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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Turning the Page on Locke: Private Property in the Coming Age

John Locke (1632-1704) left quite an intellectual legacy for modernity to brood over. He was a founding figure of the empirical age, arguing that all knowledge begins with the input of the five senses. (“Perception . . . [is] the first step . . . towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it” [1].) He applied this to psychology [2], arguing that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa or blank slate (a psychological theory that coincidentally supported the views of his Whig patron, Shaftesbury, who despised the old views of inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy). Indeed, Locke says point blank that there are no innate ideas “as it were stamped upon the mind of man” [3]. And then of course there’s his political theory, with ideas about the government’s role in protecting life, liberty, and property [4], which would be applied by Thomas Jefferson 100 years later in the founding documents of the US. Jefferson, of course, cagily substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property” [5], but it’s the “property” idea that concerns me here.

The same ideas that supported Locke’s epistemology (empiricism) and his psychology (tabula rasa) fed into economics. Instead of the old economic system based on landed hierarchies, suddenly you have “economic individualism” as the cornerstone idea. Each individual is a self-contained unit with a right to their individual property. For “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, ownership was the cornerstone of all social relations. Indeed, Locke argued that ownership over one’s own body is given in the very state of nature, and that all appropriation of additional properties is a natural extension of that relation. (“Everyman has a property in his own Person … [and] the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his … Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided … [and] mixed his labour with … [is thereby] his property,” [6].)

Thus we come to a world where social relations take the form of individuals accumulating and competing for property, and governments organically emerge in defense of “life, liberty, and property.”

If I may take what 18th-century wit, Henry Fielding, said of a certain philosophy of the day, and apply it to Locke’s theory, I might say it is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true” [7].

OK, I can’t quite make the claim that Locke is wrong, but I can raise the question: What if this cornerstone idea of modernity and capitalism, this idea about the primacy of personal ownership, is false? Or perhaps not false, but at least not logically necessary. What if it is but one way of looking at things, and a way that is perhaps no longer the most serviceable?

My alternative would start here. My interlocutor might grant me that the idea of ownership as the primary relation between oneself and one’s own body is speculative and not in any way self-evident. But, my interlocutor might say, the relation between a person and land or objects – there, ownership seems to naturally apply. Surely ownership is fundamentally a relationship between individuals and the things that they own, no? My counterargument is this: Ownership is not fundamentally a relation to self, nor is it fundamentally a relation to objects or natural resources. Ownership at its most fundamental is a relationship between people. “Mine” is a nonsense concept in isolation. “Mine” always means, a priori, “mine and not yours.” Or, one could perhaps narrow that still further and say that (“mine” = “not yours”), and that this is the fundamental equation of ownership. With all due respect to Locke’s contemporary Daniel Defoe and his Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual cannot own anything [8]. That individual can use resources, can deploy them in the hunt for food and shelter, but cannot own them because there is no “mine and not yours” line to be drawn.

So am I just quibbling or are there consequences to this revision of the ingenious Mr. Locke? I tentatively suggest there are consequences. Once you see ownership and private property in this light, as relations between people and people, not between people and things, it can plant the seed for a new vision of how things could work.

Marx said that the capitalist world of commodity-values converts social relations into the “fantastic form of relations between things” [9]. With social identity thus alienated, we compensate by creating a wedge between “social” and “private” identity, and start to treat private identity as “real” identity.” But what if that world view is coming to an end? Under the pressure of income inequality and ecological imperatives, it seems capitalism must break or evolve into some new form. At least the prevailing definition of human identity and human fulfilment in terms of private identity and private property must break. If we can reverse the Lockean trajectory – instead of casting social relations into terms of private identity and private property, what if we recast identity and property into relations between people?

From Locke to Adam Smith to Marx to Thomas Piketty, we have been in the age of homo economicus, where homo sapiens are defined fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations. But is that necessary or is it just the signature paradigm of the 17th – 20th century? I won’t say 21st, because I think it is finally time for a paradigm shift out of the age of homo economicus. Increasing inequality (well-documented in Piketty as an intrinsic feature of capitalism, despite spikes and troughs [10]) and ecological imperatives require it. If we can reconceptualize ownership and private property into the fundamental social relations that they are, perhaps we can start to turn the ship. Perhaps we can redefine human identity and human fulfilment in terms that render the obsessive desire to accumulate private property for one’s own self into a historical curiosity. There are enough resources to go around. As Russell Brand points out in his cheeky anti-Establishment manifesto, Revolution, “a bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population” [11]. Stripped of the debilitating definition of human identity as private self and private property, a technology and a sharing economy in the service of something larger than personal gain might flourish – not that ownership will disappear, but it will be conceptualized differently. Instead of “owning” being an absolute relation between individual and thing, a removal of the thing from the field of social relations for oneself, owning would be seen as something provisional and embedded in social relations, an ongoing negotiation, evolving and flexible as our relations to others are evolving and flexible. This way of looking at things is not only possible but as the current cycle keeps turning, it will become more and more a practical necessity.

  1. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, II.ix.
  2. LockeEssay on Human Understanding, I.ii.
  3. Locke, Essay on Human Understanding, I.i.
  4. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap 7, parag. 87.
  5. U.S. Declaration of Independence.
  6. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chap. 5, Parag 27.
  7. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book 15, Chap. 1.
  8. The Lockean sense of ownership Defoe gives to Crusoe is almost unintentionally comical as Crusoe surveys the island with “pleasure . . . to think that this was all my own . . . and [over it I] had a right of possession” (Robinson Crusoe, 1985 Penguin ed., pp. 113-14).
  9. Karl Marx, Capital, 1906 Random House ed., p. 83.
  10. Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. The documentation referenced runs throughout the book.
  11. Russell Brand, Revolution, p. 8.

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The most forgotten phrase in US politics

“Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39)

There was a time when both my Christian and non-Christian friends appreciated the value in this principle. But (trigger warning: equivalence coming) now if you are on the left, you can be kicked out of the club for being insufficiently hateful toward Trump and the right. (I myself have been exiled from the club for this very reason.) Not to be outdone, those on the right are kicked out for being insufficiently hateful toward liberals.* I don’t find the platforms of the two sides equivalent, as I definitely favor one of them in terms of policy. But sufficient hate is now the measure of allegiance on both sides. I am fed up. Remarkably, through these semi-private blogs, I find that LOTS of other people are fed up with “split-screen America,” fed up with all the hate-shaming (i.e., guilt-tripping people for not being hateful enough toward the other side), fed up with the zero-sum partisan death spiral. These people have no voice in the media or halls of government, but they are there in large numbers. So let’s go. It’s time to break the back of the whole left-right spectrum. Throw it away and start over. Where to start? Matthew 22:39 — if you truly, mindfully practice it as a daily habit — is as good a place as any.

x x x

*Apologies to my neo-Marxist friends in the David Harvey line, but I use “left” and “right” as they are commonly used in the US, as quasi-synonymous (in most cases) with “liberal” and “conservative,” albeit with a stronger ideological accent. E.g., calling Reagan neoliberal may make sense in Europe or in the parlance of a particular political theory, but ask anyone on the US streets and they would say, “Reagan was the conservative and his Democratic opponents — Carter and Mondale — were the liberals. Reagan was supported mainly by those on the right half of the spectrum, and Carter and was supported mainly by those on the left half.” I am not discrediting Harvey and friends — the theory is internally consistent and probably makes good sense in the UK and in the larger sweep of history — but it is an awkward metric for common usage of the terms in the US. (“Libertarian,” as distinct from “liberal” and “conservative,” might better fit everyday US usage — at least in some contexts — to describe what Harvey and others call neoliberal.)

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The real problem in the body politic

(Trigger warning: equivalence alert!)

No, I don’t think the Democratic and Republican platforms are equivalent. Ideologically, I’m with the Dems maybe 50% of the time and the Repubs maybe 10%. No equivalence there. But the partisan tone has become equivalent on both sides. If a Dem or Repub leader says anything at all, the other side must consider it a priori wrong (and indeed evil) or risk being kicked out of the club. Perhaps social media is the worst for trapping people into such silos, but with many friends posting political comments daily, I can’t remember the last time any of them on either side deviated from the preset party line when an oppostion leader spoke.

So yes, I favor the Dem platform (or at least find it less bad), but there are three beasts in the cage, and the Republicans are not the most destructive of the three. There are the two major parties, and then there is the “us vs. them” paradigm of politics and social relations, shared equally by denizens of both parties. With my old hippie vision of moving toward a more ideal union, where people still disagree but with the understanding that we are all on spaceship Earth together, it is the paradigm itself that is the most destructive beast of the three. As long as we are locked into the zero-sum, “us vs. them” paradigm, we can move laterally to fix this or that local issue, but there can be no forward movement. We can get short-term ideological gains from our party – e.g., as I favor the Dem platform, I can hope the Dems seize the reins from Trump for at least the short-term benefits I think they would bring. But I cannot hope that Dems any more than Repubs will fix the long-term, and possible fatal, disease in the body politic. Neither party has the slightest motivation to correct the “us vs. them” model that is killing us.

Our only long-term hope is for someone to emerge outside the current political spectrum, an MLK-type voice. Politics per se is dead, killed by the two parties and the army of idiot activists on both sides. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

The good news is that underneath the veneer of us vs. them activism, I find that many people are quietly hungry for a unifying voice. I thought Obama was potentially such voice, but his failure to unify the country was pre-ordained by the fact that he emerged within one of the two major parties. Half the country will never listen to any unifying voice that emerges from the opposition party. Thus, my statement that the voice must come from outside the current political structure is a kind of logical tautology. Logic permits no other way. Of course, such a voice, on such terms, may never come, and we may disintegrate slowly or quickly, depending on which of the two parties is in power. But those people I meet hungering for some voice to restore a sense of shared humanness, those people still give me hope. We just need to take all this activist energy invested in one side or the other of the us vs. them paradigm and turn it against the paradigm itself. I would especially ask my friends on the left who consider themselves radical: How radical can you be if you are still hauling around the old albatross of the “left vs right” paradigm? If you want to be radical, break the paradigm.

Can we really get a critical mass of people to shed the dead snakeskin of politics as we know it and start over with a blank slate, a social vision stripped of politics with nowhere to turn but to heart and imagination? Probably not, but it’s worth a try.

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How woke is woke (or, gimme that old progressive vision)

I sort of fell into my recent blog series on the cultural lead-up to Woodstock (1969), but now that I’m there, I’ll piggyback with a curious political look at those filthy hippie progressives.

This may come as a shock to my younger woke friends, but back then, progressives were the ones fighting AGAINST official restraints what to say, think, and do; fighting AGAINST sorting, judging, and voting for people based on skin color or sex organs; fighting AGAINST double standards based on demographic identity and AGAINST tribe-specific definitions of truth and justice. And conservatives were the ones fighting FOR all those things. In a word, that old progressive vision was to obliterate the cultural police, while conservatives wanted to BE the cultural police. So when you criticize an old-timer whose values were forged in the Civil Rights/hippie days for being too conservative, remember: To them, YOU may look a lot like the conservative they grew up fighting against 😊

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Baby Boomers vs. Gen X vs. Millennials

You can find the arguments all over the Internet – baby boomers broke America, millennials are aimless and self-absorbed, etc. Let me try to put the competition to rest.

All of these arguments have one thing in common: They all rest upon the false premises that these imaginary generational constructs are (1) real and (2) monolithic. Sure, history goes on, and the youth vs. age theme is perennial, but calling Obama “Gen X by personal temperament” (as Ben White does in his generation-based commentary in Politico, 2019/10/26) is no better than astrology, which says those born in November have one temperament and those born in August another. Why should people born 1965-80 have a collective “temperament” but not people born 1975-90?

If anything, this habit of reifying and playing generations against each other is even more absurd than our habit of building walls around races and playing them against each other (a favorite theme on the Right during the Civil Rights era that has now become a favorite theme on the Left in the woke era*). Race, at least, is not as imaginary as the generational categories. Except in tightly localized areas, like elevated risk of certain diseases, race is virtually meaningless as a biological concept. But it is not as meaningless as the generational constructs. African-Americans, e.g., have suffered historical conditions as a group that leave them, not universally but in the aggregate, with a set of legitimate shared concerns in today’s body politic. But playing off the races against one another is no way forward. The idea of race as something that can be circumscribed with sharp lines and defended against all penetration by other groups is as imaginary as the generational constructs. Even “African-Americans,” despite the socially produced set of conditions that apply in the aggregate, is a porous term, genetically and culturally. Studies show that “58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5% European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent)” and “about 30% of self-identified White Americans have recent sub-Saharan African ancestry.” Even those without mixed blood have grown up with enormous cultural cross-fertilization, from music to movies to cooking and social life. Let’s celebrate the unique attributes of our different subcultures, but this pitting of one group against another is nonsense, and the game has to stop here. Things like wealth inequality and declining environmental resources are becoming too serious.

Bottom line: We have enough categories dividing us without inventing imaginary ones. Yes, let’s fight for a more equitable society and a more sustainable environment, but not by building walls around imaginary groups. We need to leave that way of thinking behind, whether it’s coming from Trump conservatives or woke progressives. Let’s rather bust all the walls and windows and open ourselves to the great multicultural carnival, all working together, celebrating each other across our demographic lines – that could be our future if we just turn the dial on how we think. And we can start with throwing out the stupid faux conflict between invented generational tags.

* Won’t get fooled again

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