March 29, 2002
Gaming the System

If you play a computer game long enough, you'll eventually find "seams" in the programming of the AI (artificial intelligence) of the bad guys. In strategy games, they'll always respond a certain way to a certain situation, so once you figure out how to beat that one situation you'll always win. This just a simple example. Good games take a long time to figure out, but you always do. And after that the game is easy, not because you're good at it but because you've figured out ways to exploit the weaknesses inherent in the system.

Is it cheating? Depends on your point of view.

Real-life is a lot like this. Most people will play by the rules and through hard work and smarts get what they want. And by "rules" I don't mean "becoming part of The System". Hippies have rules (make love not war, fight the establishment, pot is good) just like businessmen have rules. I mean that in any society there are certain rules that, when followed, will guarantee success by the standards of that society, without being destructive to it.

But, as with computer games, if the society gets big enough or complicated enough, there are always seams that can be exploited. And wherever there are seams, there are always people, "gamers", willing to "game the system" to take advantage of them. And from this propensity in human nature, basically all evil flows.

This tendency pretty much dictates that we are, as a species, incapable of "good government". The best any of us can hope for, anywhere in the world, is "least-worst government". Money attracts gamers like horsesh*t attracts flies, and for six thousand years nothing has proven to generate more money faster than government.

Really smart, really vicious gamers are dangerous to a society, and historically societies are incapable of stopping them. An efficient government will by definition have very few seams to exploit, and therefore when someone does figure out how to exploit them (and they will always figure out how to exploit them), they can take over an entire country with relative ease. And once it's done the first time it is actually easier to do it again, so these gamers always completely destroy the carefully set up "efficient" government. Doing this creates chaos, which ensures nobody else can get at the seams they used to get where they are. It also means the rest of us starve or get shot, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

That's why all the really successful societies have insanely complex and inefficient forms of government. Complexity creates lots of seams, which gives gamers lots of different avenues to power. Gamers are by definition almost self-destructively competitive, so they tend to not only exploit the seams they find but also try to destroy everyone else's seams by exposing or limiting them in any way possible. This creates a kind of self-balancing effect, as one set of gamers works desperately to undermine all the other sets, while all the other sets are working desperately to undermine them. When set up well, it's basically impossible for any one gamer or group of gamers to "get traction" long enough to do anything really destructive.

A free press, which is another hallmark of all the really powerful long lived societies, is also vital. Sometimes someone will expose a seam in a society that basically sprays money like water from a sluice gate in a dam. These seams are so rich big groups of the gamers will suddenly work together behind the scenes to make sure nobody else knows about it. The press will tend to be composed of non-gamers, who always get this irritating and completely wrongheaded notion that this is cheating and should be stopped. Secrets of that magnitude are pretty much impossible to keep, so it's only a matter of time before some press monkey is shouting from the towers what is going on.

At that point you get to see just how good a society is at self-correction. It's easiest to watch in a democracy. Most of us aren't gamers, and we do think it's cheating, and we hate cheaters who cruise into what we worked our asses off to get. One short trip to the ballot box later and you have a new gamer (non-gamers are generally too busy living life to bother with government of this complexity) who rode the seam of "I'm going to make sure that seam is destroyed" into power. Non-democracies have to hope that the gamers who weren't let in on the secret are powerful enough to take down the ones that were. If you're lucky, they either are or they aren't. If you're unlucky, both sides are evenly matched, and a civil war will erupt. And there are never any innocents in a civil war.

Of course, nothing comes without a price. All this machiavellian backstabbing going on constantly means that it's really hard to get anything important done. The press tends to ignore most of little stuff, because there's always so much of it. And when you get right down to it, in a 5 trillion dollar economy nobody cares much if Congressmen John Doe skimmed $60,000 for his cousin's pig farm.

So you end up with this leaky, creaky, wobbly boat of a society that is run by a bunch of bickering incompetents that are too busy fighting with each other to actually steer. Really good ideas that come from the crew are generally ignored or twisted beyond recognition in one power struggle or another. Your boat may get passed in the race by one run by just a few really smart people.

The test comes when the rocks hove into view. The boat that passed you will get smashed because the smart people are asleep or have convinced themselves there are no rocks, and everyone will drown. But when all the passengers of your huge, soggy, seasick-inducing patchwork of a barge start shouting Hey! Morons! LOOK OUT FOR THE ROCK! the crew listen up fast and will always steer you clear.

Of course, they'll promptly start arguing with each other over who saw the rock first, but at least you're not fish food.

And at the end of the day, which boat do you think throws the better party?

Posted by scott at March 29, 2002 11:55 AM

eMail this entry!

And your point is........
glad to see your copyright on your website.

Posted by: Pat on March 29, 2002 05:49 PM
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