Friday, November 27, 2009

The GOP, Third Parties, and The Prisoner's Dilemma

The Prisoner's Dilemma is one of the great exercises in game theory. The classic definition (pulled from Wikipedia) is this:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

These choices can be summarized in the following table:

Prisoner B Stays SilentPrisoner B Betrays
Prisoner A Stays SilentEach serves 6 monthsPrisoner A: 10 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A BetraysPrisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 10 years
Each serves 5 years

The GOP presents its base with a similarly cruel choice. Only their most delusional Kool-Aid drinkers could call them the party of small government, minimal regulation, low taxes (deficits have to be paid for eventually), and personal freedom. They certainly have had their (brief) moments in certain areas - the Contract For America comes to mind (that lasted about two years) as did the Reagan presidency (which had several benefits at the cost of an increased national debt). One must keep in mind that Reagan was not in any way the choice of the GOP leaders - they wanted George H.W. Bush to be the 1980 nominee. So if one is a conservative or libertarian the GOP represents, at best, the lesser of two evils. There are other, smaller parties out there that would provide far better governance if brought to power, but the fear is that voting for them will split the vote and allow the Democrats to take control (and, ummm, how's that logic working for you right this minute?).

So our current State of the Union is thus:

Two prisoners voters are given a choice of parties. Each of these parties promises low taxes, small government, and personal liberties, but the large, dominant party is known to lie like a rug. If one voter votes according to their principles and the other cowers in fear and votes for the party they know will betray them, then the evil progressives win and they get 10% closer to socialism or fascism (take your pick). If both voters chicken out and vote for the Party of Betrayal, then they'll only get 5% closer to socialism / fascism. If both voters stick to their guns (in the most literal sense) and vote for a Party with Principles, then they are rewarded with 10% less government. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation election. How should the prisoners voters act?

Voter A votes GOPVoter A votes 3rd Party
Voter B votes GOPGOP wins - 5% more gub'mintDems win - 10% more butter / 10% less guns
Voter B votes 3rd PartyDems win - 10% more socialism / fascism3rd Party wins - 10% more freedom

One would think this is a no-brainer - Electing the GOP versus electing the Democrats gets you the same results, just not as quickly. To pretend otherwise is to engage in a spectacular display of willful ignorance of very recent history (take Bush - either one - please!). The only thing that keeps the GOP relevant is fear, and that fear is mostly irrational... but that's a topic for another post.

Update: If it makes you feel any better, the progressives feel the same way about the Democratic Party. It seems that nobody outside of DC is terribly well-represented.

Update 2: I've never gotten what exactly it is that causes a group of people who ostensibly fear and loathe the corruption that occurs when power is concentrated and centralized in Washington DC to be so willing to ignore and even go so far as to embrace the exact same phenomenon when it occurs in a political party.