Let the Game Theory Begin

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 21 2001 8:30 PM

Let the Game Theory Begin

Click here to read Will Saletan's response to this column.

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My previous column, which warned against uncritically obeying the retributive impulse at this moment in history, drew the following e-mail from one Slate reader: "Dear Mr. Big Zero: Please read another Slate article, TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES by William Saletan. While just today, I made a vow to boycott your drivel, I do have a morbid curiousity about how you would respond to this article …"

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Upon following this guidance, I discovered that my friend and colleague Will Saletan does indeed discuss America's response to last week's terrorist attack in a more militant tone than mine. On the positive side, he takes a clinical, quasi-game-theoretic view, which means we have a lingua franca. So let me critique his model. Maybe he'll reply and we'll together make progress in figuring out what the United States should do.

Will criticizes people who stress how America's past actions fomented the anti-American sentiment underlying the attack. (He mentions David Corn of The Nation, Susan Sontag of The New Yorker, and Gary Kamiya of Salon.) He argues that heeding their counsel—examining our past behavior with an eye toward reform—amounts to letting the terrorists control our conduct. He insists that we focus more on modifying their behavior by dishing out negative reinforcement (something I certainly don't oppose in principle).

This is the standard dilemma in dealing with terrorists. Yes, their terror is motivated by grievances (even if Osama Bin Laden's grievances are more amorphous than average). And in theory you might try to end the terrorism by addressing the grievances. But doing so rewards their behavior, encouraging them to repeat it.

I think this dilemma seems slightly starker than it really is because Will casts the situation as a simple two-player game involving America on one side and "the terrorists" on the other. Let's drop that phrase for now and instead ask: Whose future behavior do we want to shape? If we leave aside the terrorist foot soldiers—who after all tend to welcome death and thus aren't amenable to conventional incentives—we're left with two groups.

First, there are terrorism's elites: Osama Bin Laden and other financiers of terrorism and heads of states that support terrorism.

Second, there are the millions of Muslims who are discontented and blame the United States at least partly for their plight, whether that plight is poverty, or cultural dislocation caused by globalization, or corrupt and repressive political leadership, or whatever. These are the people who, depending on how their futures unfold, could become tomorrow's terrorist foot soldiers. They could also destabilize and even overthrow governments that try to fight the good fight against terrorism.

My key contention: America's relationship to the first group—Osama Bin Laden, et al.—is by and large zero-sum. That is, what's good for them is bad for us and vice versa. When someone is implacably devoted to ending global capitalism and American civilization, trying to find common ground with him is not time well spent. But America's long-run relationship to the second group—the discontented Muslim masses—is non-zero-sum. That is, our fate is positively correlated with their fate. If they get poorer and angrier and more consumed by hatred of America that's bad for us, because it will mean more terrorist foot soldiers—and the possible creation, through revolt, of whole new state regimes sympathetic to terrorists. If these people get more contented—less poor, less repressed, less psychologically threatened by globalization, less consumed by rage—that's good for us, as it will deprive terrorist elites of a political base and future troops.

In sum: We wish Osama Bin Laden et al., ill, and we wish the great bulk of the world's currently discontented Muslims well. The big and difficult question: Are there policies that would let us have it both ways?

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