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One reason I am so keen on GameTheoryAndTheSocialContract at the moment is that it maybe could provide a clearer framework for continuing discussions such as MovingToTheRight.

KenBinmore says of his book: 'It is an attempt to provide some logical underpinnings for the species of bourgeois liberalism that I am calling whiggery.'

This is how Binmore characterises Whiggery:

'Whigs argue that it is sensible to look at the whole class of social contracts that are feasible for a society, and to consider whether one of these may not be an improvement on our current social contract.'

Later he adds to this by introducing a notion of consent. 'The problem for the reformist ... is that of seeking a new social contract to which society can be shifted by mutual consent.'

He contrasts Whiggery with 'left-wing socialism' and 'right-wing conservatism'.

'Left-wing Socialists agree that what we have now could do with being reformed, but do not understand that there is a feasibility constraint. They therefore propose social contracts that are unworkable because they call for behaviour that is not in equilibrium.'

'Right-wing conservatives understand the need for stability only too well, although they often forget that what was stable yesterday need not be stable today. However, in concentrating on the need to sustain our current social contract, they lose sight of the opportunity to select a better equilibrium from the many available.'

He also makes a distinction within whiggery itself.

'Reforming conservatives' (eg. EdmundBurke) 'propose reform with the primary objective of conserving what they can of the past.'

'Conservative reformers' 'actively wish to reform the society in which they live, but are conservative in the reforms they propose because they see no point in creating a society which is unstable.'

Binmore says his book is mainly addressed to those to the right of him - it is a response to the 'triumph of conservatism'. His message to open-minded conservatives is: 'Those of us who live in bourgeois comfort need to be continually reminding themselves that Nature has not provided us with any warranties for the continuation of our cozy way of life. All that stands between us and anarchy are the ideas that people carry around in their heads.'

Binmore sees himself as a 'conservative reformer'. His aim is to convert 'right-wing conservatives' into 'reforming conservatives'.

I'm reading the book from the other side - I'm enthusiastic about the thought that 'all that stands between us and anarchy are the ideas that people carry around in their heads'.

I agree with a lot of the theory that Binmore wants to use to underpin whiggery. Unlike his stereotyped leftist, I think feasibility is essential to any proposal for political action. I agree with his approach of using game theory to study feasibility and the development of the ideas people carry around in their heads. I disagree that whiggery is the inevitable conclusion.

Some objections to Binmore's Whiggery (as I've read it so far in vol 1 - of course all may become clear in vol 2):

  1. The simplest objection is that I think 'whigs' are often just wrong in their assessments of what is feasible. 19th century whigs used the French 'terror' as their model of the upshot of radical social change. Russia plays the same role for 20th century 'whigs' like Binmore. I would basically agree with both examples - neither jacobinism nor bolsehevism were equilibria, as I think is shown by the way more conservative elements (Thermidor, the 'new class') managed to re-establish control within a few years. But I don't think we need to let ourselves be continually beaten with these sticks. A classic 1830s whig position would have been that manhood suffrage = the terror. Does Binmore really think that would have been so? Or would he agree that whig positions of the past were influenced at least as much by their proponents' interests as by an objective assessment of what was feasible?
  1. In Binmore's whig view of history all reforms, or all that need to be considered in his theory of morality, are pareto optimal (see discussion below). In his theory this come down to - the status quo is always still feasible, so parties will only reform if they can do better under the new allocation.

I think this is a wrong view of historical change. There are losers in history, and most often 'progress' requires at least some temporary loss for the priveleged. To go back to the classic whig-age reforms again, I don't think you can argue the aristocracy gained from reform. Aristocrats clearly lost political and economic ground to the newly enfranchised middle classes.

This kind of 'forced' reform is mentioned and implied in the book, but Binmore states openly that his moral theory can have nothing to say about the rights and wrongs of such social shifts that must take place outside of the 'game of morals'.

(Though - Possibly the theory could be extended at least some of the way if we could consider games of morals where the status quo position is no longer in the feasibility set. You would then need to have something else to play the role of a 'fall-back' outcome if bargainers cannot agree a pareto-optimal deal under the new conditions.)

  1. The theory is 'short-termist': morality extends only to the feasible contracts that can be considered in the immediate game of morals.

This is not how I think, or how I think most progressives - or indeed anyone with a political agenda - thinks. I am able to consider that in the current circumstances only a limited reform is possible. But I can have my eyes on the longer view.

This can be important for my political decision-making. What should I do if I want something more than is currently feasible? I consider more than just the current conditions. I develop a strategy that looks at how decisions I make now influence progress towards my longer-term objectives.

Story: PoliticalFeasibilityIn1832



What I'm struck by is the slide from "feasibility" to "mutual consent". Is this because he thinks of "feasible" as NashEquilibrium?

Intuitively it seems "feasibility" should mean that a system won't fall apart. Ie. that it's a good pattern which manages to contain the forces it produces (see AntiPattern)

"Mutual consent" suggests to me that everyone would sign-up for the new system because everyone is better off.

By sliding from "feasibility" to "mutual consent" Binmore seems to be saying that, not only must any new system prove itself by being better and an equilibrium (or in FitnessLandscape terms, a local maxima) but we must be able to get there by hill-climbing a smooth gradient from here. We can't ever go down into a valley on the way to the next peak, because this would imply someone being inconvenienced and that wouldn't be mutually consented or feasible.

So, like Darius, I'm a left-socialist and I believe in "feasibility" (though I prefer a term like "viability" (ViableSystems) or "sustainibility" (SustainableCultures). But the extra criterion, the claim that feasibility is also about never challenging any vested interest, sounds like a piece of conservative prejudice.

And, of course, it's liable to be applied highly hypocritically.

Consider "we're OffShoring your job, and you'll be unemployed, but don't complain because in the long run you'll be better off, the economy will produce more stuff, more cheaply than before and you'll consume more."

Now that may or may not be true, but this is the kind of statement that a Binmorian whig shouldn't be allowed to make. Because it accepts that the road to an ultimately better system runs through a temporary bad-patch. (We're going to have to leave one feasible state on the way to the next.) It certainly isn't followed by "mutual consenst", I might prefer to keep my job for the next 5 years (the crucial period I'm raising my kids) and let global productivity go hang - if only I had any say in the matter.

A Binmorian whig should side with the protectionist instinct. But undoubtedly doesn't.

In economics language what we're talking about is ParetoOptimality. Deal y is a Pareto-improvement on deal x if at least one person is better off in y than x and no one is worse off. Deal y is Pareto-optimal if there is no Pareto-improvement to it available. When Binmore says that reforms must be achieveable by mutual consent, that means they are Pareto-improvements on the status quo.

To recap: a social contract is, by definition, a Nash equilibrium in the game of life - in other words, it is feasible. A fair social contract is also an equilibrium in the Game of Morals - in other words, it would be chosen from the original position.

Social contracts do not have to be Pareto-optimal. But a fair social contract must be.

Why is this? Binmore says 'Whigs take this conclusion for granted.' As we're not Whigs, we'll have to try and work it out.

I think the rationale is this. We start at a status quo position q. Now there is a 'technological advance' or some other development that shifts the possibilities in the game of life. X is the set of all feasible social contracts in the new game of life.

For example, in the status quo q suppose some players are slave-owners and some are slaves. The slave-owners are clearly in a much better position, and the slaves don't like it. But this is a feasible social contract - because of the power (see OnPower) of the slave-owners and the lack of power of the slaves, slaves see their best option as submitting to slavery rather than revolting which will lead to something even worse.

Suppose that after the technological advance or whatever, q is still in the feasible set X. It would be an equilibrium to stay with the status quo. But now there are other new possibilities available as well.

Some of these new options are Pareto-improvements on q - no one, including the slave-owner, would be worse off, and at least one would do better. There are a number of possible contracts called the 'Bargaining Set'. Contracts in the Bargaining Set are all Pareto-improvements on q. Furthermore, they are all Pareto-optimal - i.e. there are no more contracts that are Pareto-improvements on them.

(I'll try and draw a 2-D graph of this for 2 players somehow.)

In the game of morals, players go behind the veil to choose from one of the points in the Bargaining Set. Call the outcome n.

Let's think about a social contract called r which represents the abolition of slavery. At point r, the slaves are better off but the owners are worse off than at q. So: r is not a Pareto-improvement on q. However, r can be feasible (a member of X). Also, r can be Pareto-optimal: if they get to r, they can't then get to a new contract that is a Pareto-improvement on r.

Why can't players in the game of morals choose r? r is a more egalitarian outcome than n. Behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, maybe they would choose r. No one knows they will be a slave-owner, and r is good for the worst-off.

The problem is commitment. Once players emerge from the veil of ignorance, in Binmore's version they can choose to disregard the deal they made in the game of morals. As the status quo is still feasible, they can just choose to stick with the status quo outcome q and make no reform. As r is worse than q for the slave-owner, he will choose to stick with q rather than consent to the reform r. This is why reforms have to be Pareto-improvements.

So, in Binmore's theory, there are only two ways I think to abolish slavery.

One way is if eg. the economy develops so that slavery is superceded by a new economic arrangement like wage labour. Slave-owners actually improve their positions by getting rid of slaves and hiring wage-labourers, so they consent to reform. This is what Binmore thinks actually happened with the abolition of slavery.

Another way is that the status quo position is no longer available to slave-owners. This could happen if slaves become powerful enough to stage a revolt and otherthrow their masters. The balance of power shifts so that q is no longe feasible. The feasibility set X has, if you like, contracted in the slave-owning dimension. Slaveowners will then consent to abolish slavery - because they have to. Binmore mentions this possibility, which leads him to acknowledge that in his account consent means no more than just 'saying yes.' Even if someone has a gun to your head.

As I say, Binmore mentions this possibility, but as a Whig he chooses to concentrate on the first route. 'the process of reform I advocate will eliminate slavery once a society advances to a state in which an institution has become economically inefficient.' Until then, 'it is necessary to recognize that what cannot be altered must be endured ...'

I don't see anything in his theory that rules out another line. Namely - if we want to eliminate slavery, we can put energy into advancing economic changes that will make it inefficient, and/or helping to increase slave power so that slavery becomes unfeasible.

He won't say anything like that, because for him morality is just playing the game of morals. If slavery is currently an equilibrium of the game of morals, then the idea that slavery is wrong and we should work to its eradication doesn't come out of the game of morals. It cannot be ruled out by his theory of morality, but neither can it be it 'justified' by it.

Another issue, and I know that I should read the original and not rely too much on your exposition, but Those of us who live in bourgeois comfort need to be continually reminding themselves that Nature has not provided us with any warranties for the continuation of our cozy way of life. All that stands between us and anarchy are the ideas that people carry around in their heads. sounds more like the words of a "reforming conservative" than a "conservative reformer" (ie reform as means to the end of preserving bourgeoise comfort which Nature has provided no warranties for.)


As I read this passage - Binmore says that despite his bourgeois cosiness he genuinely believes in the reform, so he is a conservative reformer. This is just the line he uses to win over the 'open-minded conservative'.


See also :

  • Note that BillSeitz:FAHayek called himself an "OldWhig" – BillSeitz
    • and surely BillSeitz:VirginiaPostrel too. Isn't "dynamism" (StasismVsDynamism) pretty much whiggery?