What Politicians Can Learn from Game Theory

By Shlomo Maital

     Game theory is a mathematical discipline pioneered by economist Oskar Morgenstern and mathematician John von Neumann, in their book Theory of Games & Economic Behavior (1944).   I was a student of Morgenstern at Princeton University, in 1965. 

     Life itself is a kind of game.  We compete in life.  And we also cooperate.  Those two elements feature strongly in games. 

     The game known as “prisoner’s dilemma” captures the cooperate/compete dilemma well.   It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950   at RAND.  Mathematician Albert W. Tucker later formalized the game by structuring the rewards in terms of prison sentences and named it “prisoner’s dilemma”. [1] In this game, ‘rational’ behavior is to screw the other guy. It leads to lose-lose.

     Political scientist Robert Axelrod organized ‘tournaments’ in which various algorithms played Prisoner’s Dilemma against one another repeatedly.  The question was:  Which algorithm did best in the long run, in terms of escaping the lose-lose trap?

       Axelrod found that algorithms that followed three principles did best. 1. Be nice.  Open by being cooperative.  2. Be forgiving.  If the other player screws you,  and then repents,  do not hold a grudge.  Do not pursue grievance.  3. Be clear.  Make your intentions clear.  Show you favor cooperate.

      Be nice. Be forgiving. Be clear. 

      Today, in Israel and in the US,  politicians seem to be playing prisoner’s dilemma.  Screw the other party – and everybody loses, especially we the people. 

       There is a way out.  Axelrod.  Be nice. Be clear.   Be forgiving.   The opposite of what politicians now pursue in both countries:  Be nasty.  Be vengeful. And never show your cards. (Republicans in the US want less government spending, but will not say which part of the budget they want to cut).

     Once it was different.  A new book by Brookings Institution reveals how the Bush Administration debrief the incoming Obama Administration in 2009, providing a smooth effective transition in power.  Be nice, be forgiving, be clear.  Contrast that with the vengeful Trump non-transition, including a violent insurrection, in 2021. 

     Take your pick, politicians.  2009?  Or Jan. 6, 2021? 

      And voters?  Take your pick.  Those who espouse 2009?  Or those who fueled Jan. 6, 2021? 

[1] Two prisoners commit a crime and are arrested and interrogated. If each chooses not to ‘squeal’ on the other, it is win-win.  But if one squeals and the other stays silent, the ‘squealer’ cuts a deal and wins.  The dominant behavior is to “squeal” – avoid being screwed, and screw the other guy.  But if both squeal, it is lose-lose.