Schelling Orders

Written by Ziz

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, 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.

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.

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