Satyagraha

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Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Expediency

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vote-your-ideals-ralph-nader ELECTION 2016 can be a tragedy or not, depending on how we approach it.

I mean ‘tragedy’ here not so much in the colloquial sense of simply something bad, but in a more technical sense associated with game theory: a terrible outcome that develops almost inexorably, though it might have been easily avoided. (One example of a tragedy in this technical sense is the prisoner’s dilemma, about which I’ve written previously.)

The tragedy of 2016 would pit Hillary Clinton against some yet-unnamed Republic opponent, in a bitter struggle in which Hillary would win a close race, and where 99% of voters would vote Republican or Democrat, neglecting third parties (as in the previous two elections). The real loss would be to further engrain the two-party (and Wall Street) hegemony of American politics, with the result of further degradation of our economy, foreign policy, and quality of life. And, because nothing would change, in the 2020 and 2024 elections the same thing would happen again, and so on ad nauseam.

Let’s be honest. Hillary, while she might be arguably be marginally better than a Republican opponent, is per se not a good candidate for President of the United States (as even many more enlightened Democrats would agree). Beneath a veneer of concern for the welfare of the community is a huge amount of personal ambition, egoism, and arrogance. She is also beholden to corporate special interests, and eager to use war to benefit US commercial interests (as evidenced by her support for the vicious military ouster of Qaddafi in Libya).

Please understand, the point here is not to bash Hillary. Hillary, personally, is incidental to the main point. But her defects must be honestly noted in order to substantiate the real issue here: that many Democrats will vote for her knowing and despite these things.

What prompts this article is that the other day it occurred to me, in a sort of flash of insight, how this impending tragedy could and should be avoided. The concept relates to how we view what an election is, and what our duty and role as voters are.

The Power Theory of Voting

What I would propose is that there are two possible models or theories about what voting for a political candidate is all about. The first model corresponds to the status quo — what has happened in recent years and what will potentially happen again in 2016.

We’ll call this the pragmatic theory or power politics model of voting. By this view one sees voting as a means to exert ones personal force in an arena where all other voters, with various value systems, do the same. To the extent that this is a strictly pragmatic activity, it is a-moral: the end justifies the means. Such is characteristic of a Hobbesian society: the bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of each with all.

While at first glance this may seem a normal and obvious way for one to promote ones preferred social agendas, its basic wrongness — or wrongness in principle — can be easily shown by carrying the same principle to more extreme levels. If voting is supposed to be a pragmatic exercise of personal power, then one should logically use any means possible to sway an election towards ones desired end (so-called political realism). Mudslinging, propaganda, lying, or even cheating — casting two votes, bribing others, ballot-box tampering — are fair game. And, in fact, all of these have been used by both parties and justified based on the end justifies the means principle.

Yes people instinctively know these things are wrong. And this common knowledge calls into question the underlying principle: whether the legitimate and intended purpose of an election is in fact for people to attain an end or to exert selfish power.

I grant that the reader may not see where I’m headed at this point and the preceding statement may seem puzzling, but it will become clear momentarily.

The Idealism Theory of Voting

I wish to suggest that there is another viable and plausible approach one may take to voting. We’ll call this the Idealism theory. According to this view, an election is like a vast national opinion poll or referendum, in which each individual is asked, “What do you believe should happen? What are your true beliefs concerning fundamental political and social principles?” One then expresses ones true beliefs by endorsing the candidate whose platform is most similar to them.

Let’s note the great virtue of the Idealism model: unless voting is approached in this way, there is virtually no other means by which the collective Ideals of a society can find themselves ultimately expressed in political institutions and programs.

Voting is arguably the one and only chance you have as an individual to bring your deepest hopes, aspirations, and instincts to bear on the deeply important issue of constructing, however gradually, a more Just, Good, True, and Beautiful world. It is the only means by which the common moral vision of humanity can contest the juggernaut of blind social forces, Wall Street, and government corruption.  This voting your Ideals is an incredibly important, even a sacred task. You are God’s emissary in the social sphere, your vote a divinely appointed task.

But voting is mere egoism if conducted at the level of selfish pragmatism.

What would the Idealism model imply for the 2016 presidential election?

For Democrats, I believe those who vote according to Ideals and conscience would find the Green party candidate the best choice. For Republicans, the Libertarian or possibly Constitution party candidate would be the true and honest choice. Voting for these candidates, then, would manifest true Ideals, and contribute to the long term common good; voting expediently, against ones principles, for the Republican or Democrat status quo, Wall Street, pro-war candidates would be unethical.

Most of all, anyone who rejects US militarism in principle should not vote for any candidate who does not publicly denounce war. War is insane. Any candidate who does not publicly denounce war publicly announces their moral derangement. It is immoral in the utmost to vote for a morally deranged presidential candidate!

The Practical Value of Idealism

By Idealism here we don’t mean the starry-eyed, Pollyanna kind. Idealism in its finer sense — that which expresses our greatest aspirations and hopes — is the highest form of pragmatism. It is by the actualization of our Ideals that we become most happy and satisfied. Mere practical considerations, when detached from Ideals — and even more when they are antithetical to them — are self-defeating, because they ignore, deny, or even oppose the integral connection between moral virtue, truth, and happiness.

As tangible evidence of the practical value of Idealism in this context, consider this. If third-party presidential candidates, collectively, gained as little as 5% of the popular vote (in 2012 the number was 1.7%) , then in the next election we’d say greater respect paid to third parties. It would create pressure to include third-party candidates in the televised debates. The range of issues and options discussed during the campaign would be greatly widened. Suddenly, ideas like clean air or peace would become topics for public discussion again!

Further, if any individual third-party candidate received 5% of the vote — far from an unattainable result — that party would become eligible for federal campaign financing in the next election. A snowball effect would commence.

Thus, even beyond its moral implications and consequences, the level at which your vote becomes numerically meaningful — or even individually decisive — is much lower than you suppose. Yours could be the vote that pushes a candidate over this critical 5% threshold.

 

 

A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning even if we cannot at present say exactly what it is.

Here I would simply like to offer an example — a thought experiment, perhaps we could call it — that helps establish that human beings do have what can be properly called transcendent dignity.

Suppose, then, that some form of cosmic radiation were to kill all human beings on earth except one, but leaving all buildings, machines, plants and animals, etc., intact. Although this person would suffer aloneness, he or she would also be able to go anywhere and do anything. He or she could read every great book, see every magnificent building, painting, or sculpture, listen to every work of classical music ever recorded; visit every corner of the globe, see every magnificent spectacle of nature, learn about every animal and plant.   Let us add the further premise that this person could by some form of in vitro fertilization or cloning and advanced technology produce exactly one other human being to carry on after he or she died — so that the planet would always have one human being alive, and living the same kind of life.

What I propose is that the world would be a completely different and better place because of this one person. This single person would supply a depth and dignity to the world — a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual meaning — that would be absent otherwise.  Without this person the world might exist materially, but it would be spiritually and morally lifeless. In short, this example implies that the transcendent dignity of man is so great that a single human being is enough to supply moral, intellectual, and spiritual meaning to the entire universe!

The example also implies a moral mandate to give human beings the time, freedom, and opportunity to cultivate their higher nature. The hungry must be fed. But man does not live by bread alone. The European Parliament must also promote policies that allow man to nourish his soul.

A Transcendental Humanism

Plato-Aristotle-by-RaphaelSchool of Athens (detail)

school-of-athensSchool of Athens

I will also add that Pope Francis’ remarks about Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ were quite interesting.  They are worth quoting in full:

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens.” Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.

The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.

What the Pope is suggesting is a form transcendental humanism which integrates the spiritual and the material dimensions of man’s nature.  This philosophical view has a long history, and a name:  Idealism, or Platonic Idealism.   It also corresponds to the Integral or Idealistic cultural mentality described by Pitirim Sorokin.

It also needs to be clearly stated that modern humanism — which views man only in material and biological terms — does not affirm man’s dignity, but arguably reduces it.

Philosophers today, in Europe and elsewhere,  need to direct their attention to these issues.   As always, we must begin with a careful consideration of terms and definitions.   Conventionally a distinction has been made between a religious or spiritually based humanism on the one hand, and what is called secular humanism on the other.  This terminology immediately paints us into a corner, because it supposes that secular culture and institutions must exclude anything having to do with religion and spirituality.  But secular doesn’t actually mean non-spiritual — it only means, in this context, that which pertains to institutions that are public, universal, and not affiliated with particular religious institutions.  In other words, it is perfectly feasible to envisage a humanism that recognizes dimensions of human experience beyond the material, but which is public, universal, and suitable for incorporation into our civil and government institutions.  The actual contrast, then, is between a purely materialistic humanism — which defines man only in terms of biology and physical needs — and one that allows for elements of man’s nature which go beyond the merely material.

We can, in other words, have a humanism that is both secular and transcendent.  To articulate and develop such an integral humanism should be our goal.  The Dalai Lama of Tibet has made repeated pleas for a universal secular humanism based on such principles as compassion and social justice.  But this suggestion is not, at least as it has been generally interpreted, sufficiently distinct from a merely materialistic humanism: after all, other animals also have compassion for each other; there is nothing unique to man’s dignity in that he cares about the hunger and suffering of other members of his species.

Distinctly European is the Renaissance heritage of a humanism that is truly secular and transcendent.  This development came to a halt when Enlightenment rationalism pushed it aside.  Now that the perils of unbridled rationalism are evident, we must again seek the more balanced and integral view of man.  We can do this by re-examining Renaissance philosophy, and even more so the classical philosophical underpinnings of the Renaissance, especially Platonism.

Also noteworthy is that the theme of individual responsibility, which is easily undermined by state nannyism, has been repeatedly emphasized by papal communications.  For example, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio, states the following:

15. … Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.

In 1987, marking the 20th anniversary of Populorum progression, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.  The encyclical was critical of the so-called liberation theology which seeks to improperly prioritize man’s material advancement ahead of his moral and spiritual advancement:

Development which is merely economic is incapable of setting man free, on the contrary, it will end by enslaving him further. Development that does not include the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society, to the extent that it does not recognize the existence of such dimensions and does not endeavor to direct its goals and priorities toward the same, is even less conducive to authentic liberation. Human beings are totally free only when they are completely themselves, in the fullness of their rights and duties.

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Third-Party Protest Votes: The Key to Reform?

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Duopoly - Republican - Democrat t- 609x340
The fascist, Wall Street duopoly that controls Washington would be broken were even one local Democrat action group to issue a statement saying, “This election we will vote en masse for the Green Party candidate in protest, even if that means a Republican will win.”  Or were a Republican group to break ranks and vote Libertarian.

Until that happens, until someone, somewhere calls the bluff of the two parties, as long as the status quo parties can rely on people voting against the other party, no matter how rotten the candidate of ones own party is, nothing will change.

If the Democrats or Republicans were to lose even a single seat in the House or Senate because of third-party protest votes, they would immediately begin changing their platforms to win back voters.

Call their bluff.  There is no meaningful difference between a Wall Street Republican and a Wall Street Democrat.  Stop fooling yourself into thinking that you have to vote for one to prevent the other from winning!

Written by John Uebersax

September 25, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Demolishing the ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ Excuse for Voting Democrat or Republican

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congress-wide

ELECTION time is near upon us, and American politics is worse than ever. But let us at least accomplish this much: to retire once and for all the fallacy that says “I should vote for a useless Republican/Democrat candidate because he/she is a lesser evil than the useless Democrat/Republican candidate.”

This is both faulty and dangerous reasoning, and why is explained below.

At this point we all agree that the available Republican and Democrat candidates are deplorable. All pay allegience to the same aversive status quo, System, Wall Street establishment, power elite, or whatever else you want to call it.

“But,” so voters have mistakenly reasoned for the last several elections, “if the choice is between, say, a Democrat bandit who will support Obamacare and a Republican bandit will wants to take it away, clearly I should vote for the former as the lesser of two evils.” (And vice versa for Republican voters.)

The logical error is twofold:  (1) in supposing that there are only two choices; and (2) in failing to take a long-term perspective in the calculation of harms and benefits.

One has the option to vote for neither the Republican nor Democrat bandit.  If a third-party candidate is offered, then voting for that candidate will serve to protest against the status quo. Since the third-party candidate will not win, his or her platform is almost irrelevant. What matters is that you didn’t vote for either duopoly (Republican or Democrat) candidate.

Look at it this way.  There are three possible scenarios for the future:

  1. People continue to vote for slavishly for duopoly candidates, and Democrats win overall. Then our country faces 50 years of bad and worsening conditions due to an aversive social, political, and economic system.
  1. People continue to vote for slavishly for duopoly candidates, and Republicans win overall. Then our country faces 50 years of bad and worsening conditions due to an aversive social, political, and economic system.
  1. People vote for third-party candidates, or, alternatively, express disapproval by writing in other names on ballots. Then our country faces, say, from 4 to 10 years of bad conditions; BUT, positive change has begun. If 10% or even 5% of voters declined to endorse either two-party candidate, Republican and Democrat strategists would immediately take notice, and there would be pressure for their party platforms to become more realistic.

Therefore, by considering all available options and taking a long-term time perspective, the most ethical choice is to reject both mainstream candidates, and make either a third-party or write-in vote.  This applies even if a mainstream candidate pays lip to, say, campaign finance reform.  At present, even the most idealistic two-party candidate will vote in lock step with the party establishment, keeping us in scenarios 1 and 2.

Get over the illusion that we’ll see positive change in Washington in the next four or six years.  It isn’t going to happen.  Use your vote, then, to produce positive change in the longer term.

Written by John Uebersax

September 22, 2014 at 9:54 pm

The Moral Wrongs of Obamacare. Part 1. Entrenching the Medical-Industrial Compex

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I believe it is important to set down, in as methodical and systematic way as possible, the ways in which Obamacare is not only risky or potentially harmful, but actually something morally wrong.  Several times I’ve begun to write an article that does this, and each time had to quit as the task became simply overwhelming in scope.  It is a big issue, a huge one.  We’re talking about something that may constitute, both in what it is and what it may lead to, a fundamental restructuring of the system of American government and the nature of our society.  Yet, as many times as I give up and put the project aside, I feel dissatisfied for having done so and return to it again.

In part, what I face is what every person faces when, in a debate, they encounter the big lie.  The big lie is the tactic by which a party presents a falsehood so enormous, so outrageous, so utterly beyond the realm of plausibility, that it literally overwhelms the ability of the other party to refute it.  The opponent is simply flummoxed, bewildered by the sheer audacity.  The big lie changes the ground rules of a debate, transforming what should be an earnest attempt by two agents of good-will to find the truth, into something of bad-will.  The big lie is a power play, a trick, which seeks to win  by deceit and  subterfuge.

The big lie tactic therefore, is not used, or should not be, by decent people, either in debates between two people, or between groups of individuals in a social or political context.  However in the present case we are not debating an individual, nor groups of individuals.  We are ‘debating’ – in a broad sense of that term – a vast system, something intrinsically amoral.  It is a system like or analogous to the military-industrial complex, but something much greater; a system that includes our government, our political parties, Wall Street, multinational corporations, and our news and entertainment media.  Moreover, each of us is, to varying extents, consciously or unconsciously, part of this system.  Anyone who has a mutual fund or retirement plan with dividends linked to Wall Street profits, is, to some extent, part of this system.  This system is our opponent.  That it resorts to the big lie to sway public opinion is the least of our problems.

One reason the big lie tactic is so effective is that an opponent faced with the prospect of refuting it envisions how hard a task it will be, and simply gives up before trying.  Much as I might like to do that, I simply don’t see it at as an option.  The only alternative, therefore, is to try to make this daunting task more manageable by breaking into several smaller ones.  The present, then, will be the first of several installments dedicated to this.

Preliminary Remarks

Some preliminary remarks are in order.  First I wish the reader to know that I am most certainly committed to the principle of social justice – both in general, and in the particular matter of health care.  I *am* a health professional, and I chose that profession not to make money, but because helping people with health and psychological problems is in my nature.  It is my vocation (or, at least, one of my vocations).  In fact, it is precisely *because* I care about people’s health that I am opposed to Obamacare, which I see as ultimately harmful to public health. I have major political and economic concerns, also; but, frankly, I would be willing to overlook these were it not for the disastrous effects on public health.

Second, I should make clear that it is not Obamacare in particular that I am concerned about, but rather any attempt to place the healthcare system further under the management and direction of the federal government.  If a plan of universal health care administered at the level of local or county governments could be developed, I would have much less reason to object.  In any case, it is certainly not because the new plan is associated with President Obama that I object.  For me that is simply a term.

Third, I wish to clarify what I mean by “moral wrong.”  I mean this in the strictly technical sense of moral philosophy.  That is by “moral wrong” I mean (1) what is opposite or opposed to moral good; and (2) that which we therefore have a moral responsibility to prevent, change, or oppose.

Finally, it should be pointed out that I am not writing this out of any need or wish on my part to merely complain or criticize.  There is already too much emotionalism, antagonism, and partisan strife in society today.  I know better than to be part of that.  I am writing because I should.  I have many years’ experience in diverse facets of the health field, an insider’s perspective (including positions at
Duke University, Wake Forest University, and the RAND Corporation) and, it could honestly be said, a uniquely informed one.  Much as I might like to evade it, I have a civic responsibility to write about this.

These clarifications made, let’s proceed to the analysis.

Reason 1.  Industrial Medicine

The first and greatest reason why I see Obamacare as morally wrong is that it will consolidate and entrench the paradigm of modern industrial medicine in our society.

By consolidate I mean it will strengthen and make more prominent the model of industrial medicine, and those organizations and institutions that promote it, and it will drive out competing, non-industrial health paradigms.  By entrench I mean that, once consolidated, it will be extremely hard, almost impossible, at least for many years, to change that paradigm.  We will watch in anger and disgust as public health and healthcare deteriorate, and be powerless to change it.

By modern industrial medicine I mean the prevailing system by which medicine is practiced today, which emphasizes (1) domination of healthcare and policy by large corporations, (2) treatment rather than prevention; and (3) expensive rather than moderately or low-priced alternatives.

The modern paradigm of industrial medicine is inextricably linked with profit motivation.  The innovations in healthcare, the new products that emerge, are those which deliver the most profit to corporations.  The nature of the system is that there is every incentive to develop expensive, invasive interventions, and virtually none to produce less expensive and less invasive treatments.  The paradoxical nature of “health for profit” can be illustrated with a hypothetical example: if we had the technology to develop a pill that cured the common cold that cost .1 cent per dose, we wouldn’t do so.  There’d be no profit in it.  But if the same pill could be sold for $10, companies would be fighting tooth and nail to develop and market it.

Similarly, it is well within our technological ability to wipe out a global scourge like malaria; but this receives comparatively little attention, because it isn’t seen as profitable.  I don’t know the actual statistics, but wouldn’t surprise me if more money is spent in the US developing new versions of Viagra and Cialis than goes into anti-malaria research.

Malaria doesn’t affect public health in the US, but obesity does.  So do the effects of alcohol and tobacco use.  The effects of this deadly trio alone probably account for at least half of all hospital admissions in the US.  We have virtually an unlimited ability to prevent these problems.  Anybody can stop smoking.  Most obesity can be prevented by intervening in childhood.  But, again, it’s much more profitable to treat the outcomes of these problems than to concentrate on prevention.

This problem affects the very foundation of medicine, the culture of it.  It affects how physicians, nurses, and medical researchers are trained.  It affects undergraduate education.  By the time someone gets an MD or a research PhD, they are fully indoctrinated in this model.  It becomes difficult to think of health in any other terms.

As long as the federal government stays out of healthcare there is some hope for change.  We always have the potential for new ideas and innovators to arise at the grass-roots level, to demonstrate new paradigms, which catch on and influence others.  But the danger of Obamacare is that, in centralizing healthcare delivery, planning, and policy to an unprecedented degree, and laying the foundation for still further centralization, we make it much harder for the grass-roots kind of innovation to occur.  Instead, will have a massively top-down model of dissemination of technology and practice.  Centralized boards will review and approve only certain medical procedures, and will pressure all players to use these methods.  Further, it is the large corporations who will have the most influence in choosing these methods and designing policies.  Naturally these policies will lean towards  practices and a basic philosophy of medicine that produces the most profits.

It is not just the actual dangers outlined above that concern me.  Beyond these is the fact that we will be placing literally our lives under the control of a vast, amoral, non-human system.  We have already seen, over the last 50 or 60 years, what happens when we place national defense in the hands of such a system: instead of peace, which is the natural desire of every human being, we have perpetual war.  Our collective policy becomes utterly dehumanized, and inimical to each individual.  I do not see how we can expect anything different when we hand over control of our health to the federal government and profit-driven corporate system.

AIPAC is Anti-Semitic

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It appears that AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is hell-bent on getting the US into another war. AIPAC is the most powerful lobby in Washington.  By massive campaign donations and unscrupulous principles, they own virtually every member of Congress.  Every candidate must meet with them before running and win their approval — that’s an indication of their power.

In theory AIPAC is supposed to “inform” (i.e., pressure) Congress in ways that support the interests of the Israeli people.  That itself is somewhat questionable (remember George Washington’s warning about the dangers of foreign nations influencing our government.)  But what’s much worse, today AIPAC is a completely dysfunctional organization.  It exists now to perpetuate itself, and to protect the jobs of its staff.

War would be bad for Israel.  Assad has never attacked Israel, and probably never would.  With a regime change, anything could happen.  AIPAC is pushing for war because that’s the only thing they know how to do.  They’re good at it.  It’s all about inertia, power, and control.

In the final analysis, AIPAC is anti-Semitic, because it hurts Israel and hurts Jews. It takes advantage of the sympathies and good-will of American Jewish donors, who naively think they are helping Israel.  Instead they are feeding a monster.

Written by John Uebersax

September 6, 2013 at 11:03 pm

The Prisoners’ Dilemma and Third-Party Voting

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Prisoners Dilemma - Ohdaira & Terano

Does game theory explain why Americans don’t vote for third-party candidates?

Previous posts here have considered the tactics by which the Republican and Democratic parties collude to maintain a two-party hegemony in America  politics.  Lately it’s occurred to me that this problem can be understood as a special case of what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma (Rapoport, 1965).  Prisoner’s dilemma (PD), as we shall see, is a classic example of how two decision-making agents, both seemingly seeking to maximize self-interest, systematically make  harmful or suboptimal choices.  In the present case, the issue is that even though American voters would be better off voting for third-party candidates, there are structural reasons why they do not do so.  Looking at this problem in terms of PD can help identify the structural issues at work and suggest possible routes out of our present political impasse.

A few other people (e.g., John Sallet, and EvilRedScandi) have looked at  PD as a way to understand current political dynamics, but their concerns are somewhat different than the present one, which is how Republican and Democrat voters today are jointly in a prisoners’ dilemma.

First we’ll describe the basic PD paradigm.  Then we’ll show how this applies to reluctance to vote for third-party candidates.  Last and perhaps most importantly we’ll consider practical steps for reform that the model suggests.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

PD is a game theory paradigm that demonstrates how two decision-makers paradoxically fail to maximize either individual or joint interests.  Specifically, though their best strategy would be cooperation, they systematically choose non-cooperation.  The basic model can be understood with the following example:

Early one Saturday you and a college friend go hunting for ‘magic mushrooms’ in Farmer Brown’s cow pasture.  Farmer Brown sees you and calls police Chief Wiggum, who arrives promptly, arrests you and your friend, and hauls you both to the police station. There Wiggum places you in a room by yourself and proposes the following deal (he also tells you he will propose an identical deal to your friend).  The terms are as follows.  He asks you to sign a confession admitting that you and your friend were gathering the mushrooms with the intent of selling them (i.e., drug-dealing).  Then:

  1. If you confess, and your friend doesn’t confess, he will go to jail for 10 years, and you will get a 90-day sentence.
  2. Conversely, if your friend confesses and you don’t, he will get a 90-day sentence,  and you will get a 10-year sentence.
  3. If you confess and your friend also confesses, you’ll both be given 5-year sentences.
  4. If neither of you confess, Wiggum explains that he can still charge you and your friend with trespassing and put you both in jail for 30 days.

We can represent the dilemma with reference to a payoff matrix that considers each possible combination of choices and their consequences. You and your friend must each choose between cooperation with each other (not confessing), or defecting (confessing).  The days and years indicate the amount of jail time associated with each case.

Table 1. Classic Prisoner’s Dilemma

 Friend doesn’t confess
 Friend confesses
 You don’t confess
 you: 30 days
friend: 30 days
 you: 10 yrs.
friend: 90 days
 You  confess
 you: 90 days
friend: 10 yrs.
 you: 5 yrs.
friend: 5 yrs.

The best strategy here is clearly 4 — for neither of you to confess.   This is optimal both from the standpoint of selfish and altruistic motivation.  The paradox is that people in this situation predictably end up in scenario 3 (confess/confess). So  both of you go to jail for 5 years, when you both could have gotten off with 30-day sentences.

The pernicious aspect of PD is that this happens almost inevitably. Why? It has to do with what game theorists call the principle of dominance.  Relative to Table 1 that means that whatever your friend’s choice  is – that is, whether you’re looking at column 2 or column 3 of the table – your self-interest is maximized by defecting; thus, the strategy of defection is said to dominate that of cooperation.  And similarly for your friend.  Therefore, paradoxically, if maximizing self-interest is the only consideration, both of you will  defect, and neither will  maximize self-interest.

A detail is that although we’ve explained the dilemma in terms of various punishments, the crafty allocation of positive incentives, alone or in combination with negative incentives, can have the same effect. So, for example, Chief Wiggum can sweeten the deal with a bribe.  He could offer to give you or your friend say $100 if the one defects and the other doesn’t.

An important extension of the model is iterative PD, where two agents are presented with the dilemma multiple times.  Many researchers have studied iterative PD experimentally, e.g., seating two volunteers at computer terminals and repeatedly asking them to cooperate or defect, awarding payoffs (e.g., M&Ms, poker chips, money) each round.  A variety of player strategies are seen.  Sometimes players converge on cooperation, sometimes not. One not uncommon outcome is a tit-for-tat dynamic, in which players cooperate for a while, but if one defects, the other player retaliates by defecting in the next round, and this may go back and forth many times.  In any case, the iterative PD corresponds to our national elections, which occur at regular two or four-year intervals.

Third-Party Voting

Let’s now see how this applies to third-party voting. Our initial premise is that, while one might suppose that the Republican and Democratic parties are competitors, they’re really a duopoly.  Both serve the same ruling powers. They thus represent a single agent, which we might call Wall Street, the System, the Establishment, etc.  Whatever we call it, it corresponds to the role of the interrogator in our PD.

The role of you and your friend correspond to a given Republican and a given Democrat voter, or perhaps groups or Republican and Democrat voters.

The essence of the third-party voting PD is that it is in the best interests of both Republican and Democrat voters, individually and jointly, to replace or radically reform the present two-party duopoly.  Unless or until the two big parties nominate better candidates, the logical solution is for large numbers of citizens to vote for third-party candidates.  The paradox is that voters are not doing this, but are choosing to keep the aversive two-party system in power.

This happens, we propose, because of how the ruling powers structure perceived payoffs, both by their selection of candidates and by party platforms.

Here PD makes an unexpected prediction. Common sense might suggest that to win office, a party should nominate candidates who (1) appeal to its own voters, but also (2) are either somewhat attractive, but in any case not terribly offensive to voters in the opposite party. That way some voters in the opposite camp might switch votes, or perhaps may feel it’s not important to vote at all.  In either case, the party’s chances of winning are improved.

However if we grant that the Republican and Democrat parties are controlled by Wall Street and colluding with each other, PD implies that they will follow an opposite strategy, namely to nominate candidates who are frightening or even detested by voters of the opposite party. In such a fear- or anger-driven campaign, fewer voters will break ranks, believing that the opposite party must be prevented from winning at all costs.  All votes will be cast for the two big parties – precisely as Wall Street wants.

To further encourage voters not to break ranks, each party also offers positive incentives in the form of platforms and campaign promises:  for example universal health care or gay marriage by the Democratic party, or tougher immigration laws and Second Amendment protection but the Republican party.  But, again, PD would predict that parties would be especially keen to offer incentives that are hated by voters of the opposite party.

Table 2 presents the PD that Republican and Democrat voters faced in the 2008 presidential election.   (Cooperation here means voting for a third-party candidate, and defection means voting for the nominee of ones own party.)

Table 2. 2008 Presidential Election as Prisoners’ Dilemma

 Dem. voter cooperates  Dem. voter defects
 Rep. voter cooperates  Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony rejected
 Obama/Biden win,
‘Obamacare’
 Rep. voter defects  McCain/Palin win,
More guns
 Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony affirmed

If we suppose that both main parties represent Wall Street and are ultimately inimical to the interests of the public, the best strategy for Republican and Democrat voters is to vote for some third-party candidate.  That won’t change the power structure immediately, but over the course of two or three elections sufficient momentum may build to make a third-party candidate competitive.   If nothing else, this may force the two big parties to become more responsive to citizens.

However what is happening instead is that voters are afraid to do this.  So, to consider the 2012 presidential election, despite the disillusionment of many Democrats with Obama, and the unattractiveness of Mitt Romney to many Republicans, the combined votes received by all third-party candidates amounted to less than 2% of the total.

Practical Implications

Viewing third-party voting as a PD suggests specific strategies for extricating American voters from their current predicament.  Several, but not all, of these strategies relate to improving the perception of payoffs so that cooperation, i.e., voting for third-party candidates, is more appealing. Specific strategies include the following:

Accurately perceive costs of non-cooperation. The ultimate problem is that Democrat and Republican voters are not accurately considering the costs of maintaining the two-party hegemony and the benefits of electing third-party candidates.  If the true costs and benefits were salient in our minds, we would more eagerly vote against the abusive and arrogant Republican-Democratic party establishment.

Our social problems today are many and serious:  the economy is moribund, rates of unemployment and foreclosures intolerable, college tuitions insanely high, the environment is being destroyed, civil liberties disappearing; the country is engaged in perpetual war, and a spirit of divisiveness and antagonism dominate.

Less often considered, but perhaps even more important are the ‘opportunity costs’, i.e., besides these negative things, what positive things are we missing out on because of our dysfunctional and aversive government?  Objectively considered, America has sufficient natural and human resources to construct a veritable utopia;  we could eliminate poverty, grant free higher education and health-care for all;  we have enough land to let everyone live in their own houses on their own property in environmentally friendly and attractive communities.  Indeed, the blessings of nature generally, and in our country particularly, are so great that it seems we must make a concerted effort to avoid constructing such a prosperous and congenial society.  We need a clearer vision of how good life could be were we only to stop punishing ourselves with the present inimical political system.

How can we gain this vision? Surely we still have individuals with the imagination and skills to lead. We must develop and empower these natural leaders and intellectuals.  One obvious means of doing this is to reform our higher education system, which, by now neglecting liberal studies and humanities in favor of teaching technical and money-making skills, is discouraging the emergence of a more utopian vision of society.

We can also promote voter cooperation by applying more skepticism and critical thinking to the promises of Republican and Democrat candidates.  For example, a Democrat candidate may well promise universal health care, which sounds very attractive at face value, but ought to raise many obvious questions about its feasibility or unintended side-effects.  Would government-run health-care produce an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy?  Would the government give too much power to pharmaceutical companies?  Are there cheaper and better alternatives, such as a greater emphasis on preventive medicine and healthy living?  Subjected to greater scrutiny, the promises of the two parties can be seen as empty, or in any case far less attractive than the kind of society we could obtain by having a government based on citizens’, not corporations’ interests.

Long-term perspective. Clearly another way to acquire more a accurate perception of the payoff structure, so as to better see the benefits of cooperation by voting for third-party candidates, is to adopt a long-term perspective.  A bias favoring immediate wishes over long-term welfare is, of course, a fundamental problem of human nature.  But the problem is especially great in politics, where demagogues and news media specialize in appealing to voters’ short-term interests.   In any given election, the short term benefits promised by Republican and Democrat candidates may seem attractive to their respective constituencies, but over the course of 10 or 20 years alternations of policy and failure to pursue any consistent course is disastrous.

Collectivize utilities.  By collectivizing utilities I mean for individual citizens to recognize their own best interests and those of their fellow Americans are intimately connected.  We are a highly interdependent society.  Ultimately, social injustice or unfair distribution of wealth harms everyone.  If one segment of the population is oppressed or excluded, or their views ignored, then at the very least their contribution to society will be lessened, and this hurts everyone.  Moreover, eventually an oppressed or underserved group will gather sufficient energy to redress the wrong by political action.  Whatever is at the basis of the ideological split between Republicans and Democrats, the current political dynamics operate as a negative feedback system: as one group gains successive victories, opposing pressure builds until a reversal occurs.  Thus victories are often short-lived, policies flip-flop, and no sustained course is pursued.

Consider higher-order utilities. The utility calculus of voters is such that typically only material values – jobs, benefits, taxes, etc. – are considered.  Americans have bought lock, stock and barrel the political lie that “it’s the economy, stupid”, i.e., that all success and value of our society is measured by the GNP.  This does not reflect the true value structure of human beings.  We are not merely material creatures, but moral and spiritual beings as well.  It is an undeniable fact that people feel good and experience more happiness and satisfaction when they practice generosity, altruism, benevolence, charity, and justice.  Add to this that no amount of material benefits can outweigh the disadvantages of citizens being constantly at each others’ throats.   In an authentic utility calculus, higher-order utilities have to be considered; and if they are, the payoff much more clearly favors cooperation among voters and rejection of the two-party hegemony.

Third-party platforms and rhetoric.  Third parties must confront Americans with the price being paid for two-party totalitarianism and emphasize that a better future is obtainable.

Voter pacts. Beyond changing perceptions of payoffs, there are active steps that people in a prisoners’ dilemma can do to win the game.  Perhaps the most obvious is for the two players to anticipate the dilemma and form a pact beforehand.  For example, with regards to Table 1, you and your friend could agree beforehand, “If we’re caught, we both promise to assert our innocence.”  This solution is enhanced by establishing or improving trust, affection, and bonds of unity between the two players.

In theory, individual Republican and Democrat voters could pair up with a member of the opposite party and agree to vote for third-party candidates. A website might be set up for this purpose.  While this is sensible and ethical, I believe that at least certain forms of voting pacts have been ruled illegal, and one website dedicated to this was forced to close.   Nevertheless this principle could doubtless be applied in ways that are unambiguously legal, or at least such that contrary prohibitions would be unenforceable.

Bargains could also be made at the level of institutional endorsements.  For example, two newspapers, one liberal and one conservative, could make a pact to endorse third-party candidates.

Opting out. Finally, citizens might opt out of the dilemma in various ways.  I would personally not advocate failure to vote as a means for this, although some suggest it.  Protests, demonstrations, or even strikes might be used to pressure the Republican and Democratic parties to reform their platforms and supply better candidates.  Another possibility is to hold alternative elections run by the citizens themselves with candidates of their own choosing.  Such elections would have no legal status, but they would have symbolic value, would permit realistic debates about policy, and encourage trust and camaraderie amongst citizens.

These are only representative suggestions.  How feasible or effective any of them would be remains to be seen.  The main point here has been to suggest that PD is an appropriate paradigm for looking at the current two-party stranglehold on American society and understanding how to encourage third-party voting.   I would like to encourage others, including social scientists, to consider this topic more, as I believe the model is apt and probably contains more theoretical and practical implications than have been considered here.

Post-script

Writing this article helped me to see the more fundamental problem: American society generally is an n-way prisoners’ dilemma. When people view society as merely a ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition, they ‘rationally’ choose to maximize self(ish)-interest. But selfishness only pays off when other people act unselfishly.  When everybody acts selfishly, everyone loses; thinking you’ll win by acting selfishly is an illusion.

Each person is better off when everybody cooperates. This is more than an ethical maxim, it’s demonstrated by game theory.

Further Reading

Rapoport, Anatol. Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation. University of Michigan, 1965.

Uebersax, John. S. ‘The Commission on Presidential Debates: A National Scandal‘.

Uebersax, John. S. ‘Game Theory and the American Two-Party Racket’.

Uebersax, John. S. ‘The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable)’.

Uebersax, John. S. ‘Why Vote Third-Party?’.

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