Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Illegitimacy

No, not that kind. The kind that comes from a government or social structure being rejected by some or all groups in society as not operating on their behalf. This, it turns out, may be the key to social peace.

Social scientists like to explain social outcomes by analyzing the importance of particular institutions. Slavery, for example, persisted because of features peculiar to the antebellum South, or the Brazilian plantation. But what if all of man’s grand theories, schemes and visions about how his societies do and should work came to naught? What if, in particular, how societies turn out can be reduced to a few essential considerations of resource endowments and the distribution of foresight and patience? Such, corrected for my oversimplification, is the claim of Joshua Epstein of Brookings as recounted in Technology Review (hat tip: Wretchard). By creating an artificial computer society where everyone wants a resource called “sugar,” and varying the aforementioned attributes of the population, rigorous and precise predictions about social violence, income distribution and other phenomena can be generated.

The paragraph of interest to me is below:

Variant two, "Inter-Group Violence," is more interesting. Now agents are divided into two ethnicities, blue and green. "Legitimacy becomes each group's appraisal of the other group's right to exist," Epstein explained. In this context, an agent's going activist means that it kills a member of the opposing ethnic group. The cops are peacekeepers, and if the model is run without them and L among all agents is reduced by as little as 20 percent, ethnic cleansing quickly begins. When cops are introduced, safe havens emerge. Nonetheless, interethnic hostility continues. Ultimately, as figure 2 shows and Epstein told me, "when you drop legitimacy in this variant, it always ends with one side wiping the other out." Cop density can be set at any level. "At low cop densities, you get rapid genocide. At high cop densities, you likewise can sometimes get rapid genocide, but also a highly variable outcome. On average, more cops makes it take longer." Enough longer to justify the expense of extra policing? It's all just highly uncertain, Epstein says; merely to have a surge of cops would not guarantee a good outcome.


Ethnoreligious conflict is a recurring theme of this blog. Epstein’s work suggests more than you might think about the importance of politics and culture in determining ethnic harmony. If there were, for example, a large social movement dedicated to the proposition that the prevailing social system and government were not “legitimate” because they favor a particular group, bad things could happen quickly. If the universities were staffed by devotees of “whiteness studies,” the proposition that all of society unfairly hands members of a particular group privileges they are unaware of, they might cultivate anger and resentment among whites and nonwhites alike. If there were a large movement devoted to the multicultural gospel that cultures should remain separate rather than mix, that their practices should be contextualized rather than measured against an objective ruler of right and wrong, well that might cause groups begin to question the “legitimacy” of prevailing distributions of wealth or, beyond that point, the right to equal, group-blind treatment under law, of various groups. People could start to care less about producing more sugar and instead about taking the other group’s. That could be a sorry mess indeed, particularly for a society already figuring out how to cope with rapid increases in ethnoreligious diversity.

But that would never happen.

2 Comments:

Blogger Joshua said...

Re - cops and inter-group rivalry: Did the sim treat cops as a neutral third party, or as identifying mainly with one or the other group? Perhaps more to the point, did the rivalrous groups regard the cops as neutrals, friends or enemies? Here in the real world, certain minorities often look upon police as a white man's institution (and therefore with suspicion or hostility), even knowing that not all cops are in fact white men.

8:24 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

As best I can tell, cops are neutral, although the various tribal members can deceived them.

6:32 PM  

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