Game theory and politics

Does anyone know about game theory? I recently read a game theory application to politics: “Everyone would be better off if Republicans and Democrats collaborated. However, [game theory rightly predicts that] each party rationally selects a strategy (warfare) that leads them away from this outcome.”

It does sound like game theory could illuminate our political system’s mechanics and dysfunctions, but it seems to me to have some limitations too. E.g. does game theory presuppose a zero-sum partisan basis for politics (i.e., like football, if they score, we lose)? That certainly seems to explain present US politics, but is it necessary? Is it possible that two or more parties might see themselves as advocating different strategies for reaching the same goal (i.e., our differences are real but we are all on the same team in terms of the ultimate objectives — fair, secure, harmonious society, etc.)? Can game theory account for a game in which players are all on the same team but stake out different strategies for advancing team interests? Or does game theory lock us inexorably into the warfare/battle paradigm. That is, perhaps the avoidance of collaboration is only “rational” relative to the winner-take-all paradigm that undergirds game theory. But what if there were other paradigms. Could there be a paradigm with other premises that make the “rational” decision more collaborative? Could game theory account for such a paradigm?

I am just pondering the world of ideas here without any actual knowledge of game theory, so feedback is welcome.

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13 thoughts on “Game theory and politics

    • That certainly seems to be the way it is played. But I am still not sure that is a logical necessity of politics. Perhaps there’s a kind of spectrum. E.g., in the last few decades of the 20th-century, there was more collaboration between the two major US parties — there was animosity, sure, but most votes were not split so unforgivingly along party lines. E.g., Dems were the liberal party in general, but some Dems were more conservative than some Repubs and some Repubs were more liberal than some Dems, which made straight party-line votes less common and across-the-aisle collaboration more common, with anecdotes of friendly cross-partisan debates at DC taverns, etc. — things that are unheard of today. So there’s always animosity, but how close it gets to zero-sum seems to vary over time. (Is proximity to zero-sum thinking the same in multi-party systems? Your UK system seems more like ours, but how about the continental systems? I recall poltical debates in the biergartens of Germany, but nothing as binary and vicious and zero-sum as I see back home.) So that’s why I’m wondering if game theory can account for systems that are not winner-take-all. Don’t they teach you physicists anything about game theory? Come on, help a brother out here!

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      • Party politics is always zero-sum if each party’s goal is to win the election. However, if a common goal can be identified, for instance to deal with climate change, and both parties have support from their base for that agenda, then the two parties can work together and achieve more than if their goals are always mutually exclusive.

        I think that in many European countries, where there are multiple parties in play, there is bound to be overlap between some of the parties, so cooperation is possible – and in fact necessary, since no single party will ever win enough votes to form a government on its own. So there is an appearance of cooperation. But equally, those governments can very easily get bogged down and be unable to work together, because they will never agree on all topics. For example, since the end of WWII, Italy has had over 60 governments. Game theory is at work again, obliging parties to withdraw support and pull out of coalitions in order to shore up their support bases.

        I think that what pulls people together is when parties realise that the most fluid voters are positioned in the centre ground. Reaching for the centre, without losing support from core voters, is usually how parties win elections. This is what Tony Blair did in the UK, and Boris Johnson too. On the other hand, the more extreme their position, the more they alienate the centre ground. Jeremy Corbyn is a good UK example. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, as the centre ground constantly moves. In the 1980’s the centre ground shifted to the right, so Margaret Thatcher was able to hold power for many years.

        My reading of Trump is that (although most Democrats and some Republicans characterise him as an extremist) he recognised that the centre ground had shifted under Obama, and grabbed a lot of those centre votes, while being sure to keep core Republicans on board. Now, the centre ground may have shifted again away from Trump, so there is an opportunity for Biden. But the more noise that the left makes, the more the centre ground is likely to drift away from them again.

        Of course I could be completely wrong. I’m not even American.

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  1. if you place your hopes in politics and government you will always be left disappointed. politicians are all self serving. most of our “problems” are created by politicians. if you want to throw your support behind anyone making promises then find someone who advocates the deconstruction of government. Wait….none of them are doing that? Yeah, reference the aforementioned “self serving”. Government is the instrument of abuse for cowards. Less government, not more, is the solution. Anyone who believes otherwise is a sheep.

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  2. Game theory is much more than just zero-sum game; but in order to change politics into non-zero-sum game, you need to lengthen the event horizon for the political goals from the next election to several decades – building a long-term consensus is the key, because long-term non-zero-sum games are generally more effective.

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    • 100% with you on lengthening the event horizon. On the formal details of game theory, I appreciate the input. That was one of my key questions — can the theory accommodate “games” that are not zero-sum, winners and losers games. If I had ever played video games, I’d probably know better. Meanwhile, it’s nice to have blogmates like you help me out 🙂

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      • Glad to be of help! 😀 I studied game theory for a while – a fascinating topic, actually, even if it doesn’t fully capture the complexity of reality, it gives great input into how people think and make decisions. I think the crucial aspect of the non-zero-sum games is the fact that they can be cooperative games, not only competitive.

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  3. To me, there is no game theory without a game. The Corona Virus has proven that everyone loses or wins depending on how effectively we all work together to stop the fast encroaching disease presence.

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    • Yes, I assume game theory may not be the best model for pandemic response. (As I said, I know little of formal game theory, but I’m curious to see where it may or may not cast additional light on dynamic systems.)

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