19 June, 2010

Using Game Theory To Explain The Difference Between Liberals And Conservatives

When people ask me why I’m a liberal I often cite the following excerpt from William Poundstone’s wonderful book, Prisoner’s Dilemma:

"In US politics, a liberal is a "cooperator", someone willing to share, and even be taken advantage of if there is a chance the common goodwill benefit. For example, liberals are willing to pay more in taxes to help the homeless …”.

Conservatives, on the other hand, can be viewed as "defectors", in that they believe one should enjoy the fruits of ones labor alone, and not share them with anyone else. They worry that taxes may be squandered, so they favor lowered taxes, so that income can be kept under one's individual control. They worry that another nation will exploit a unilateral arms reduction. They fear being laughed at, for making the "sucker payoff" to welfare cheats, and arms treaty violators."

I have no idea what Poundstone’s political views are but in a book about game theory, Poundstone has, I think, gotten to the heart of the difference between liberalism and conservatism. In game theory terminology, liberals are cooperators and conservatives are defectors. I am a cooperator therefore I am a liberal.

Conservatives like to say “A rising tide lifts all boats” but then they don’t do anything to raise the tide precisely because that tide isn’t selective in which boats it raises.

That’s why liberals want to find ways to put everybody in the same boat so that whatever the height of the tide, we’re all in this thing together. That’s the purpose of government.

Let me go back to game theory for just a moment. In game theory, there are times when you wish to construct a game in which certain people are incented to defect. The most famous of these games is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. You’ve seen it on TV. You’ve seen it in movies. The police bust a couple of criminals on some small charge like jaywalking or petty larceny but the police know these guys committed a murder. They can’t prove it so they’re trying to get one criminal to “defect”, that is, to turn on the other. They offer both crooks a deal. Turn on the other and we’ll give you a lighter sentence. The cops know that each of the crooks distrusts the other and that one or probably both of them will turn on the other and they’ll get the info they need to convict somebody on the murder charge.

Still other games – the ones we use to discourage defection, the games we use to encourage cooperation – are useful in societal and civic matters, matters where we need to keep everybody “in the same boat”, as it were, to get a job done. Perhaps the most famous of these games is called Rousseau’s Stag Hunt. In Rousseau’s original construction, hunters go out to hunt small game. Small game are hard to shoot with a bow or a spear and even if you get one, it feeds you and your family for a day and then you’re hungry again tomorrow. If you don’t get rabbit, you go hungry.

But suppose instead of many hunters hunting small game individually, these same hunters cooperate to encircle and bring down a stag. If they coordinate they are almost certain to kill a big stag and the big stag feeds everybody for today and tomorrow. Cooperate a few times and the hunters can actually accumulate a surplus of meat and take the occasional day off if they want to. Or they can salt and store the excess meat and keep it for a “rainy day”.

And here’s a word to all you non-profits and volunteer org people out there: your model, if it were a game, is designed to encourage defection not cooperation. Most of you are operating on a model that is mathematically identical to the Prisoner’s Dilemma game which, as I said before, is a game law enforcement people use to encourage defections. That’s why my very fine conservative Republican Baptist correspondent emailed me once a few years ago when he was president of a Main Street program and told me that, at the last hour, one of his town’s biggest businessmen reneged on his promised contribution to the Main Street project jeopardizing the whole project. The reneger had defected and there was absolutely nothing the Main Street program could do about it. Why did he defect? He defected because the Prisoner’s Dilemma creates a situation in which the temptation to defect is greater than the perceived reward for cooperating. In other words, the reneging businessman believed he could better enrich himself personally by using his time and money increasing his business empire and the reneging businessman knew that the polite (read “sucker”) Main Street program would not go around town telling people he had reneged on his agreement.

The Main Street program could have turned their defection-encouraging Prisoner’s Dilemma into a cooperation-encouraging Rousseau’s Stag Hunt in either of two ways that are, perhaps, a little beyond the scope of this blog post. The point is, private sector groups are too often playing The Prisoner’s Dilemma game when they should be playing the Rousseau’s Stag Hunt game.

Government is a civilized society’s way of changing the Prisoner’s Dilemma into a Rousseau’s Stag Hunt.

Government, properly used, is like a great big Rousseau’s Stag Hunt. The “hunters” (taxpayers, stakeholders, citizens) cooperate (pay taxes, obey laws, pool their risks, pool their talents) to encircle and bag big prey like national defense, public education, and one day, perhaps, universal healthcare so that no American employer is at a labor and cost disadvantage when competing against European and Canadian companies that don’t have to provide healthcare coverage for their employees.

Have you read T R Reid’s The United States of Europe? It’s a little dated now but it quotes average man-on-the-street Europeans about why they love and are willing to pay for their free college and free health coverage. They really believe that a rising tide lifts all boats and they are willing to pay more taxes to make the tide rise.

My very fine conservative, Republican Baptist correspondent tells me that it takes too much faith in human nature for him to be a liberal. He’s wrong. It’s precisely because we know and distrust human nature that liberals are happy to superimpose government over the good intentions and the moral flaws of humans to create a Rousseau’s Stag Hunt game in which all hunters help encircle and bag the big game.

Liberals know, for example, that if we let health insurance companies construct the healthcare game they’ll construct a game in which people who have paid for the boat all their lives can be kicked out of the boat when they get old or when they get cancer.

Liberals don’t like “Big Government” for the sake of big government. Liberals just want to live in a better society and a better world and leave a better society and better world to the next generation.

A recent story from the world of baseball has provided me with yet another way to say why I am a liberal. I’m referring, of course, to Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga’s June 2 perfect game which, as you must have heard by now, was ruined by an umpire’s bad call. Despite the fact that the instant reply clearly showed that the ump’s call was wrong and that the ump himself later admitted that his error had robbed the young pitcher of his rightful place in sports history, Major League Baseball has refused to step in and give Gallaraga the perfect game that he earned.

In the debate that followed, I noticed something instructive: conservatives defended baseballs’ refusal to overturn the ump’s admittedly bad call. Liberals were outraged at the injustice and, since correcting the ump’s call would make no difference to the outcome of the game whatsoever, liberals were shocked at baseball’s refusal to do the right thing.

This sports story illustrates another reason I am a liberal. Conservatives are not much bothered by unfairness and injustice and, even in cases where righting a wrong is easy as in the baseball story above, conservatives won’t lift a finger to make things right. Conservatives are willing to tolerate and even defend very high levels of injustice and unfairness. Conservative callers to talk radio shows even argued that bad ump calls are “part of the game of baseball” and should be allowed to stand. Liberals argued that in a case where the umpire himself said he got the call wrong, where the instant replay clearly showed that the ump got it wrong and where the outcome of the game wouldn’t be changed at all if the bad call were reversed, there is no excuse for not setting the record straight and letting Gallaraga have the place he earned in the record books.

I am unwilling to tolerate high levels of injustice therefore I am a liberal. With Dr. Martin Luther King liberals everywhere say “amen” to Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

When one branch of American conservatives felt the need to add the modifier “compassionate” to their brand of conservatism they admitted that regular ol’ garden variety conservatism is something other than compassionate. They must not have vetted that wording with their PR people or with conservative wordsmith, Frank Luntz, because they essentially admitted that conservatism is uncompassionate. Conservatism is – let me supply the word – Darwinian. Pretty ironic – don’t you think? – that the party of fundamentalists and evangelicals who don’t want their kids being taught evolution in school has no problem at all with a society where people who were lucky enough to be well-born, gifted with good parents, good genes, a stimulating environment and good health should rise higher and go further than people who had the misfortune of being born poor or otherwise disadvantaged.

But my liberalism is not about compassion. I think even a heartless pragmatist can be a liberal if he loves his kids and wants them to grow up in a better world than the socially Darwinian world conservatives have built.

And my liberalism is not even about positions on the issues. Occasionally, my liberalism leads me to take a position that is not popular with other liberals.

And my liberalism certainly isn’t just about narrowly electing liberals to political office. We’ve seen where it gets us when we merely elect a guy with a “D” after his name without also giving him a different culture in which to lead.

The culture change I seek is one where people are taught how to think cooperatively as well as competitively. Since I opened this post with game theory, I’m going to illustrate my belief that people can be taught how to think cooperatively with another lesson from the world of game theory.

When I went to work for a Fortune 400 behemoth, all new hires were required to take a course called “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” based on Covey’s book by the same name. To help us understand Habit 4 (Think win/win) our excellent instructor, Sal Elmo, divided us into teams of 5 or 6 to a table then gave us a simple assignment: from a list of business models and situations, pick the one which will make the most money. Sal adapted his little experiment from the groundbreaking work of Dr. Robert Axelrod.

My team instantly saw that the model that would make the most money was the one which required cooperation, not competition, with other companies.

But years of being taught only how to think competitively, not how to think cooperatively, blinded our classmates to the obvious so instead of working to make the most money, they, instead worked to beat each other. In other words, where my team heard “make the most money” they heard “outscore the other guy”.

The whole point of this exercise was to learn how to see and achieve “win/win” situations. Their purely competitive worldview, their years of playing zero sum games in which the only way to win is for somebody else to lose rendered the other teams blind to even that most fundamental of all conservative ideas: “make the most money.”

If you’re a conservative, let me ask you something: before I mentioned the Prisoner’s Dilemma game and the Rousseau’s Stag Hunt game were you even aware that life presents us with anything except zero sum games in which the only way you can win is at the expense of someone who loses? Did you even know there were other models for how to interact with others?

Conservatives have a difficult time envisioning anything but pure competition. Perhaps that’s why some conservatives believe in a conspiracy to reduce the Earth’s population to perhaps half a million people. They can’t imagine how the human race can continue unless there are fewer people competing for scarcer and scarcer resources.

My liberalism doesn’t come naturally in a society where kids are only taught to beat the competition bloody, where we’re only taught to see every life situation as one where it’s “eat or be eaten”.

But since my conservative readers are social Darwinists, perhaps they can see that while it may best serve the less intelligent beasts to believe in an eat or be eaten world, humans are capable of evolving, capable of imaging a world in which pure competition is not the answer to every problem and where there are interaction models besides a zero sum game in which you can only win at the expense of a loser.

Higginbotham At Large is happy to publish dissenting comments - even insulting ones - but Higginbotham At Large will not publish anonymous, pseudonymous or obscene comments.

1 comment:

  1. The strongest position in the game is to be a Cooperator....
    ....unless the other guy is a Defector.
    That's the position conservatives take for that very reason. Conservatives are fully aware the Cooperator is the best and smartest outcome. But, the conservatives recognizes it's theoretical. In real life someone is always going to take advantage, so it becomes smarter to try to win first. That also can be a cooperative position, just as America cooperated with other Allied nations in WWII, or businesses cooperating with one another.


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