08 April 2007

How Hard It Is to Improve a Society

MATHEMATICIANS like to play games. In particular, they like to play games that examine how people pick ways of behaving that will maximise returns. One such mathematician is John Nash, who won a Nobel economics prize for his work on the subject. He demonstrated that there are games (the most famous being known in the trade as “prisoner's dilemma”) where the players can arrive at a situation now known as a Nash equilibrium. This is the point at which no one has anything to gain by changing his strategy unilaterally. A Nash equilibrium, however, is rarely the best possible outcome; it is merely the one that pertains if the players are unable or unwilling to co-operate.

- http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8847896

This is precisely the case societies such as China and Vietnam, as opposed to (especially) Anglo-Saxon societies.

In Anglo-Saxon societies, despite the presence of many greedy (as opposed to merely selfish) individuals, there are sufficient individuals who understand that by making certain minor sacrifices, they and everyone else will benefit from the resulting better functioning of society. A case in point is traffic: by following certain rules (both formal and customary), road traffic, and also human traffic in public places, flows optimally. The result is indeed a smoother flowing society.

Vietnamese society is different. Everyone behaves greedily. As a result, all lose. However, there is nothing anyone can do about this. Idealistic individuals, if they change their strategy, will merely be taken advantage of. In fact, they may make things worse: their thinking and thoughtful behaviour is unpredictable and unexpected and therefore hazardous.

In short, it is very difficult to bootstrap oneself from a Vietnamese type society, which Anglos-Saxon society no doubt once (and probably recently) was, to an Anglo-Saxon type society.

How does it happen at all?


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