When the Rule of Law Is Not Working

A conversation with Karl Sigmund at Edge: “…Now, I’m getting back to evolutionary game theory, the theory of evolution of cooperation and the social contract, and how the social contract can be subverted by corruption. That’s what interests me most currently. Of course, that is not a new story. I believe it explains a lot of what I see happening in my field and in related fields. The ideas that survive are the ideas that are fruitful in the sense of quickly producing a lot of publications, and that’s not necessarily correlated with these ideas being important to advancing science.

Corruption is a wicked problem, wicked in the technical sense of sociology, and it’s not something that will go away. You can reduce it, but as soon as you stop your efforts, it comes back again. Of course, there are many sides to corruption, but everybody seems now to agree that it is a very important problem. In fact, there was a Gallop Poll recently in which people were asked what the number one problem in today’s world is. You would think it would be climate change or overpopulation, but it turned out the majority said “corruption.” So, it’s a problem that is affecting us deeply.

There are so many different types of corruption, but the official definition is “a misuse of public trust for private means.” And this need not be by state officials; it could be also by CEOs, or by managers of non-governmental organizations, or by a soccer referee for that matter. It is always the misuse of public trust for private means, which of course takes many different forms; for instance, you have something called pork barreling, which is a wonderful expression in the United States, or embezzlement of funds, and so on.

I am mostly interested in the effect of bribery upon the judiciary system. If the trust in contracts breaks down, then the economy breaks down, because trust is at the root of the economy. There are staggering statistics which illustrate that the economic welfare of a state is closely related to the corruption perception index. Every year there are statistics about corruption published by organizations such as Transparency International or other such non-governmental organizations. It is truly astonishing how close this gradient between the different countries on the corruption level aligns with the gradient in welfare, in household income and things like this.

The paralyzing effect of this type of corruption upon the economy is something that is extremely interesting. Lots of economists are now turning their interest to that, which is new. In the 1970s, there was a Nobel Prize-winning economist, Gunnar Myrdal, who said that corruption is practically taboo as a research topic among economists. This has well changed in the decades since. It has become a very interesting topic for law students, for students of economy, sociology, and historians, of course, because corruption has always been with us. This is now a booming field, and I would like to approach this with evolutionary game theory.

Evolutionary game theory has a long tradition, and I have witnessed its development practically from the beginning. Some of the most important pioneers were Robert Axelrod and John Maynard Smith. In particular, Axelrod who in the late ‘70s wrote a truly seminal book called The Evolution of Cooperation, which iterated the prisoner’s dilemma. He showed that there is a way out of the social dilemma, which is based on reciprocity. This surprised economists, particularly, game theoreticians. He showed that by viewing social dilemmas in the context of a population where people learn from each other, where the social learning imitates whatever type of behavior is currently the best, you can place it into a context where cooperative strategies, like tit for tat, based on reciprocation can evolve….(More)”.