It turns out that being involved in a start-up – the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge – is pretty busy. So although I’ve been reading, it’s a couple of weeks since I had chance to post a review. However, the passage of time means I can now write about Kaushik Basu’s The Republic of Beliefs, which is one of the most interesting and exhilarating books I’ve read for ages.

The book concerns the application of game theory to law and economics, which sounds dry but is profoundly important. Basu addresses a meta-question: why are some laws obeyed and some not? His answer voyages through the traditional law and economics literature but also social norms, history and institutions. He write: “For the law to develop roots and the rule of law to prevail requires ordinary people to believe in the law; and to believe that others believe in the law. Such beliefs and meta beliefs can take a very long time to get entrenched in society.” And, of course, it doesn’t happen in all societies.

To tackle the question, Basu looks at how to model (game theoretically) the actions of the functionaries of the state, the law enforcers. As he points out, the difference between social norms and laws is usually taken to be self-enforcement versus enforcement by the police or judiciary. So it’s necessary to think about when either kind of enforcement occurs. For how could law – “jottings on paper” – work other than by altering the payoffs of the game? There’s a logical mistake to assume that law enforcers will automatically enforce the law, as is normally done in the literature, without making an rational calculation about what’s in their best interest when everybody else is assumed to be a calculating rational maximiser.

But if the law enforcers are brought into the game rather than being assume deus ex machina, how does the law change behaviour and outcomes at all? The answer must be that it changes people’s beliefs about what other people might do. The law can try to create new focal points in the game of life: “The might of the law, even though it might be backed by handcuffs, jail and guns, is in its elemental form rooted in nothing but a configuration of beliefs carried in the heads of people in society. … It is in this sense that we are citizens of the republic of beliefs.”

This conclusion has a striking consequence: “any outcome that is made possible by creating a law could have happened without the law,” Basu argues. Outcomes can come about either through formal legislation or through informal social sanctions, although the law might help bring about the self-sustaining edifice of beliefs more readily. But laws that do not direct the economy to one of many possible equilibrium points will not be observed. Hence in societies where there is a good deal of corruption, the law is trying to enforce behaviour among law enforcers that is not in their interests, and so will fail.

Basu discusses the long shadow of history in the light of this. As he points out, there has been a good deal of attention paid (much of it outside of the field of law and economics) into how to create new focal points. Less has been paid to how to erase focal points – which is something the western democracies might well want to do after this era of madness is over, for example in terms of acceptable behaviour online or violence to individuals from ethnic minorities: “Memory, in these kinds of problems, tends to leave a residue that is hard to erase.” Law abiding behaviour founded on the belief that laws are followed is sticky, but so is its opposite.

The book speculates that in the game of life the deep ambiguity about the future – what will the set of games be? – also makes ‘focal players’ important. Some people may be able to set the meta-framework: “In war and conflict, where one has to encounter sudden and unexpected scenarios, it is important to have a well-specified leader.”

In general, we need to understand better the role of the process of the creation of laws and social norms, including how they can erode, tipping society from a ‘good’ to a ‘bad’ equilibrium. I find thinking about these regime shifts – which are clearly under way in many societies now – in these terms of self-enforcement incredibly powerful. The online world makes this doubly the case – as Basu writes: “Thanks to the march of technology, market structures are changing in ways that need smart collective interventions to make sure we do not sink the boat by each trying to enhance our own self-interest, … We may need to think of different kinds of legal and governmental interventions so enable the economy to function effectively.”

I hope nobody is put off by the appearance of game theory. This is a beautifully written book, very profound, and the small number of payoff matrices clearly explained. The Republic of Beliefs offers a distinctive and revealing perspective on public policy, and couldn’t be more timely.



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