A New Social Contract?
November 3rd, 2007

Friday, November 2, at the University of Michigan, game-theorist Brian Skyrms gave the Tanner Lecture on Human Values, and his topic was “The Evolution of the Social Contract.”

Saturday, November 3, there was a symposium to respond to and discuss his lecture. Invited speakers were Elinor Ostrom, Michael Smith, and Peyton Young.

Elinor Ostrom discussed how Nepalese farmers using small-scale cooperation are outperforming governmentally managed initiatives. Then she demonstrated a way to use biological metaphors and genetic algorithms to study the evolution of rules in general.

Michael Smith then suggested that rule systems (and social contracts) should influence us to do what we ought to do whether we are rational or not, that is, they should not depend on human rationality and/or self-interested desires, including the relationship between cooperation and justice. Questions about the social contract lead us to the issues of institutional design, and the realization that the presence of institutions shouldn’t destroy the positive behaviors they were designed to influence.

Peyton Young focused on evolution and fairness. He asked how isolated villages might arrive at different rules for the management of similar problems. Typically rules exhibit periods of stability punctuated by abrupt periods of crisis and change. His key conclusion was that experimentation results in heterogeneity, so instead of convergence, we would now see diversity between villages. Fairness is still present, but it is not absolutely dominant, rather, it is seen only by aggregating the differences present in a diverse range of solutions.

At the end, Brian Skyrms got a chance to respond. Among other things, he reiterated the key theme from his previous night’s lecture, namely that underrepresented game theory concepts (the stag hunt, the evolution of spite, etc.) and in particular correlations between participants, can lead us to new and interesting areas of research.

The take home question for those of us interested in smart mobs, panarchy, commons, and p2p culture, is this:

If we assume that rules and norms are still evolving (continuously evolving), then given all of the globally connected activity present in the world today, are we on the verge of the emergence of a new social contract? If so, who are the participants? Who is excluded from the initial bargaining? What are their barriers to inclusion? Does this new social contract, by its formation and articulation, then constitute a new body politic?

I know what I think. What do you think?


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