It’s conditional goodwill stupid: Are we in a prisoner’s dilemma?

I’ve been writhing around writing a column on greenhouse.  I find columns on greenhouse hard as I complained here. But rewarding when you get what you wanted to say said in the exacting form of an op ed.  I’ve just finished writing an op ed for the Oz on Bali and was contemplating writing something beginning with an explanation of the prisoner’s dilemma. I ended up not even mentioning it. That’s the way it goes with op eds.

So I was amused, intrigued and pleased to find that Peter Martin had done it for me.  Like so many of his columns, it’s a good one.  I would have liked to have said all he’s said. And I would have begun almost exactly as he began.

But I would have pointed out a crucial difference between the prisoner’s dilemma and greenhouse.  And in addition to Peter’s worthy comments on the various psychological vicissitudes that make human beings not act as the simple modelling of the prisoner’s dilemma suggests is in their interests, my column focuses on something else.  Peter points to the various ways in which humans behave ‘well’ in genuine prisoner’s dilemma situations.  They divide their spoils in sharing games and generally behave more decently than the simple incentives require them to.

But there’s more.  One of the most powerful building blocks of human co-operation is not just this kind of positive altruism or sociability. There’s also ‘negative altruism’ which is sufficiently strong to start wars.  People just can’t stand that feeling that someone is doing them down and they’ll sacrifice their own interests to get even – in a big way (just ask Adolf Hitler or the latest road rager).  As you will learn when I post the Oz op ed when they publish it, I think there are two kinds of fairness – fairnesses to the developed and developing countries respectively that are preconditions for success. Without them the citizens of the developed and developing world will feel ripped off and any chance we have of co-operation will break down. Their ‘negative altruism’ will see them baling out and trying to punish those who are being unfair to them, even if it’s ultimately at their own cost as well.

And there’s another thing that seems germane to point out.  Hard as the problem we have is – as Ross Garnaut has said it’s ‘diabolical’ – there’s a crucial difference between the classical prisoners dilemma and the situation we find ourselves.  The prisoners in the original dilemma can’t communicate.  We can communicate with other ‘prisoners’ – in this case countries.  And so our offers should be conditional.  We should offer to be very generous if we get decent engagement. And we should offer up the usual face saving tokens if that’s all we’re being offered in return – though perhaps to keep good will alive we should also try to do a little better than most.

Of course this doesn’t suit the breast beating of the lobby groups – the greenies want to berate us for not being altruistic enough, the coal lobby for being ‘naive’ and selling out Australia’s economic interest.  Conditional goodwill is the way out of jail if you can talk to the other prisoners!

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19 Responses to It’s conditional goodwill stupid: Are we in a prisoner’s dilemma?

  1. Avi says:

    It may be more like a game of Chicken than Prisoners Dilemma.

  2. One idea in response to climate change is to put it as a referenda to the people, explained here.

    We can offer to be ‘generous’, but different countries and individuals will have different views of what this is. There is a real prospect that some rapidly developing countries will look at the past century and the industrialised era as a main contributer to our problem (and hence, the US and other countries as the source).

    If Australia offers what appears to be a ‘generous’ acceptance of the solution than what happens with our domestic politics – the Opposition Leader flagged last week the prospect of campaigning on the household cost in the context of the Aust. governments response to climate change. There is a real possibility of seeing the population divided and a wedge played out on the climate change vs. household budget line. This would be dangerous considering the science on global warming.

  3. observa says:

    Sweet Jesus, who let the luvvies out of their cage?,23599,22896334-2,00.html?from=mostpop,23599,22906691-29277,00.html
    Obviously it was this mob here,23599,22906433-29277,00.html
    but none of them should even be born, let alone burning Avgas.

  4. observa says:

    Personally I had no idea this carbon cap and trade thingy was quite so far reaching, but obviously there’s no stopping the gaia, luvvy crowd once they really get cracking on their favourite hobby horse.

  5. Niall says:

    Frankly, Obs…..I think you summed your own position up rather well.
    ‘Personally I had no idea… ‘

    It’s not a matter of altruism, negative or positive. It’s a matter of common sense, yet as someone said to me last week, it’s surprisingly uncommon among supposedly rational, educated peoples. It’s about greedy, selfish humanity coming to the realisation that greed isn’t good and no man is an island. The planet is though, and we all have to live here, or die trying. It’s that simple, when you break down the so-called arguments.

  6. Verdurous says:


    I’m sure you’ll be even more surprised when in 5 years time sustainability issues will be the only political game in town. This is just the beginning of a shift as great and as wide reaching as the industrial revolution. Deal with it.

  7. John Greenfield says:


    What does “fairness to developing countries” mean?

  8. TimT says:

    Im sure youll be even more surprised when in 5 years time sustainability issues will be the only political game in town.

    A statement at once over-confident and ludicrously ambiguous. It depends a bit on what you mean by sustainability politics, of course, but the traditional political concerns – growth in economy, well-being, and a liberal society – will still prevail for hundreds of years to come.

  9. John,

    I tried to outline that in the piece. Per capita emissions entitlements.

  10. David says:

    I had some things to say about greenhouse and prisoner’s dilemmas last year and pondered whether Kyoto (and post-Kyoto negotiations) offer a way out. I’m inclined to think the dilemma remains.

  11. David says:

    By the way, the prisoner’s dilemma isn’t solved by being able to communicate. The prisoners could have a meeting, both agree not to confess, and then do so anyway. What solves it is the ability to make credible promises that each can rely on – that’s why a repeated game solves the dilemma.

    We should be careful about applying the metaphor too directly to Kyoto, but you have the same problem there. Australia and the US get a lot of press for failing to sign up to binding obligations but possibly more pernicious is the behaviour of countries like Canada, who happily sign up to them without any apparent intention to meet them.

    Like you suggest Nicholas it’s about engagement and conditional offers, but it’s also about having some way of ensuring, when we offer to make generous concessions in return for the co-operation of others, that everyone will actually do what they promise. Kyoto so far has been about making promises but attention will turn over the next few years to fulfilling those promises.

  12. Pingback: No hurry on climate change targets « Larvatus Prodeo in exile

  13. Yes David, the essence of the problem is as you say credible commitment – I didn’t expand on that because that doesn’t seem to be a huge problem here in the sense that one can observe the other countries through time (and presumably withdraw one’s commitment if one sees sufficient evidence of their bad faith).

  14. Verdurous says:

    Tim T,

    A statement at once over-confident and ludicrously ambiguous

    My post was a response to the glib comment by observa:

    …but obviously theres no stopping the gaia, luvvy crowd once they really get cracking on their favourite hobby horse.

    My point is not so much that issues of well-being or civil liberties are going to vanish (clearly they are very important), but that the central issue of global politics will be: how to avoid catastrophic ecological decline and resultant human suffering? Of course as a mature society we need to address many issues at once. I suspect you’ll find that the narrow pursuit of economic growth will no longer be front row centre. Green thinking isn’t just a fad. We are witnessing the beginning of a very big shift in outlook. If I’m over-confident then so be it. But I’ve a very powerful ally on my side – reality.

  15. Tom N. says:


    That’s right Observa (comment #4), keep polluting the world with your offspring and expect others to pick up the tab. The truth is that, of all the things that could be done to reduce environmental damage, reducing incentives for large families, and population growth generally, is the jumbo in the room. But obviously that’s a reality you’d prefer not to face up to.

  16. Marks says:

    And yet we have, what, twelve thousand people jetting to Bali (where most need airconditioning for comfort) for this present show.

    One of the problems that those who believe in AGW have in trying to convince the doubters, is that those people who are in leadership positions do not act as if there is a problem. ie they talk the talk, but do not walk the walk.

    For example, why could not most of the Bali conferencing be done by videoconference?

    I have heard plenty of reasons why not, but none of them stack up to the supposed peril that the planet faces.

    From the “prisoners’ dilemma” perspective that is the equivalent of an influential prisoner saying that they will cooperate, but giving off distinct non-verbal cues that they will not cooperate.

    When our leaders move past lip service, so will the rest of us I guess.

  17. James Farrell says:

    David at #12 said exactly what I was going to say. This is more of a classic tragedy of the commons problem, with high transactions costs, than a PD. In principle a contract can be negotiated, but it will require a very costly monitoring and enforcement regime. All the goodwill in the world won’t stop polluters who are determined to pursue profits at all cost, any more than an international code of human rights could stop the Cosa Nostra.

  18. Patrick says:

    I doubt the problem is as big as that, James. To start with, the Cosa Nostra aren’t dependent on large listed corporations buying their goods – look at the relatively effective (to the point of probably harming poor people!) campaigning against ‘sweatshops’.

    I think someone should just pay a consortia of investment banks 1,125% of global carbon reduction revenues (ie from permit sales or from tax revenue) over 5 years and leave it to them to work out the scheme, incentives, deceptive but visually impressive powerpoints etc.

    I would guess, judging from the coverage of Bali in Australian press, which I struggle to distinguish from Yes Minister at times (ie the AFR) and from vaudeville at others (ie the Age), the NGOs and the UN are the biggest impediment to anything real happening with their bleating, melodrama and moral absolutism.

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