Egypt Week – Corruption and Cooperation

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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org So, our next Egypt Week feature is a theoretical paper on a topic closely related to the last post. Once again, we are interested in understanding the mechanisms that are responsible for encouraging or enforcing cooperation, thereby facilitating collective action. Last time, we talked about a paper that found that “altruistic” or “third-party” punishment is common in large-scale, complex societies, but is rare in small-scale societies, while “spiteful” punishment is universal.

Many empirical and theoretical studies of cooperation focus on punishment as a mechanism for enforcing societal norms. Basically, you set up a situation where the group benefits if people cooperate, but each individual benefits by not cooperating. If mechanisms exist to punish people for not cooperating, you get cooperation. Which is to say that the existence of punishment changes the individuals’ incentives. The benefits of not cooperating are outweighed by the cost of being punished. No big mystery there.

But what if punishment itself is costly? Punishment can stabilize cooperation, but what stabilizes punishment? Some models rely on an infinite succession of punishments, where people punish people who fail to punish people who fail to cooperate, and people punish people who fail to punish people who fail to punish people who fail to cooperate, and people punish … well, you get the idea.

Today’s paper asks if cooperation can be enforced by corrupt punishment. That is, while punishment is still treated as costly, punishers are not necessarily cooperators themselves, as is commonly assumed in models of this sort. Furthermore, the corrupt punishers (“policers”) suffer a lower cost when punished than do non-punishers (“civilians”).

A corrupt policer looks forward to a cushy retirement, thanks to his hypocritical enforcement of others’ cooperation. Little does he suspect how a new, young partner, who colors outside the lines, but has a heart of gold, will turn his whole life upside-down, with hilarious consequences.

The model shows that in the presence of a modest power imbalance, cooperating civilians and corrupt policers can coexist. That is, a moderate level of corruption is consistent with, and can even stabilize cooperation. However, when the power imbalance becomes large, corrupt policers overrun the population, the system breaks down, and cooperation is lost.

The first part of the result is nice because it provides a degree of robustness to the “cooperation through punishment” paradigm, as it does not require the punishers to be acting altruistically themselves.

The second part of the result is perhaps more directly relevant to Egypt Week. Societies can function in the presence of a degree of inequality, and they can tolerate a certain amount of hypocrisy from their leaders. But too much hypocrisy and inequality is inconsistent with the type of collective action that governments are meant to facilitate.

It is heartening to see that when a less corrupt alternative presents itself, people are still capable of collective action on a massive scale.

Peace be upon you.

Úbeda, F., & Duéñez-Guzmán, E. (2010). POWER AND CORRUPTION Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01194.x [1] [2]

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[1] This is an online, ahead-of-print publication, which is why there are no page numbers, but it should be findable through the DOI.

[2] Disclosure: The first author on this paper is a long-time friend and colleague, and we have worked together on issues of intragenomic conflict. Here is photographic evidence of our friendship, from when we were traveling around Lyon, France like Thelmo and Louis following the 2010 SMBE meeting:

On our way to the Palais de Justice, we accidentally activated our Wonder-Twin Powers. Francisco took the shape of an evolutionary biologist, and I took the form of a French trash can. Photo by Gleek.
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