Junior Ganymede
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More on Legitimacy

February 14th, 2018 by Patrick Henry

  • Games— What is legitimate and what is not matters a lot in games.  Legitimacy in games is shaped by the formal rules, but it is not the same as the formal rules.  Some actions will be legitimate even though they illegal (a certain amount of holding in football, for instance).  Other actions will be illegitimate even though they are legal (going for 2 instead of a PAT when up by 28 points in the 4th quarter).  It isn’t immediately obvious why legitimacy should apply to both games and political sovereignty.  Maybe life has been gamified for much longer than we thought!  The real answer is that political legitimacy is about rules and expectations for leadership and followership.  Games are making rules and expectations into a form of play.  Because there is overlap, there is a lot we can learn about legitimacy from games.

  • Expectations, Anger, and Fear–For instance, I’ve been talking about legitimacy and illegitimacy as if they were bloodless calculations.  They are not.  Acting strategically usually means people are sacrificing some kind of immediate benefit for a more remote and less tangible benefit.  Often their strategic response is altruistic punishment–it doesn’t benefit them at all.  Anger and fear are usually what motivates people to act strategically.  What is illegitimate makes us angry and afraid.  The unexpected also makes us angry and afraid, so legitimacy and expectations and routine are deeply linked together.  A real challenge for the sovereign is managing people’s expectations about what is routine.  Change is hard.  (Irish Democracy isn’t about forcing change on the government, its all about resisting change).  It takes careful work and showmanship to change people’s expectations, because when the legitimate sovereign acts illegitately, he becomes illegitimate himself.  Ceremony sometimes has the role of reminding people that what the leadership has done now isn’t what the leadership will always do.  One comparison is with roads on private property, which the property owner shuts down once a year to legally establish the principle that they have the legitimate, legal power to deny the public access.  But ceremony itself requires careful management.  It has a tendency to become dead over time, to lose its mooring with its original meaning.
  • Civil Disobedience–the rulers aren’t the only one who can try to engineer legitimacy.  Most laws and punishments work by not having to be used.  They are the equivalent of the old game theory strategy of winning the game of chicken by throwing your steering wheel out the window.  By precommitting to acting strategically (punishment), people are deterred from committing crime and the authority doesn’t have to punish them.  Civil disobedience works by treating the laws as if they were just announcements of the non-strategic rewards and punishments in the game of sovereignty.  By forthrightly accepting the announced punishment as the price for their act, the civilly disobedience are reengineering their act from one that is illegitimate and should incur a strategic response, to one that is legitimate and only incurs a tactical response.  They do this by normalizing both the lawbreaking and the punishment.  Once the behavior is normalized, even the punishment will disappear with time because the punishment is usually arbitrary and has no inherent connection to the act.  Civil disobedience can work either by directly normalizing the behavior the activists want, or by trying to normalize something (like the sovereign’s lack of control over public spaces) that the sovereign can’t afford to give up.  Civil disobedience often works in modern Western societies because they do not respond strategically by upping the level of force.
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February 14th, 2018 07:27:12
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Sutton Coldfield
February 14, 2018

There is a book popular with the Ribbonfarm crew called Finite and Infinite Games. Carse does some interesting work in recasting human interactions into finite games—limited-scope interactions which terminate in time and rules; and infinite games—open-ended fruitful exchanges in which the goal is to continue play indefinitely. The way legitimacy is treated in the two types of games would necessarily be rather different.

Unfortunately, I can’t really endorse the book since it ends up being rather facile, but I can recommend leafing through a copy. Fruitful for thought, but the book doesn’t quite live up to the ideas that sparked it. (I am reminded as well of God and the Devil playing chess in the dream recounted on this blog.)

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