Imagine two groups of schoolboys in a class. In one group, they believe that the best way of resolving conflicts is to hear out the arguments of each side, and find out which holds up better to a set of shared values. The other group prefers to resolve conflicts by punching each other until the other party ceases. In the absense of outside influence, how do conflicts tend to be resolved between the two groups? 

Or think about two flatmates. One of them thinks that the best moment to wash the dishes is just after the meals. The other one prefers to let them in the sink and wash up while preparing the next meal. Unless they agree on rules about this, what tends to happen?

Last example: How do you decide with your family what to do on weekends? Some prefer to think ahead, invite people or buy tickets for an event while they are still available. Others prefer not to decide before Friday evening, because who knows what the weather will be like, or how tired you are from the week? Again, if both of these schools of thought are present in a family, which one tends to prevail? 

These are all examples of what I like to call, for lack of a better word, inherent asymmetrical dispositions in a system. Unless you do something about it, one of the possibilities tends to happen more often than the other. It is worth taking a closer look at these phenomena, in order to better understand when you can foster this asymmetry in your favour, or what you can do about it if you don’t like it. 

All these examples have to do with what happens when people simply act according to their preference. But there are some fundamental differences as to why that creates an imbalance. In the first example, if the punchers act out towards the talkers, the talkers get hurt unless they hit back. On the other hand, the punchers won’t suffer, or be deterred from hitting hard, just because they are invited by a talker to a debate. So at some point the talker will start punching for self-protection. Think about police fighting criminals, or the “war” against terrorists. The law enforcment, whose monopoly of legitimate violence is constrained by a number of regulations, is constantly tempted to abandon these limitations in order to level the playing field of unbridled aggression. 

In the second example, the damage to the party on the short end of the stick is less substantial. To cease means to tolerate that there are dirty dishes in the sink for most of the day. But the asymmetry resides in another, temporal aspect of the situation: the difference between acting now and acting then. “Now” is at the end of a meal. The preferred course of one flatmate is to do nothing at this moment, while the other would prefer that the washing up were done now. At this point, the latter person has a choice between two evils: accept to let the dishes in the sink and wash up together later, or wash up now by yourself. By comparison, the options for the first flatmate are very clear: whatever happens, do nothing and stay out of it. Either you will wash the dishes at your preferred moment, or by then the dishes will miraculously have become clean. Because of the division of doing it one way now and doing it the other way then, the winning party can have it their way by doing nothing. Think about climate change, energy saving, or the reform of the pension system, and you see the same pattern. 

The same is the case for the weekend planning. If some people in the family would like to decide Monday to buy tickets for a show next Saturday, the others can have it their way (wait with the decision, even if it means that later the show will no longer be an option), just by not committing just now. Again, the planners in the family have alternatives to the “wait and risk”: Buy tickets, but just for those who have committed to come, or buy tickets for everyone. In the latter case, they take on a responsibility for the non-committers, and risk to see a week-end where the others lament that they are forced to participate in something they consider – by now – a bad choice. In any kind of community which relies on the voluntary commitment of its participants, the asymmetry is in favour of doing nothing just now, and if you want to do something anyway, you have to take responsibility for others, and stand up to face the consequences. How many democratic governments have asked the people what they want, gotten a confused answer, done what they found best anyway, and later got punished by voters who had made up their minds only after the fact. 

If you are on the short side of this kind of asymmetry, what are your options to change the system? The only way I see is by enlarging the boundaries of the relevant system. Make the playing field part of a larger playing field, where the odds are different. In the case of the violent schoolboys, involve teachers, parents, take pictures to impact the other boy’s reputation where it matters to them. In the latter two cases, move to a meta-level, discuss and re-frame the conditions of mutual commitment: how can we agree to live together in a way that is acceptable to all of us, and what are acceptable ways to point out this agreement in a particular asymmetrical situation? 

In a way, if you look at civilisation, I believe that it is constantly on the short end of this kind of inherent asymmetry. From small scale situations like politeness, over questions like what you do or don’t do to other people’s or common property, to fundamental system architecture like the division of powers in a democratic state, many of today’s most fundamental achievements of civilisation rely on a degree of voluntary commitment of people on both sides of a disagreement, and many of society’s most fundamental decisions are between doing something now and doing something then. Therefore, to stand up against the inherent asymmetry in the system, civilisation needs to be a conscious process, and its nature, and conditions of existence, need to be continuously raised to people’s attention.