10.26.2013

Planning for the opportunists

When people say they are "capitalists", they usually mean that they believe opportunism is a successful competitive strategy. In Marxist theory the term "opportunist" is often used as a criticism of capitalism, but the term also appears in biology to describe a very sensible strategy for survival found typically among scavengers like rodents and raccoon, who not surprisingly get along quite well in human civilization. Perhaps the capitalists won't like the comparison to rats, but insofar as both are successful methods for making due with what's around, the comparison is apt. 

We might more neutrally describe opportunism as any strategy that seeks to take advantage of situations as they arise. Unlike the picky panda, whose dietary restrictions impose a severe limit on its possibilities, the opportunist remains flexible and vigilant, always ready to pounce when availability strikes. Sometimes this means crawling around the gutters, and opportunists aren't afraid to get dirty. But being an opportunist means more than just lowering standards; it requires a clever, cunning, and quick mind to spot and act on opportunities. 

In this characterization, I've entirely left the issue of "selfish" or "self-interested" behavior out of it, and therefore (hopefully) the bulk of moral condemnation. I don't think opportunism is necessarily selfish in any strong sense. A mother rat will take advantage of opportunities she finds to help feed her brood; perhaps this is a way for her genes to act selfishly, but from the perspective of the rat her efforts are altruistic. What matters about opportunism is that the advantages are seized as they arise, not that the fruits of the labor are selfishly spent. 

When people praise capitalism, they are typically endorsing a system that rewards people who industriously seek to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. The presumption is that acting opportunistically will not only help the entrepreneurs, but they will help the whole system improve. If I figure out some way of making a better or cheaper widget, everyone wins. This justification for opportunism might be convincing in systems where the opportunities available represent inefficiencies, and where taking advantage of them improves the system. But in situations where the opportunities are dangerous or unhealthy, then the opportunist's strategy can be an incredibly bad one. The plague kills rats too, after all. 

One particular manifestation of unhealthy opportunism are patent trolls. If you've been paying attention to +Andreas Schou 's play-by-play of the Battelle v. Southfork case, you'll see the depths to which patent trolls will go to squeeze money from the system, including targeting anyone who self-identifies as a "hacker". Patent trolls are opportunists, and executing such lawsuits is a potentially successful strategy for making money. They are also like plague rats, suckling on the infested, impacted sore of our broken intellectual property law, ensuring the disease spreads fast and wide. Corey Thuen was producing open-source alternatives to closed software, ostensibly a solution to the failure of the existing patent environment. But instead of solving a problem, it gets torn down in the patent troll's zealous opportunism.

This is precisely the sort of situation where we should be condemning opportunism; Battelle and the rest of the patent trolls genuinely are entrepreneurs, and their entrepreneurship is ruining everything. They are defaming hackers and stigmatizing computer expertise; they are wasting resources on litigation that stymies genuine innovation and progress, and they are poisoning the well of the public domain and salting the earth in their wake. Patent trolls create an unhealthy economic and social climate. They are a pestilence wrought by opportunism.

For the sake of constructive criticism, we might carefully distinguish between opportunists and pragmatists. Pragmatists want strategies that reliably produce effective results; they want strategies that work. This also requires a certain amount of flexibility; pragmatists don't presume any particular strategy will be most effective. Instead, pragmatists tend to be like methodical scientists, willing to treat issues on a case-by-case basis and subject their results to serious critical analysis. Consequently, pragmatists aren't always opportunistic, because sometimes opportunism just isn't a reliable strategy.

A pragmatist might see the current IP situation and conclude that open-source methods for protecting intellectual property are a sensible alternative. Opportunists have little interest in developing sensible methods, because their strategy is to take advantage of whatever is available, and there tend to be more opportunities to exploit where the methods are senseless or haphazard. A well-regulated, well-functioning system usually has few opportunities to exploit, and will therefore be uninteresting to the opportunist. If your strategy is to catch crumbs falling through the cracks, then it's in your interest that the cracks be as big and plenty as possible.

The point extends generally: opportunists perform well in situations that are unstable, haphazard, confusing, arcane, broken. They will tend to reproduce those conditions in their environment in order to ensure their success over their competitors. In this sense, praising opportunism or entrepreneurship is a way of praising instability and chaos over effective methodology; indeed, the more disruptive the enterprise, the more highly praised its successes. In extreme cases of free market ideology, this view manifests as an argument that effective methods are impossible to plan in advance, and consequently that opportunism is a generally optimal strategy. Both the premise and conclusion of this argument are clearly and unequivocally false.

But most capitalists aren't free market ideologues. Most capitalists think the success of opportunism as an economic strategy is grounded in a more fundamental anthropological point: that human beings are fundamentally themselves opportunists, always looking to eke out an advantage. The view is not that capitalism will produce the best results all things considered, but rather that the method suited to our natures. Perhaps the suggestion is that if humanity naturally organizes itself opportunistically, then they will work best within social institutions that also operate opportunistically.  

Whether or not we're "fundamentally opportunists", the conclusion doesn't follow. It's reasonable to think that our systems should be resilient in the face of opportunistic behavior and that we can do things to prepare for its eventuality, the way you might prepare for raccoon to get into your trash by putting locks on the lids. For humans, that means creating systems of rules that are easy to understand, hard to break, and where there is little incentive for doing so-- not just that the repercussions outweigh the incentives, but where there is little reason for breaking the rules in the first place. And that means constructing economic systems that are self-contained so that competitive advantages exist as aspects of the system itself, and not through the legal and political systems meant to contain and regulate it-- in other words, a system where corruption is impossible. 

Such systems really do exist; my favorite example is the "brutally honest" game of Starcraft:

In the Starcraft community there is virtually no concern about any cheating or corruption at the tournament level, even though there may be hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line. This isn't because of strict refereeing, and it certainly isn't because the players are saints that can be trusted unconditionally with the responsibility. It's because there aren't any rules that anyone has any real reason to break in the first place. You don't need an authority to police the game itself; the game ensures it's own fair play. 

Starcraft allows for opportunistic play (what players call cheese), but it also allows for patient defensive play, and aggressive tactics, so that each player can select a style that suits their skills. The game supports a diversity of gaming styles by providing a balanced and entirely self-contained playing field that ensures fair play regardless of style. This fairness isn't undermined by opportunistic play; the possibility of cheese is part of what makes games exciting. But there's no guarantee that opportunism is a winning strategy either; indeed, although cheese has won many tournaments, the players who rely too heavily on cheese are usually considered weaker players. 

Of course, capitalists would agree that opportunism doesn't guarantee success, but they've built a system that doesn't offer much in the way of alternatives. Their anthropology lets them believe that the corruption, chaos, and cruelty produced by wanton opportunism is properly the fault of the human agents themselves, and not their methods. This prevents those methods from correction, which in turn ensures yet more fertile territory for the opportunist to exploit. 
#digitalpolitics   #attentioneconomy   #complexity   #organization  #planning   #chaos