# Extortion beats brinksmanship, but the audience matters

post by Stuart_Armstrong · 2020-11-16T21:13:18.822Z · LW · GW · 15 comments

## Contents

  How the audience reacts
audience
audience
Which audience, though?
m=1
m large
large, m=1
and m both large
fairness criteria
None


EDIT: The terms "extortion" and "brinksmanship" used in this post don't fully map onto the real-world uses of the term, but are the closest to the concepts I'm trying to point to.

Extortion, simplified, is:

• "Give me something I want or I'll hurt you (even if that costs me something too)".

Brinksmanship is more like:

• "Offer me something I want, or I'll blow up our deal and hurt you (even if that costs me something too)".

Written that way, the two sound very similar. Indeed, I've argued that there is little difference between extortion and trade offers [LW · GW], apart from the "default point".

So why am I claiming that these two are different, and that extortion is much more powerful? Because of a key difference in the default point: the outside audience.

# How the audience reacts

## Extortion audience

Suppose I am extorting someone; maybe I'm a blackmailer with naughty photos, a mafia offering "protection", or the roman empire demanding tribute. The problem for me is to make my threat credible: to show I will go through with the threat, even if that is risky or expensive for me to do so.

Suppose I have twenty targets that need to convince that I'm serious. Then if one of them resists, this is exactly what I need. I will publish their photos/burn down their shop/invade their territory. My threat is credible, because I've just shown that I will carry it out; this keeps the other nineteen targets in line. Indeed, I might actively want one target to resist; that way, I pay the expenses of one threat carried out, but get full compliance from the other nineteen, rather than getting twenty sets of grudging partial compliances.

This makes resisting extortion very tricky. Suppose you were the target of my extortion, and suppose that you had made it a principle to never give in to threats. And suppose that you had credibly demonstrated that principle. If we two are the only people around, then there's no advantage to me carrying out my threats[1].

But if there are other people in the audience, I still would want to hurt you if you don't give in. It's not about you; I want to credibly demonstrate I will carry out my threats. Indeed, carrying out my threats against you might be the best move on my part; I've shown I will carry them out, even when it arguably makes no sense to do so.

## Brinksmanship audience

Now let's compare that with brinksmanship. Suppose I'm setting out the conditions for a business partnership, negotiating how to split a restaurant bill with friends, or maybe I'm a country negotiating a trade deal with a union I've just left.

Now, maybe you won't offer me the deal I want, and I can then prove my credibility by blowing up the deal. Or maybe you'll grudgingly give in, and I'll walk away triumphant.

But the problem is as follows: it is not useful for me to have a credible reputation for following up on brinksmanship threats. The other targets don't want to deal with someone with a reputation like that; they'll offer fewer deals, and worse ones.

That makes resisting brinksmanship much easier than resisting extortion. If there are twenty potential groups I might strike a deal with, then blowing up a deal with one of them is not going to help me with the other nineteen. Committing to rejecting brinksmanship - say, by rejecting any deal that isn't "fair[2]" - is more credible, because I don't benefit from blowing things up.

# Which audience, though?

Not all real-world examples of extortion and brinksmanship fit neatly into the above framework. Terrorists are generally trying to extort governments, but a generic "we don't negotiate with terrorists" seems to have served governments pretty well. The cold war saw lots of brinksmanship between the superpowers, where there wasn't really an audience of entities of comparable power.

To sort that out, let's consider the size of the audience, i.e. the other entities that might practice extortion or brinksmanship, or have it practiced on them. Thus define:

• Extortion: there are entities , and . All can threaten extortion on any , in roughly similar ways.
• Brinksmanship: there are entities , and . None of the cannot force any of the into deals. All entities have roughly similar ideas of what constitutes a "fair" deal, and each entity stands to gain roughly the same from each fair deal they agree to.

So, how do things stand for varying and ?

## n=1, m=1

This is the USA and the USSR during the Cold War. They have no rivals of comparable power; they don't really need to demonstrate the credibility of their mutual threats to an outside audience. All that matters, fundamentally, is how credible their threats are to each other.

In this situation, extortion and brinksmanship are essentially the same thing. The two superpowers are locked in a contest with no clear default state, and which neither can exit or ignore. The situation is complicated, and very much dependent on individual decisions and personalities; there is no "best behaviour".

## n=1, m large

This is the situation I described above: one main extorter/brinksmanshipper, a large audience of potential victims/trade partners.

As we saw, extortion is effective and hard to resist, brinksmanship is ineffective.

## n large, m=1

Here there is a single "victim", and many entities that might seek to take advantage of them. This is like a government that "does not negotiate with terrorists"; there are many terrorists, potential terrorists, potential hijackers, potential hostage-takers, and so on, but one target.

Here the incentives are reversed for extortion: the target is incentivised to resist extortion, even at great cost, lest giving in encourage others to try their hand at it. Since there's only one target, there's no audience that the extorters will try and show their credibility to, so they won't be incentivised to go ahead with their threats.

Brinksmanship is even less effective; the target will hold out for good deals from some of , to pressure the rest to also offer good deals.

## n and m both large

Here the incentives are harder to parse for the extorters and their targets. The extorter wants to demonstrate to all the that they are serious about following up on their threats, and the target wants to demonstrate to all that they are serious in resisting threats.

Depending on the individual dynamics, the may attack, or fail to attack, for reasons that have nothing to do with their specific target. This gets hard to predict, and can depend on contingent factors (just as in the , case), but there are multiple equilibriums that can be relatively stable (unlike the , case). See the hawk versus dove game and the various complicated variants on that.

Brinksmanship continues to be ineffective.

## Multiple fairness criteria

If there are multiple fairness criteria, the equation for brinksmanship shifts: entities can apply brinksmanship to some deals, just as long at the rest of their audience doesn't feel they were excessive. Conversely, targets are incentivised to not have excessively strong "anti-brinksmanship" standards. It seems likely that some broad consensus on "fairness" will emerge, as a sort of averaging of different entities' judgements.

1. Neglecting acausal [LW · GW] or counterfactual situations. ↩︎

2. Notice the strong similarity between anti-brinksmanship and brinksmanship: in both cases, the parties are threatening to stop the deal unless their conditions are met. ↩︎

comment by Darmani · 2020-11-17T04:25:52.461Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very interesting post. I was very prepared to praise it with "this draws some useful categories for me," but it began to get less clear as I tried more examples. And I'm still trying to come up with a distinction between brinksmanship and extortion. I've thought about the payoff matrices (they look the same), and whether "unilateral attack vs. not" is a distinguishing factor (I don't think so). I still can't find a clear distinction.

Examples:

(1) You say that releasing nude photos is in the blackmail category. But who's the audience?

(2) For n=1, m large:  Is  an example of brinkmanship here a monopolistic buyer who will only choose suppliers giving cutrate prices? It seems to have been quite effective for Walmart decades ago, and effective for Hollywood today ( https://www.engadget.com/2018-02-24-black-panther-vfx-models.html ).

Replies from: Stuart_Armstrong
comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2020-11-17T17:49:16.093Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(1) You say that releasing nude photos is in the blackmail category. But who's the audience?

The other people of whom you have nude photos, who are now incentivised to pay up rather than kick up a fuss.

(2) For n=1, m large: Is an example of brinkmanship here a monopolistic buyer who will only choose suppliers giving cutrate prices?

Interesting example that I hadn't really considered. I'd say its fits more under extortion than brinksmanship, though. A small supplier has to sell, or they won't stay in business. If there's a single buyer, "I won't buy from you" is the same as "I will ruin you". Abstracting away the property rights (Walmart is definitely legally allowed to do this), this seems very much an extorsion.

Replies from: romeostevensit, Darmani
comment by romeostevensit · 2020-11-17T19:01:52.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The other people of whom you have nude photos, who are now incentivised to pay up rather than kick up a fuss.

Releasing one photo from a previously believed to be secure set of photos, where other photos in the same set are compromising can suffice for single member audience case.

comment by Darmani · 2020-11-18T02:53:18.473Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd really appreciate a more rigorous/formal/specific definition of both. I'm not seeing what puts the Walmart example in the "extortion" category, and, without a clear  distinction, this post dissolves.

Replies from: Stuart_Armstrong
comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2020-11-18T13:58:13.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the distinction is, from the point of view of the extortioner, "would it be in my interests to try and extort , *even if I know for a fact that cannot be extorted and would force me to act on my threat, to the detriment of myself in that situation?"

If the answer is yes, then it's extortion (in the meaning of this post). Trying to extort the un-extortable, then acting on the threat, makes sense as a warning to other.

Replies from: Darmani
comment by Darmani · 2020-11-20T01:01:03.340Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see. In that case, I don't think the Walmart scenario is extortion. It is not to the detriment of Walmart to refuse to buy from a supplier who will not meet their demands, so long as they can find an adequate supplier who will.

Replies from: Stuart_Armstrong
comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2020-11-20T17:10:30.134Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm think of it this way: investigating a supplier to check they are reasonable costs $1 to Walmart. The minimum price any supplier will offer is$10. After investigating, one supplier offers $10.5. Walmart refuses, knowing the supplier will not got lower, and publicises the exchange. The reason this is extortion, at least in the sense of this post, is that Walmart takes a cost (it will cost them at least$11 to investigate and hire another supplier) in order to build a reputation.

Replies from: Darmani
comment by Darmani · 2020-11-21T09:29:43.343Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay. I think you're saying this is extortion because Walmart's goal is to build a reputation for only agreeing to deals absurdly favorable to them.

If the focus on building a reputation is the distinguishing factor, then how does that square with the following statement: "it is not useful for me to have a credible reputation for following up on brinksmanship threats?"

Replies from: Stuart_Armstrong
comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2020-11-23T13:44:41.434Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because a reputation for following up brinksmanship threats means that people won't enter into deals with you at all; extortion works because, to some extent, people have to "deal" with you even if they don't want to.

This is why I saw a Walmart-monopsony (monopolistic buyer) as closer to extortion, since not trading with them is not an option.

comment by Idan Arye · 2020-11-17T15:54:30.030Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wouldn't increasing the number of offenders improve the effectiveness of brinkmanship compared to extortion? Since the victim is only bound by a deal with the offender, they can surrender and reject future deals from the other potential offenders. This makes surrendering safer and therefore more attractive compared to extortion, where surrendering to one extorter would invite more extortions.

comment by adamShimi · 2020-11-17T11:02:54.012Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not used to thinking about such issues, but the distinction between extorsion and brinksmanship makes sense, at least in the context of this post.

One thing I would have liked is a clear link to AI alignment. That being said, I assume that most ideas on this topic relate to one or two problems of alignment, so maybe it's annoying to repeat them each time.

Replies from: Stuart_Armstrong
comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2020-11-18T14:11:36.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The connection to AI alignment is combining the different utilities of different entities [LW · GW] without extortion ruining the combination, and dealing with threats [LW · GW] and acausal trade [LW · GW].

comment by Beth Barnes (beth-barnes) · 2020-11-18T06:22:30.321Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FYI/nit: at first glance I thought extorsion was supposed to mean something different from extortion (I've never seen it spelt with the s) and this was a little confusing.

Replies from: Stuart_Armstrong
comment by Stuart_Armstrong · 2020-11-18T13:54:58.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a misspelling that's entirely my fault, and has now been corrected.

comment by Nebulus · 2020-11-16T23:21:11.561Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm wondering if this isn't simplifying the issue.

You are absolutely right when arguing that a government that yields to extorsion is giving an incentive to other terrorists. The rational choice does appear to be to resist. But then why would France accept to pay the ransoms while Israel send its commando units ? I believe the difference lies in the perceived role of the state; France gives priority to an individual life because it's part of their philosophical history and, more importantly, because these last decades have seen France put more and more emphasis on the rights of individuals. Israel, on the other hand, is much more pragmatic and thus takes the rational choice as a matter of course. In other words, keeping up a tough front is not the only parameter that has to be taken into account when dealing with extorsion; a country's history and subsequently one's particular image also plays a part in that process. But then, I am not sure how much of this could be extrapolated to another situation.

As for brinksmanship, perhaps we could take into account the size of each actor. I'll go with the hypothesis that you're a juicy enough economic power, even if you're on your own:

If you have 20 potential partners, among which three are particularly major and the others minor, then I believe it is justified to use brinksmanship on one of the major actors. It's a gamble: if the deal falls through, your standing will fall and future deals will be harder to conclude. But if you strike the deal, then the two other superpowers may be encouraged to join the feast. The minor actors will be wary of future brinksmanship tactics but why would you use such a risky strategy again? They are desserts, and you've already gotten your main dish.

I hope you can see my point here: brinksmanship can be justified as a gamble depending on the size of the actors.