Monday, 28 October 2019

The Answer To My Cave Riddle....

Recently on Facebook I presented the following poser:

10 people are trapped in a remote cave in a storm, with rising water that looks certain to drown them all. You have some budget in your department for a rescue mission, and there are two types of operation available within your budget.

Operation 1) You are guaranteed to save 5 of them, but the other 5 will drown.

Operation 2) You have a 60% chance of saving all of them, but a 40% chance that the mission fails and all of them drown.

You can only afford one Operation. If you only care about the 10 people trapped in the cave, do you go for Operation 1 or 2?

If you found the question difficult, or found it easy and answered Operation 1, you're missing a no-brainer - you should definitely choose Operation 2. Here's why. Imagine you're one of the individuals trapped in the cave. With Operation 1 you have a 50% chance of surviving; with Operation 2 you have a 60% chance of surviving. If you are an individual person trapped in that cave, then survival is the most important thing to you, and it's better to pick the option that gives you an extra 10% chance of survival.

Now consider the cave problem as an illustration for how politics often works. Imagine if you're someone like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, who cares primarily about slogans and left wing adulation - you might be tempted to choose operation 1, so you can have a guaranteed photo shot of you standing with the five survivors, even if you've chosen the option that's the least good for the collective.

We've seen this time and time again with calls to use taxpayers' money to subsidise the failing steel industry, or failing holiday firms, or increase the minimum wage law above the marginal product. The people who benefit from those policies are a small subsection of society (like the steelworkers who make the news: "Corbyn saves 5000 steelworkers' jobs" as the headline might be), whereas the people who bear the much larger costs are the wider population who have to pay more for their steel because foreign competition is being starved.

In a Rawlsian ' veil of ignorance' system of ethics, political policies would be implemented through conditions under which "No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like." So if we pretend that prior to being born we could all partake in a committee meeting to decide upon the fairest and most just society, not knowing where we'd be in that society in terms of environment, background, and natural talents, we'd (try to) pick the most objectively good one (Operation 2 in the cave problem), not the most subjectively good one for our own reputation (Operation 1 in the cave problem). What a shame that so many political gimmicks and superficially alluring policies are built on the squalid tactis of the latter, and not the more prudent measures of the former.

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