impose it. Example: the formation of the Bolshevik government.

    I agree that the features you mention are objectionable, but I would argue that they're not essentially state-like (or rather not government-like; they're just things common to pathological governments, governments that exist not to facilitate mutual cooperation but exist rather to maintain exploitation oppression.

    I think a socialist government has to be decentralized, democratized, transparent, rely more on persuasion than force, and would be a couple of orders of magnitude less violent than bourgeois governments (which are themselves considerably less violent than feudal states).

    My concern is that in the drive to 'consolidate' the gains that have been made, this is liable to actually mean, whether in the short-term or the long-term, 'rolling back' many of those gains.

    I understand and I share your concerns. It is extremely important that the people who directly support a revolutionary government continue to exert pressure on that government.

    As I've written before, Mao's realized the class struggle does not end with the revolution; the revolutionary government must perpetuate, support and to some degree institutionalize the class struggle. It's an open question whether we call that struggle one against bourgeois elements within the revolutionary government, or call the revolutionary government itself a distinct classl.

    that the existing state apparatus can't be taken over, but must be abolished, and new institutions formed to replace it.

    I don't think this attitude is utopian; I find it revolutionary. It's uncontroversial to me that we have to find radically new approaches. But even a radically new approach will still retain some characteristics of the old ways. We must still, I think, retain some centralization, some coercion; the revolution consists of putting these elements on a vastly new basis.

    At that point there's likely to be popular organisations, and I while they may well not be wholly anarchic to begin with, I think they should be pushed in that direction, and the pressure towards statism should be resisted.

    The only argument I have there -- assuming by "statism" you mean the existence of a government with coercive force -- is that I think that rather than oppose the formation of a revolutionary government, we must support and promote dialectical elements fundamentally opposed to government -- i.e. a revolutionary government should praise and (somehow) financially support a "pure" anarchist movement as a check against its own power.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hmm, sounds like we're both envisaging fairly unprecedented (or at least, un-successfully-precedented) types of social arrangements, but disagreeing over the details.

    Your idea of establishing a sort of dual power though...I dunno, if the anti-government is doing its job then it will stop the government doing what it wants plenty of times. This may well piss off the government. I'm leery about whether we can trust that government to let itself be slowly strangled by the anti-government, rather than subverting or destroying it.

    "bourgeois governments...themselves considerably less violent than feudal states"
    By some measures. In body count terms though, the 20th century probably pwns the middle ages.

    "Mao's realized the class struggle does not end with the revolution...It's an open question whether we call that struggle one against bourgeois elements within the revolutionary government, or call the revolutionary government itself a distinct class."

    I'm intrigued that you see Mao Tse-Tung, author of the Great Leap forward and the forced collectivisation of agriculture and all the deaths that that produced, as the guy struggling against the tyranny of the revolutionary government.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Your idea of establishing a sort of dual power though...I dunno, if the anti-government is doing its job then it will stop the government doing what it wants plenty of times. This may well piss off the government. I'm leery about whether we can trust that government to let itself be slowly strangled by the anti-government, rather than subverting or destroying it.

    Of course we can't trust the government. We can't trust the people either. We can't trust anyone. What, you want a life without any sort of serious, meaningful struggle at all? (Well, sure you do, so do I, but wanting is different from having.)

    We don't get certainty in this world. We're stuck with risk and danger.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Also, I recommend you read some history of Russia and China that wasn't bought and paid for by the capitalist-imperialists. Mobo Gao is a good starting point.

    They weren't saints by any means, but I'm convinced that neither Stalin nor Mao were the cartoon Hitlerian despots depicted by bourgeois propaganda.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "What, you want a life without any sort of serious, meaningful struggle at all?"
    No, I think a certain pattern of strategy doesn't maximise, and indeed reduces, the chances of a good outcome.

    "I recommend you read some history of Russia and China that wasn't bought and paid for by the capitalist-imperialists."

    Um, I feel that I've read plenty of history from supportive sources. I've read, for example, Simone de Beauvoir's extremely supportive account of Maoist China. I've spent numerous interminable coffee meetings with Trotskyists going over the ins and outs of War Communism and so forth. I'm currently reading Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism, an explicit defense of revolutionary terror. I've reached my conclusions from that, which it seems we disagree on.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I stand corrected, sir. You seem very well-informed.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The coercive power of the state is used not to make an individual do what is not in her best interest, but rather to counteract the Nash equilibrium and ensure for each person that his neighbor is not taking a "free ride" and acting in an exploitative manner.

    Have you seen Adam Curtis' documentary The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? It deals with a complicated web of ideas, but a short explanation might be: how cold war conclusions about Game Theory (along with connected ideas) have been used by business and government to alter people's perceptions of themselves and society as a whole — for the worse.

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.