I try to think of debates over governmental policy as being sort of like arguments over how to drive.
When driving, there are lots of complaints you can make as a backseat driver: e.g., depending on the conditions of the road, the obstacles ahead, and the needs of people in the car, and so on. If someone in the car is bleeding to death, then it may be reasonable to complaint that the car is going too slow; if, on the other hand, the driver is not very skillful or attentive, then it might be reasonable to advise against speeding. On this analogy, reasonable criticism has to be contextual. For instance, only a total weirdo would categorically say, “Hit the brakes!” in every context, unless they’re not in a hurry to go anywhere.
On this analogy, deficit spending is like hitting the gas, and balancing the budget is hitting the brakes. Saying “I’m a fiscal conservative” in politics is like saying you’re a Brakeist in cars. It isn’t a minimally intelligible policy position until you give a little rundown of things going on around you — the places you think we want to go, the needs of the people in the car, and the obstacles ahead, and so on.
I think it’s safe to say that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is the single most famous illustration of game theory that is out there.
Most of the time, you’re only asked to imagine two rational actors, each deciding whether or not to defect on their partner. But now suppose that you have more than just two actors — suppose, instead, that there is a whole population of people, who constantly meet up and get thrust into the drama of a prisoner’s dilemma.
Further, let’s suppose that these actors have different strategies when they interact. Some folks always cooperate; some always defect. Some will cooperate so long as their partner did last time; others remember being betrayed and hold a grudge. Some are sado-masochists, who will loyally cooperate with those who have punished them sometime in the past; others are cowards, who will only cooperate with those who punished them recently. And some just cooperate or defect randomly. (For fun, you can get a handle on these strategies by imagining they are characters from Batman.)
Using these models, what kinds of strategies do we think will win out in the long run? Do nice guys (“cooperators”) finish last — or does crime really pay? Is it better to forgive, or to be ruthless? Using computer simulations, we can find out! Here are some interesting results from an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, simulated using the Netlogo software.*
So that’s interesting. Now what happens if a population — a culture — is dominated by one strategy?
Going by the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, I would argue that the punishment world is, perhaps, the best of all possible worlds. Granted, it isn’t as prosperous as altruism world, but it is a world where you do reasonably well and have an incentive to be good. So perhaps Gene Roddenberry had it right.
* Hat-tip: Daniel Little. Uri Wilensky programmed the initial scenario. I added two new strategies, the ‘coward’ and ‘sado-masochist’.
UPDATE: Some of these results are not replicated by Lasse Lindqvist’s model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.