Friday, November 9, 2012

A Fairy Tale of Human Rationality

Would you like me to tell you a story?

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there were two magical kingdoms, Acirema and Rssu. The kings of these kingdoms argued constantly over whose way of distributing bread was better: Rssu's king, King Nilats, insisted on a philosophy that people were generally nice and kind and that if all of their needs were met they would see to it that everyone was a well-off as possible, a philosophy that had become popular during a war in which a number of more-horrible-than-usual things had happened; while Acirema's king, King Nager, insisted that things would go better for everyone if everyone thought only of themselves and took advantage of everyone else when they could.

Now, the traditional way of solving questions like this was that the kingdoms would go to war. They would fight, and commit atrocity upon atrocity. Whoever committed the most atrocities would usually win the war, as their opponent would be unwilling to match them and would lack the advantages gained thereby, and the one who committed the most would therefore be the most just and the most merciful and generally the most right. This time, though, they decided to do things a bit differently.

Before the war in which a number of more-horrible-than-usual things had happened, everyone involved had hoped to prevent war by building up large armies so that war would devastate everyone involved, and therefore no one would start a war. And it had worked, until a dignitary from Yragnuh-Ortsua had become lost while visiting a vassal state and been assassinated by a rebel. The two kingdoms decided to try this again. And so, King Nager spoke with his royal wizard.

"Wizard," he said, for wizards forsook their names, "can you create a spell that will completely destroy a province of Rssu?"

"Yes, my king. But to prepare such a spell would take millions of gold pieces worth of gemstones."

"I can get you these. Once the spell is prepared, how long can the spell remain prepared? You have told me that with spells such as these, once prepared, one must decide whether to cast them or let them fade away."

"With this spell, you would have forever to make such a decision. In fact, letting it fade away would be difficult."

"Very well. You shall have all the materials you need. But do not cast the spell until I order you to."

King Nilats heard of this, and summoned his own wizard. "Wizard," he said, "have you heard of the latest developments in Acirema?"

"If you mean the province-destroying spell, yes, my king."

"This is unacceptable! I order you, wizard, to create a spell that can destroy two provinces in a single casting!"

Nilats's wizard bowed deeply, and told King Nilats what he would require for such a casting. He was granted whatever he named.

Nager heard of this, and his wizard created and prepared spells that could destroy three provinces. Nilats heard of that, and his wizard created and prepared spells that could destroy four. And so it went, until many trillions of gems, each worth thousands of gold pieces, later each wizard could destroy the world several times over at will.

During this time, the kings had not been idle. Each sought to teach other kingdoms, such as Nari and Abuc and Aerok, their way of distributing bread. It was not enough for a kingdom to accept a way in its own time; they had to be taught as quickly as possible, lest they accept the other kingdom's way. Each king used methods that stopped just short of open war (and in some cases were actually open war) to persuade each kingdom, and to prevent the other king from persuading that kingdom.

And each had ordered their wizard to, at the first sign of war with the other kingdom, cast all of their spells; and then ordered their wizard to set up spells such that at the first sign of war the spells would be cast without need for that wizard's involvement.

It seemed it was only a matter of time before the Acirema and Rssu would be drawn into war with one another.

But at this time, the hunger of the spells for gems had led to each king sending as many people to the mines as possible, sometimes by royal command and sometimes by paying exorbitant amounts for gems. And so, with few people harvesting grain and milling flour and baking bread, bread was scarce in both kingdoms. Rssu ran out of bread, and thus the question was resolved to Nager's satisfaction.

Thus it was that the world was almost destroyed over a question of bread distribution. The moral of this story is that people are fundamentally rational and sensible.

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