Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Ignatieff on evil

Michael Ignatieff's essay on political evil reminds me of a great article by Lskvayan. Here's Ignatieff:
So, Wolfe’s first lesson is a very old one, but worth repeating. There is method in apparent madness. The world is not divided between a sane world of deliberative politics and an insane world of apocalyptic violence. It is all politics, all the way down. To call a terrorist attack “senseless” is merely to admit that you have not understood its purpose.
Lskvayan provided a nice rational choice story for Stalin's Great Terror. Stalin couldn't tell which of his workers were shirking and which were working. But instituting random draw exile to Siberian death camps with reduced probability of being sent to Siberia for turning in a shirker turns the workers into the monitors and helps solve the principal-agent problem that otherwise obtains. From Lskvayan's abstract:
There is no agreement about the reasons for Stalin's Great Terror of 1937–1939. This paper argues that the problem faced by Stalin was similar to the standard principal–agent problem: the country was run as one enormous firm with Stalin as the only residual claimant. The monetary incentive structure was inadequate and the threat of mass shirking by the agents was real. A simple model of a principal with two agents is developed to address the problem. Assuming that the agents can observe and can reveal each other's shirking, it is shown that, under some assumptions, an equilibrium exists with the following strategy profiles: unless someone's shirking is revealed, the principal is committed to randomly punishing one of the agents with positive probability; an individual agent never shirks and always reveals a co-worker's shirking. A case study of the period is used to check the plausibility of this hypothesis.
The very real output costs of exterminating a lot of workers in Siberia was a second-best solution to the very real output costs of Stalin's slaves' shirking. Other solutions aren't great either; it's the existence of such principal-agent problems and imperfections in Stalin's monitoring ability that provided the space within which small amounts of freedom could exist.

Meanwhile, some neuroscientists say evil doesn't exist.

1 comment:

  1. Heh heh .... Articles like this are the reason why I really love your blogs Eric :D