Schelling Orders

The second part of an attempt to describe a fragment of morality. This may sound brutal and cynical. But that’s the gears of this fragment in isolation.

Imagine you have a tribe of 20. Any 19 of them could gang up and enslave the last. But which 19 slavers and which 1 victim? And after that, which 18 slavers which victim? There are a great many positive-sum-among-participants agreements that could be made. So which ones get made? When does the slaving stop? There are conflicting motives to all these answers.

Ultimately they are all doomed unless at some point enough power is concentrated among those who’d be doomed unless they don’t enslave another person. Call this point a Schelling order. (My old commitment mechanism was an example of this.)

If you have arbitrary power to move Schelling points around, there is no one strong enough left to oppose the coalition of almost everyone. Nothing stands against that power. Plenty of things undermine it and turn it against itself. But, as a slice of the world, directing that power is all there is. Everyone with a single other who would like them dead has to sleep and needs allies who’d retaliate if they were murdered.

Schelling points are decided by the shape of the question, by the interests of the parties involved, and the extent to which different subsets of those involved can communicate among themselves to help the thinking-together process along.

Suppose that the tribe members have no other distinguishing features, and 19 of them have purple skin, and one has green skin. What do you think will happen? (Green-skin gets enslaved, order preserved among purple-skins.)

One example of order is, “whoever kills another tribe member shall be put to death, etc.” Whoever kills therefore becomes the Schelling point for death. Any who fight those who carry out the sentence are Schelling points for death as well. Any attempt to re-coordinate an order after a “temporary” breaking of the first, which does not contain a limit to its use, destroys the ability of the survivors to not kill each other. So the game is all about casuistry in setting up “principled”exceptions.

Criminal means you are the Schelling point. Politics is about moving the Schelling laser to serve you. When you are under the Schelling laser, you don’t get your lunch money taken because “they have power and they can take lunch money from the innocent”. You get your lunch money taken because “that is the just way of things. You are not innocent until you make amends for your guilt with your lunch money.” If you want to really understand politics, use the O’Brien technique on all the dualities here, quoted and unquoted versions of every contested statement you see.

Suppose that in addition to that, they all have stars on their bellies except one of the purple-skinned tribe-members. Then what do you think will happen? (Green-skin and blank-belly get enslaved, order preserved among the remaining.)

What if there are 18 more almost-universal traits that each single a different person out? Well, something like “this one, this one, this one, this one… are not things to single someone out over. That would be discrimination. And of course it is the Green-skin’s God-given purpose to be of service to society!” Which trait is the Schelling trait? 19 people have an incentive to bring Schelling reach to that process, and 1 person has an incentive to derail it. One of the 19 is incentivized only so long as they can keep Schelling reach away from the second trait, one of them so long as they can keep it away from the third… Each of them is incentivized to bring a different amount of legibility and no more. Each one is incentivized to bring confusion after a certain point.

Sound familiar?

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Each individual is incentivized to make the group believe that the order they’d have to construct after the one that would take what that individual has, is untenable as possible, and many more would be hurt before another defensible Schelling point was reached. Or better yet, that there would be no Schelling point afterwards, and they’d all kill each other.

Everyone has an incentive to propagate concepts that result in coordination they approve of, and an incentive to sabotage concepts that result in better alternatives for their otherwise-allies, or that allow their enemies to coordinate.

So the war happens at every turn of thought reachable through politics. Scott Alexander has written some great stuff on the details of that.

3 thoughts on “Schelling Orders”

  1. Slight extension of this framework: there’s a way a coalition can expand its reach by constructing an ostensibly neutral set of operating parameters that implicitly treat their core members as the central case, and everyone else as exceptional. Since the ostensible universality is foregrounded, resistance to the standards’ asymmetric burdens can be delegitimized as undermining solidarity/fairness by asking for special treatment, because the system is constructed so that this asymmetry is not legible inside the frame, or at least so that such complaints have a high message length. (Also, people harmed by these standards will often find people who actually do want to tear things apart ready to work with them as tactical allies.)

    This seems to be how whiteness and the British Empire have actually worked.

  2. “First they came for…” is what it looks like in a scarcity environment where the dominant coalition is retreating/retrenching, but things can look quite different with growth. Consider that Americans now openly talk about how Hispanics will be considered more white in the next generation than this one. This doesn’t make any sense if you are trying to cluster people compactly by genetic characteristics, but it makes a lot of sense if a particular coalition is trying to adjust its narrative to maintain a governing majority by acquiring more allies as ostensible equals.

    Unfortunately, in a finite world, growth based on expanding your coalition (rather than learning to make better use of a fixed pool of resources) must end eventually. Fortunately, this sort of “expanding circles of concern” can also be a symptom of abundance freeing people to be nicer. Unfortunately, these can be hard to tell apart, and there is a strong incentive for the former to pretend that it is the latter.

  3. >Schelling points are decided by the shape of the question, by the interests of the parties involved, and the extent to which different subsets of those involved can communicate among themselves to help the thinking-together process along.

    And of course, recursively, how much the Schelling ledger within subsets must be crowded by hypothetical or actual conflict between sub-subsets.

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