The Prisoner’s Dilemma, Egomaniacs, and the 2016 Election

There’s a simple thought experiment in game theory known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Perhaps you’ve heard of it:

Two criminals are apprehended on suspicion of a crime and separated so that they cannot communicate with one another. The police know that both individuals are involved in the crime, but not in what capacity; therefore they offer each prisoner a deal. Rat on your friend and you will go free while he gets five years in prison, or remain silent and get one year in prison. If each prisoner rats the other out, however, both prisoners will get three years. Each prisoner being offered the same deal results in the following outcomes:

A rats out B, B stays silent: B serves five years, A serves zero. Total: 5 years in prison.

A stays silent, B stays silent: Both serve one year. Total: 2 years in prison.

A rats out B, B rats out A: Both serve three years. Total: 6 years in prison.

A stays silent, B rats out A: A serves five years, B serves zero. Total: 5 years in prison.

It’s a simple and perhaps unlikely scenario, but it shows the obvious benefits to working together and the disadvantages in being selfish. The logical thing — if we assume that time spent in prison is a bad thing and we want to minimize the damage to ourselves — is to always, ALWAYS take the team play, staying silent and serving one year while counting on your partner to do the same. (Staying silent also ensures that you won’t have an angry, embittered ex-friend coming after you when he gets out of prison in five years.)

In practice, though, it doesn’t work out that way, because — spoiler alert — we aren’t always logical creatures. In fact, even the best of us are egotistical in this problem. To many, the chance of getting off scot-free blinds them to the fact that their partner is likely thinking the exact same thing, so they turn on their friends in a heartbeat. Or, an even more cynical approach: they know (or fear) their friend will take the deal and rat, so to avoid getting beaten to the punch and serving five, they rat first. Either way, the Prisoner’s Dilemma gets resolved in a deeply illogical and counter-intuitive way. If the prisoners hope for the least unpleasant outcome, they should stay silent, yet their desire for the least unpleasant outcome is exactly the reason they do not stay silent.

The team game is a winning strategy. The individual game, the selfish game


So. What does it have to do with the election? I’m glad you asked!

Donald Trump is closing in on the Republican nomination like a wolf stalking a wounded squirrel. If things proceed on their present course, he will be the nominee, no question about it.

This, if you’re a Republican, is probably viewed as a bad thing. (Maybe not so much if you’re not; I don’t think there’s any way he wins the general, if he becomes the candidate.)

The remaining candidates, then, face a dilemma. They must decide what’s more important: an individual victory, vis-a-vis their own path to the presidency, or a party victory, vis-a-vis dropping out of the race and forming ranks behind one of their competitors.

The correlation isn’t a perfect one, but it’s pretty darn close.

You can insist that your opponents can’t win and that you’re the one to beat Trump, hoping your opponents will drop out and preserving your shot at the presidency. (The partner serves five, you serve zero.)

Or you can meet with your compatriots, choose a champion to fight against Trump, and concede your own chance. (Everybody serves one year, except for one lucky guy.)

Trump is winning a lot of support: taking states in last night’s primaries with as much as 40% of the vote. 40% is a plurality, but not a majority. The other guys are scrambling and stomping on each other for 25, 30 percent, or scooping up the scraps for 6 and 7. The difference is, people either love Trump or hate him. His 40%, if he dropped out, would probably not throw their support behind another candidate, nor is it likely that if another candidate dropped out, their supporters would jump on the Trump train. Supporters of other candidates don’t (I think) feel nearly so do-or-die about their guy, and will probably take the party candidate, whoever it is — especially if their first choice throws his support behind another. In other words, I can see Cruz supporters going for Rubio if Cruz were to drop out much more easily than I can see them going for Trump.

The solution? The Republicans need to cut the crap and form up behind one guy. If the candidates in the race sit back and take a hard look, it’s not hard to see a couple of candidates that need to go yesterday. Then the ones left standing need to have a good hard talk about who can possibly win an election in November.

But let’s not forget (as if we needed reminding) that we’re dealing with politicians. Egomaniacs to the stars. They know exactly what the situation is: a Republican field of five candidates ensures a Trump nomination. But each one apparently still believes that he (and none of the others!) is the guy to beat Trump. So you’re going to see each of them calling for the others to drop out of the race for the good of the party.

But none of them is going to drop out, because that would mean a personal loss.

Give up my shot at the presidency? Nonsense. The OTHER guys should drop out — this is MY race to win!

Everybody rats each other out, and everybody loses.

Except for Trump.

Prison, Jail, Detention, Fence, Wire


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