Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Ideal Society

Designing the ideal society is an old puzzle. Many ideas were generated over time, and some have even been put into practise. We have tried many different ways to organize society: everything from monarchy to democracy to communism. Yet none of these systems have yet stood the test of time. Ideas that look great on paper often fail in practise.

I think that this is because when we design an ideal society, we allow ourselves to also design the citizens of that society. We allow our society to dictate how a human being should behave, and assume that they will behave as expected. For example, a communist society assumes that its citizens would give their best in return for others' best, and have all citizens' needs met together; that its citizens are willing to stand by the mantra: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need".

But it's difficult, if not impossible, to convince every person to behave in a certain way. Nobody is perfect, and certainly there will be people whose interests conflict with that of society. Indeed some people will do anything they can to game whatever system that is in place.

So perhaps an ideal society is not what we need, because we are not ideal people. Perhaps we have been considering the wrong question all along. Instead of designing the ideal society, perhaps we should be designing a robust society. By “robust” I actually mean two things: First, that the society should still function if certain assumptions about the nature of its citizens are violated. Second, that the "locally optimal" behaviour for an individual should also be optimal for the society. (This is akin to the idea of evolutionary stability in "The Selfish Gene".)

As an example, we can see that communism fails at robustness: the "locally optimal" behaviour for a person would be to produce less and consume more, which is not optimal for society; and if a few people decide not to give their best, this game would become quite unfair to those who play by the rules, and so others are likely to also cheat.

Declaring that we have designed an ideal society when we take the liberty to design its citizens seems like a rather strange exercise. If we can decide how people would think and act, wouldn't any reasonable society we create be an ideal society? Design a society where citizens are required to give up their own children and raise a random person's, but design the citizens so that they understand why this is done (equal opportunity, perhaps?), and you have an “ideal” society.

... and yet we’ve only gone in circles. Tautologies are tautological.

End of Entry