Skip to main content

Obama: Stag Hunter

Yesterday, President Obama delivered an extended address on US national security status and policy. The main theme of his future-oriented policy emphasized the importance of foreign cooperation to long-term stability and security. Throughout the speech, Obama emphasized that the warlike posture the US has adopted since Sept 11, 2001, is doing more harm than good because it is much harder to build alliances. Instead of funneling money into combat/tactical programs, he argued that it makes more sense to funnel money into foreign aid, to build up good will, to support emerging democracies, and help other nations build up their infrastructure and economies. All of these things diffuse violent radicalism because individuals in a free society can focus on cultivating their own opportunities. There is no hopelessness which breed fear and anger, and without fear and anger, no one will be looking around for someone to blame.

To a philosopher, Obama has done a good job of channeling John Rawls. The final point, that people do not turn to violence when they feel free and hopeful, is the essence of Rawls's view of the well-ordered society. If I have no grievances that cannot be addressed through some open, effective procedure, I have no reason to compromise the good will of my fellow citizens with propaganda of the deed or direct action against oppression. There is no oppression to act against. The larger point, also well-understood by Rawls but general to Game Theory, is that by extending the network of cooperation, we diminish motivation to engage in violent conflict. Rawls calls that a well-ordered society, but for Game Theorists, a more colorful bunch than Rawls, use the term "Stag Hunt."

Imagine you live in a hunter/gatherer society. If you want protein, you have two options: hunt stags with the group, or hunt rabbits alone. Rabbits don't provide a whole lot of protein, but you are likely to catch one, though you may have to work for a long time, snaring, trapping, or rock-hurling. The important thing is that you can catch a rabbit alone, with no help from anyone else in your society. Stags provide much more protein, but you can't bring down a stag alone; you need the cooperation of the other hunters in your society. The need for cooperation is both good and bad. The benefit is that you personally will have to do less work as the task is distributed across the rest of the hunters, and you get more protein than you could get from the rabbit, even after dividing it. The downside is that you have might not catch a stag, and if you don't, you won't have any time left for grabbing rabbits.

The choice is simple, you have to choose between a meager sure thing or a plentiful risk. If you have reason to believe that the other hunters are likely to abandon the stag hunt to catch rabbits, you're better off catching rabbits. If you have reason to believe that the other hunters are dedicated to the group hunt, you're better off cooperating, even if it means losing out on a sure thing.

Stag hunts are lurking behind much of what Obama said about foreign aid, and it's a good model for thinking about long-term security. If we turn the future into a cooperative endeavor, sending out lots of aid and support, helping developing nations develop, those governments will not want to support action against us. Maintenance of good relationships becomes too important, even if some small, sure gain can be had by sacrificing that relationship. Consider the case of North Korea: an isolated nation with few allies, an aggressive foreign policy, and lots of economic problems. They would be better off backing down from their insistence on maintaining military power (and the illusion of its superiority), but they have not (yet).

As the world's nation-states become more connected through communication technology and economic cooperation, stag hunts should become more common. We can all go after the big stag: global peace and prosperity, knowing that we all share in the benefits, and we collectively make do with the shortcomings. That last point is an important one, though. We have to collectively make do with the shortcomings. That is, when something doesn't work out, we need to maintain the base of cooperation, sharing whatever we do have, to establish and maintain that basis of goodwill. Otherwise, we'll just be chasing rabbits.


Popular posts from this blog

Justifications for Intellectual Property Part 1: Utilitarianism

There is no way this tutorial series would be complete without some discussion of justifications for intellectual property. While not necessarily a matter of law, some knowledge of the philosophical foundations will provide a better sense of the values at stake in intellectual property debates. Notice, for instance, that the tutorials on fair use were punctuated with appeals to values, social goods, and individual rights. Without an understanding of the moral and political framework against which the law stands, one can very easily find oneself in a stalemate, with one value pitted against another and no way of deciding which should prevail. To understand the jurisprudence around intellectual property rights, one has to have some idea of the justifying theories to which attorneys and judges appeal in their arguments and decisions. So, without further ado, let's get to the tutorial. There are three main ways of justifying intellectual property rights: the Utilitarian theory, th

History and Identity

Yesterday the European Court of Justice issued an important ruling that has the tech policy world buzzing about privacy, search engines and personal history. In short, the court ruled that the EU Data Protection Directive gives a person the right to demand that old information be purged from search results. The particular case involves an attorney seeking removal of links to announcements about a real-estate auction connected with a debt settlement in 1998. While the ECJ made a number of interesting moves in the case (including a welcome argument that the distinction between data processors and data controllers does not make as much sense today as it did in 1995 when the Directive went into effect), the big consequence everyone is talking is the right to be forgotten. The long memory of the Internet is a feature it's hard not to love and fear at the same time. Whether you have something to hide or not, if it's on the Internet, it stays on the Internet (most of the time, at l

Some Thoughts on Dharma Decline

Many of these blog entries have concerned my main research in political philosophy, intellectual property and technology. Now for something a little different, I thought I would write up some thoughts on another area of interest: Buddhism. For those who don't know, I've taught courses in Buddhism since I began teaching, having learned a great deal from my undergraduate advisor, Donald Hanks, and Ashok Aklujkar, a now-retired professor of Indian languages, literature and philosophy for whom I served as teaching assistant during my time at UBC. Thanks to their instruction, I developed a solid knowledge of the Indian Buddhist tradition, and I've used what they taught me to deepen and develop that knowledge to improve my teaching and my personal meditation practice. While I don't want to write a full tutorial on Buddhist thought, I would like to discuss a notion that prevails in some traditions, and that discussion will require one to know a few basic ideas. At its cor