Blame games

In Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra, I worked through a well-known schema for distinguishing different relationships towards semantic reference, that are a natural result of interactions between shared-production games and expropriation games. Here, I analyze the coalition politics of such games. 

The Survivor game

In zero-sum games, majoritarian decision rules (such as democracy) create an asymmetry - it's much easier to expropriate from a minority than from a majority - or, easier to transfer wealth to a majority than to a minority. Why would the majority vote for something they don't all benefit from?

A simple variant of this is the Survivor game, in which a single player is voted off the island at a time (see also the ancient Greek custom of ostracism). Since there's comparatively little advantage to being singled out for good, players will tend to want to avoid revealing information about themselves or their allies. Loudly voicing consensus opinion in ways that don't specify the implications for any person is fine because it's not informative. Anything that lets people distinguish you from the others is dangerous.

The idea of a Schelling point is that if players in a game need to converge on one location in a map, then in the absence of a strong incentive to favor one location, they will tend to converge on some obviously identifiable feature. For instance, in surveys, Thomas Schelling found that a surprisingly large number of people, if tasked with meeting someone on a specified day, in New York, with no further information, would converge on the information booth in Grand Central - and if no time was specified, they favored noon.

n a pure Survivor game, the first player to reveal their "location" loses. They become the feature everyone else converges on as an expropriation target. One natural side effect of this is coordination against any players who are narratively constrained by something other than the zero-sum game. For instance, if a widget-making group isn't under intense performance pressure, anyone who's focused on actually making the widgets is going to have a hard time staying in lockstep with the group story, and is therefore the easiest target for expropriation and exclusion.

(Compare with Sarah Constantin's claim that group-coordination activities like dancing serve as a way to identify and exclude people who are out of sync with the whole. This stands in some tension with her more recent claim that people should exaggerate differences in order to have some social standing within a group.)

The Scapegoating game

What if you try to play the Survivor game in the real world, where there are other games going on? Now your environment is not exclusively populated with zero-sum players and strategies, which means that revealing info isn't always an unforced error.

Level 1: Fault analysis

I already mentioned that people trying to coordinate in objective reality will be narratively constrained in ways that make them easier targets for expropriation. But there's another feature of group coordination that's very exploitable in the Survivor game: fault analysis. We try to improve maps to improve productive capacity and mitigate risks external to the social game. An important part of this is revealing flaws in the current arrangement.

If you reveal a flaw, you might try to repair the defect (e.g. getting someone to change their behavior - "the squeaky wheel gets the grease") or you might just discard the flawed part (e.g. punishments for bad behavior, "the squeaky wheel gets replaced"). This is what fault analysis looks like in simulacrum level 1 - the meaning of "flaw" correspond to the anticipation that if you remove the flaw, some objective problem is eliminated or ameliorated.

Level 2: Framing

If there's any amount of zero-sum conflict going on inside the group, the fault-analysis machinery - if coupled to punishment at all - becomes a weapon in the hands of anyone willing to lie. If I want to target someone for expropriation in a zero-sum conflict, I can recruit naive level-1 players by accusing them of some objective flaw - framing them.

Consider the story of the vineyard of Naboth, from 1 Kings 21:

And it came to pass after these things, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. And Ahab spake unto Naboth, saying, Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house: and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money.

And Naboth said to Ahab, The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.

And Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him: for he had said, I will not give thee the inheritance of my fathers. And he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread.

But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said unto him, Why is thy spirit so sad, that thou eatest no bread?

And he said unto her, Because I spake unto Naboth the Jezreelite, and said unto him, Give me thy vineyard for money; or else, if it please thee, I will give thee another vineyard for it: and he answered, I will not give thee my vineyard.

And Jezebel his wife said unto him, Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel? arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.

So she wrote letters in Ahab's name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters unto the elders and to the nobles that were in his city, dwelling with Naboth. And she wrote in the letters, saying, Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people: And set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. And then carry him out, and stone him, that he may die.

And the men of his city, even the elders and the nobles who were the inhabitants in his city, did as Jezebel had sent unto them, and as it was written in the letters which she had sent unto them. They proclaimed a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people. And there came in two men, children of Belial, and sat before him: and the men of Belial witnessed against him, even against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, Naboth did blaspheme God and the king. Then they carried him forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, that he died. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, Naboth is stoned, and is dead.

And it came to pass, when Jezebel heard that Naboth was stoned, and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give thee for money: for Naboth is not alive, but dead.

And it came to pass, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab rose up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, which is in Samaria: behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, whither he is gone down to possess it. And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession? And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine.

And Ahab said to Elijah, Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?

And he answered, I have found thee: because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord. Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, And will make thine house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the provocation wherewith thou hast provoked me to anger, and made Israel to sin.


And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.

King Ahab, a level-1 player, sees no way to acquire his neighbor's vineyard lawfully. But his foreign queen Jezebel, used to higher simulacrum level royal politics, sees no impediment to simply framing Naboth, a simulacrum level 2 tactic.

Elijah sees this as an existential threat, flips out, and yells at the king that he deserves the death penalty for this, since by going along with this he's raised the simulacrum level of his kingdom, making object-level coordination harder in a way that can, if it goes too far, become irreversible. Ahab, still a level 1 player, accepts the validity of Elijah's critique and tries to learn his lesson.

When the Survivor game is coupled to fault-analysis in this way, it becomes the Scapegoat game. If the simulacrum level 1 players are naive about this, a minority of zero-sum players can quickly acquire an advantage, since they're working harder to avoid becoming expropriation targets.

Level 3: Prosecutorial discretion

When enough players are mainly using fault-analysis to play the Scapegoat game instead of to fix things, the penal code can be redefined so that nearly everyone is technically guilty of some serious crime, and prosecutorial discretion is required. Then, you don't even need to lie to target someone (thus opening yourself up to expropriation for the crime of lying) - since everyone's guilty, actually being guilty of a crime doesn't single you out anymore. The crimes that get punished are the ones where the governing majority sees a shared interest in expropriating from someone. This is simulacrum level 3, where there's no underlying consistent mapping of crimes to punishments that would be good if enforced, just a standardized list of approved attacks.

Consider the case of Martin Shkreli, who everyone hated because of some perfectly legal price gouging (not morally innocent or sympathetic like Naboth, but not actually criminal), and was consequently prosecuted for the common and totally unrelated crime of securities fraud. There's not really a norm against securities fraud in the sense of effectual coordination to prevent it from happening, there's just a norm that it's a valid accusation. It's increasingly expensive to be innocent.

(But Martin Shkreli was a bad guy and deserved prison? Whatever. Once we're arguing about that instead of trying to criminalize the behavior we actually object to, we've abandoned the pretense that the penal code is a serious attempt to represent which behavior we intend to punish.)

Completely fictitious crimes like witchcraft are a natural outgrowth of this, provided there's a mechanism for confirming that some such claims are true and therefore that the target should be punished. At the limit, we start to see fully general fault-assignment stories, such as such as the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, for which humanity was punished with babies, crops, and the ability to kill snakes, or St. Andreas's Fault, for which Californians are punished with earthquakes.

Level 4: Shoot the messenger

Finally, at simulacrum level 4, people stop tracking the objective meaning of the law even locally, and it collapses to the pure Survivor game again. Prosocial behavior like revealing information about other people's crimes (e.g. Edward Snowden and Reality Winner, but also Frank Serpico) can be enough.

Good and Evil in the Færie courts

There are also natural coordination strategies between groups within a mixed simulacrum level blame game. One natural coordination mechanism for a majority (which has some control over which accusations are followed up on) is try to avoid being blamable for anything by only expropriating in "legitimate" ways that have narrative cover. This allows them to expropriate from others without being punished, and to recruit level-1 players who still take fault analysis literally into their coalition. The price of this coordination strategy is that they can't coordinate overtly. This kind of coalition tends to fly the "good" flag - in Lexical Doll's Seelie and Unseelie Courts paradigm, this is the Seelie Court.

The complement to this coalition is the Unseelie Court, or "Evil," which is willing to be maximally blameworthy. While the Seelie court coordinates to avoid any of its members being blamed, the Unseelie court aestheticizes blameworthiness. Both courts are fundamentally defined by the blame-allocation game.

The "Evil" strategy allows the Unseelie to more overtly coordinate to expropriate from others via mechanisms other than the blame game. Overt coordination - especially on otherwise-unobjectionable things that are simulacrum level 3 crime - makes the Unseelie Court sympathetic to a different class of level 1 players, who see and like that "Evil" is making concrete improvements to the world. The downside of this strategy is that "Evil" is structurally incapable of excluding bad actors, unless it gets big enough that it wants to convert from "Evil" to "Good."

Until recently, Google was "Good" and Uber was "Evil."

"Good" is winning. "Evil" is winning. Who's losing? The level-1 players who just want to fix the things that are wrong and don't want to expropriate from anyone.

Related: Talents, Model building and scapegoating

13 thoughts on “Blame games

  1. Zvi Mowshowitz

    Can you say more about why 'Evil' here is structurally incapable of excluding bad actors? And also likely say more about what makes something 'Level 3 crimes'?

    I can guess but I'm confident that I shouldn't be confident that I'm thinking what you're thinking, and I doubt most readers will get these points without more explanation.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Whatever you're organized around accepting blame for, you can't organize to exclude someone for doing. So, if a corporation is nominally committed to sociopathically maximizing the NPV of future cash flows discounted at the cost of capital at the expense of everything else, then even if most people there personally don't want to do some profitable thing that harms others, they have no leg to stand on rhetorically so it gets approved in the meeting because of a common knowledge failure.

      When I was at Fannie Mae, even after we were nationalized (and already had a charter explicitly tasking us with acting in the public interest), executive meetings were still operating under the pretense that we were trying to maximize profits in a weirdly short-termist way. I knew one VP who pushed repeatedly for considering the actual concrete consequences of what we were doing, but he usually had to phrase it in terms of profit-maximization to be heard anyway. This despite no real operating constraints forcing us to do this - in practice we did non-profit-maximizing things all the time, we weren't under performance pressure such that reduced profits would hurt us personally, and no one personally wanted to hurt the general public - but we were unable to officially coordinate on any other basis than normal business ethics.

      Likewise, Uber seems to have not limited itself to doing actually profitable crimes that broke the taxi monopolies, instead also engaging in pointless crimes that did nothing but piss off Apple, and corrupting its own performance metrics to enable sexual harassment. This isn't really in the company's "self-interest" but isn't that surprising given the branding and self-signalling the company did.

    2. Benquo Post author

      A penal code is implicitly a schedule of punishments for actions, that assumes sincere and effectual detection leading reliably to punishment. This can include some compensation for crimes' being difficult to detect.

      Level-3 crimes are ones where the definition of the crime, and the penalty, are obviously inconsistent with that assumption. They break the assumption that improvements in good-faith enforcement would be good, which means that the penal code no longer represents a coherent intention directly - instead you need to understand details of the detection-and-punishment mechanism and how it interacts with the penal code, to understand the circumstances in which you actually get punished, and it's not at all a good guide to which behaviors a public-spirited person should avoid.

      For instance, based on the criminal code in most US states (and the federal code), I would have to think that the public made a good-faith determination that a habitual cannabis user was doing some sort of serious chronic harm to themselves or others. That's not only false, but also not a good-faith error on the part of the system, or even a specific lie anymore - it has less integrity than a lie, but it's still connotatively "bad behavior" associated with the kinds of criminality that are actually destructive, so it's Level 3 rather than Level 4.

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    1. Benquo Post author

      I'm the guy who wrote this post. I have no strong alignment in the Færie court, though I sometimes get confused about that.

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  4. Matt

    I don't think someone who is just playing the accountability game and losing the survivor game goes to China and then Russia with many thousands more documents than could have been relevant to whistleblowing.

    I don't think it makes sense for both examples of level 4 to be from intelligence agencies from a country with way more rule of law for its intelligence agencies than most. There's plenty of examples of whistleblowers being attacked where there isn't as strong of a reason for people to pretend to be whistleblowers while doing something nefarious.

    1. Benquo Post author

      What are some examples that stand out to you? Depending on how you construe "the law," Frank Serpico might be a good example. I was trying to think of examples where the maximally "legitimate" attacks were used, and Daniel Ellsberg is a mixed example because he wasn't successfully prosecuted and is still living in the US because USGOVT wasn't playing at a high enough simulacrum level yet.

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  7. Eli Tyre

    Eli's Summary:

    In general, it is profitable for majorities to form mobs to attack and steal from minorities. Because the mob is bigger, it can get away with it.

    But who is in the "minority" is a matter of what reference class you use: everyone is a minority on some axis. However, sometimes certain traits are made salient, such that trait becomes the Schelling-signifier, that everyone guesses that everyone else guesses will mark who the minority is, to gang up on them.

    Because of this it is critical for individuals to not stand out too much: if they do they will become the schellling target for mob-attacks.

    (Some traits that have sometimes been the signified of a relevant minority are "black skin" and "Jewishness"

    This is a "base level" social phenomenon.

    But it is complicated by the fact that civilization involves systems by which groups can track errors and crimes, so that those errors can be corrected, or (as needed) punished to disincentives them.

    This error tracking and correcting machinery can be easily cooped to attack one's enemies: for instance you can just declare that someone committed some crime against you. If you make a credible claim, the folks trying to maintain the error-correction system will punish someone you don't like.

    (This does depend on their making a credible claim though, right? You have to do a good job at framing them, or it won't work.)

    Soon the error-correction machinery is mostly used for this kind of 0-sum war between savvy actors. (There might be some naive people in the mix sincerely trying to correct errors / execute justice, but they are duped by the more savvy players.) These savvy actors change the law code (how does that happen?), so that technically everyone is culpable. This makes it easier to use the error correction mechanisms as a weapon, because you can selectively enforce laws that everyone breaks.

    And in this situation, we're back to the situation of "the mob decides who to attack and steal from", and therefore everyone needs to keep their head down and not look to unusual, or they will become the Schelling target of the error-correction weapons.

    How close was that? Did I miss anything important?

    (I didn't understand the last section at all.)

    1. Benquo Post author

      Seems about right; there are more details to be modeled, especially around racism and antisemitism, but not necessary to understand the basic point.


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