Human Rights Promotion (19): A Game Theory Approach

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activism / human rights promotion
Photo by Karl Robertson

Photo by Karl Robertson

Game theory is a useful tool for trying to understand the interaction between the struggle for rights and the countervailing forces (often states). Let’s look at a few examples. In the case of popular protests and revolutionary reaction against oppressive regimes, an important decision both sides have to take is whether or not to use violence. As Conor Cruise O’Brien once said, violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard. In other words, protesters may have reason to escalate their expression of discontent, just to make sure their point comes across and those in power realize that things are serious. On the other hand, the violence of protests or revolutions can easily escalate beyond what is necessary or effective. Difficult to keep violence under control, and the ultimate outcome of a violent revolution may not at all be what the protesters initially desired. We see that all too often. (Present-day Egypt is a case in point).

From the perspective of those in power, things look quite similar. Again, some violence can be a good thing (from their point of view), but it shouldn’t be too much. Oppressive regimes have reason to use a certain amount of violence in order to stay in power, but if they go beyond that amount they risk violent reaction. However, it’s not just violent reaction that may be a problem. While moderate violence helps an autocrat to retain control, he doesn’t want to engage in violent repression for a very long time. Long term violence, even moderate violence, renders public discussion and persuasion impossible. As a result of this destruction of the public space (in the Arendtian sense), support from the people is increasingly harder to come by and opposition is more likely. That’s not in the interest of the regime.

And it’s not just autocracies; democracies as well have to engage in strategic decision games. Take for instance border controls. There’s an interesting story about migration from Suriname to the Netherlands. Until 1975, Suriname was part of the Netherlands and the Surinamese people could travel back and forth between the Netherlands and their home country. The Netherlands wanted to stop this migration, but the result was that the Surinamese rushed to “beat the ban” and moved in massive numbers. Half of the population of Suriname ended up in the Netherlands. Something similar happened with the 1962 UK Commonwealth Immigration Act. This act took away the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter Britain freely and also produced a rush to “beat the ban”.

Two young Creole girls on the streets of Amsterdam, photo by James Whitlow Delano

Two young Creole girls on the streets of Amsterdam, photo by James Whitlow Delano

It’s often the case that the numbers of permanent immigrants jump up just before the imposition of border controls between countries that had free movement arrangements. Migrants who previously moved back and forth, depending on the job market or the state of the economy both at home and in their destination countries, decide to stay in the destination countries because once they go back home they can’t return. Border controls have the same effect on “illegal” immigrants who often decide to stay because they can’t risk the dangerous border crossing more than once. So states that want to limit the numbers of migrants should, paradoxically, open their borders at least to some extent. Not too much, probably, but not too little either.

From the perspective of the migrants: if we want to promote freedom of movement – which is a right – then we may do best to go steady and not open the “flood gates” all at once. High numbers of migrants may reduce native support for immigration. When natives are allowed to make up their minds about the pros and cons of immigration gradually, then there will be “natural” growth in support for increased immigration as people start to see the benefits and get over their preconceived ideas about disadvantages. (See also this).

You can of think of literally thousands of games like these: a new democracy transitioning from a violent authoritarian regime has to decide how much forgiveness and unpunished injustice it can afford, and how much justice and discontent among the ranks of the old regime it can afford; Ukraine and the international community have to decide if they can afford to give up the Crimea and risk further annexations by an emboldened Russia, or if they can afford to push back and risk conflict with Russia. The list of cases can go on and on.

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 6.43.14 PMThe interesting question is this: which general lessons for human rights promotion can we take away from this? Apart from the obvious and rather boring lessons that game theory taught us long ago – try to understand unintended consequences, take into account your opponent’s incentives, anticipate his moves etc. – there’s the lesson about multiple equilibria. Zero border restrictions will tend to move towards an equilibrium of high restrictions because tribal fears will create a backlash. These tribal fears will perhaps only be swayed by a learning curve based on and made possible by gradualism. But very strict migration restrictions will also make this learning curve impossible since very few migrants will come and people will not get the opportunity to revise their prejudices about immigration. Immigration restrictions are therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best equilibrium seems to be the gradual expansion of freedom of movement.

Something very similar is the case for transitional justice. A strong focus on prosecution of the old guard will – like instant open borders – can create a backlash among the often numerous supporters and collaborators of the old regime. This backlash may undermine the new democracy and lead to a restoration of the pre-democratic equilibrium. The opposite strategy, no attention to transitional justice at all, may also undermine the new regime as the victims of the old regime will have no reason to give support to the new one. Gradual prosecution of the top cadre of the old regime, combined with truth commissions, atonement and forgiveness looks likely to provide a stable “learning curve” for the new democracy.

And you can write your own paragraphs about cases like violent protest, the Crimea etc. The stories will all be quite similar. Human rights promoters should in general think harder about the expected equilibrium of their actions. The lesson is probably that among different possible strategies the gradual one wins from the all or nothing approach because the equilibrium that results from all or nothing tends to be nothing (also in the case of oppressors by the way). Gradualism of course doesn’t preclude ambitious long term goals.

More on game theory and rights here and here. More posts in this series are here.

(image source)

2 Comments

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    I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% sure. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated.

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