Home > Anarchy, Economics > The Underpants Gnomes Theory of the State

The Underpants Gnomes Theory of the State

You might be familiar with the underpants gnomes business plan from South Park:

File:Gnomes plan.png

It occurred to me that the prisoners’ dilemma (PD) justification of the state has a similar logic. The traditional story says that life in the state of nature is a PD, where everyone has the incentive to cheat rather than cooperate. But since everyone would be better off cooperating, they have an incentive to form a government that forces them to cooperate. Or, the underpants gnomes theory of the state:

1. People in the state of nature would benefit from establishing a government.
2. ???
3. Therefore, government.

What this justification skips over is an explanation of how people could establish a government. Government is treated as a deus ex machina, an “external” institution that is simply “given.” The traditional story throws rational choice out the window: instead of resulting from individual actions, government just magically pops into existence when its total social benefits outweigh total social costs.

(The absence of an explanation of the emergence of government from a PD game is quite puzzling when you think about it, since it’s not obvious how players in a PD could cooperatively set up a government when defecting is the dominant strategy.)

Jason Briggeman, in his paper “Governance as a Strategy in State-of-Nature Games,” (ungated) sets out to remedy this situation by providing the beginning of a rational choice model of the establishment of government. He creates a modified PD game, what he calls the “Prisoners’ Dilemma with Coercion,” where players have the option to adopt a coercive strategy and impose a strategy choice on another player.

As he writes: “To model this Hobbesian situation with the tools of game theory, it would seem to be required that society’s governor be an internal player who chooses strategies, not an external model-builder who sets payoffs.” It strikes me as odd that, given the widespread belief in the necessity of the state, something as important as a rational choice explanation for the emergence of government could have been ignored for so long.

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