If the state is as bad as critics claim it is, why is it still here?  If there really is a better way to coordinate things wouldn’t people have already adopted it?  These are reasonable questions.

In game theory the model of hierarchical strategies helps explain how the state can persist even though there are better options.

In a previous article titled The Non-Aggression Strategy, I discussed how the TIT-FOR-TAT is the best strategy in an iterative prisoner’s dilemma in a wide variety of environments.  I labeled the TIT-FOR-TAT strategy the “Non-Aggression Strategy” for it’s similarity to the libertarian Non-Aggression Principle. When a majority of players in an iterative prisoner’s dilemma play TIT-FOR-TAT, then all players are better off because of the increased amount of cooperation.

The state however, is not a TIT-FOR-TAT strategy.  State agents play different strategies against citizens than it does against other state agents.  Likewise citizens generally do not play, TIT-FOR-TAT against state agents. That is citizens generally do not retaliate against state agents, even when they do things that we would expect retaliation against if done by a private citizen.   Things like taxes and eminent domain are not for citizens to do, only the state may do those things and the citizen must cooperate. As David Friedman says in his paper Order Without the State  the state is, “…an institution which can violate what individuals view as their rights with regard to other individuals without setting off the responses by which such rights are normally defended.”

The state is a hierarchical strategy, where the state agents may or may not cooperate with citizens, yet citizens must cooperated with state agents.

Now, in an iterative prisoner’s dilemma where there is an established hierarchy in which most players cooperate with those above them and often defect from those below them in the hierarchy, then the system is very stable.  This is an evolutionary stable equilibrium. This model helps explain why the state has staying power, or lock-in.

To understand how this works, consider the details of this model. If players of an iterative prisoner’s dilemma have a way of establishing rank such that both players know with little ambiguity, who is higher rank, and if most players in this game already apply dominance strategies to inferiors, and meek strategies to superiors, then an inferior in the hierarchy playing TIT-FOR-TAT (the Non-Aggression Strategy) will do worse than those playing the meek strategy.

The dominance strategy alternates between defect and cooperate, and if an opponent defects only once, never cooperates again. The meek strategy cooperates unless the opponent defects twice in a row, then never cooperates again.

The hierarchy strategy uses rank to determine when to dominate or be meek. Players that play the hierarchy strategy act dominant with lower ranks, and meek with higher ranks. For simplicity the model assumes there are no tie values, so that when players meet it is always clear who is higher rank.

Notice, it is important for the players of this game to clearly identify who is superior and who is inferior.  This is why state agents often wear uniforms. The uniform clearly identifies the agents of the state as superiors, so civilians know to submit to them. This is also probably why it is a much more serious crime to impersonate a police officer than a private security guard.

In the environment of a coercive hierarchy the players playing the TIT-FOR-TAT will get worse payoffs than a player playing a meek strategy to superiors and a dominance strategy to inferiors, making TIT-FOR-TAT an unsuccessful strategy. This is because TIT-FOR-TAT gets caught up in costly retaliatory fights with superiors. While the meek strategy takes its lumps, but cooperates and so it benefits from cooperation when the superiors cooperate, every other turn. Further, superiors playing dominance strategies can gain more than TIT-FOR-TAT by exploiting the submission of meek strategies.

Yes that is right the “Non-Aggression Strategy” is generally not a successful strategy to play in an environment of an established hierarchy. This is similar to the state, where even if a state agent does something to you, that if done by a private individual you would normally retaliate against, you likely be worse off if you retaliate against the state.

It is important to understand that this model, assumes that individual players are equal in power.  That is the payouts are the same for every player.  No actual power differential in individuals is necessary to maintain the hierarchy strategy.  This may seem counter intuitive, but it is fairly realistic since in general no individual human has significantly more physical power than another. Étienne de la Boétie wrote about the ridiculousness of tyrannical monarchical states of his time:

…but who could believe reports of what goes on every day among the inhabitants of some countries, who could really believe that one man alone may mistreat a hundred thousand and deprive them of their liberty?…He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you.

The only  reason the higher ranking players have power over the subordinates is because of the hierarchy itself.  The hierarchy models differences in political power simply with rank.

Now, the loss due to the lack of cooperation between the superiors and the inferiors means everyone is worse off, than if TIT-FOR-TAT, was the dominant strategy.  Established hierarchies make everyone worse off, except those at the very top of course. I call this the, “Tragedy of the State”. Similar to the tragedy of the commons where everyone has an incentive to do things that make most people worse off.

Now, this model does not account for the territorial aspect that is in the Max Weber definition of the state but it models the hierarchical nature well. Also it might be applied to institutions like chiefdoms or other non state hierarchies. Since this model, is very applicable to the most influential coercive hierarchy, namely, the State, I think the “Tragedy of the State” is a fitting name.

This theory helps explain why the state is so persistent despite there being a better alternative, i.e Non-Aggression Strategy. Once established, coercive hierarchies are hard to break.

Another challenge is that people seem to be psychologically disposed to justifying unjust systems that they depend on.  For more on that see my article the A Psychological Theory on Why People Justify Unjust Systems.

Maybe if we could figure out how to get most players from an established hierarchy, to transition to the TIT-FOR-TAT (Non-Aggression) strategy instead of the hierarchy strategy, we could better understand how to transition a state society to a more peaceful and more prosperous stateless society.


The Evolution of Cooperation, Chapter 8, The Social Structure of Cooperation, in the section on Labels, Stereotypes, and Status Hierarchies, by Robert Axelrod

Order Without the State by David Friedman

The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude by Estienne de la Boétie