Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Politics: A Game of Prisoner's Dilemma

In the classic scenario of Prisoner's Dilemma, two prisoners who are co-conspirators are kept in separate cells. Each of them is promised leniency if he agrees to testify against the other. If the other testifies against the one who stays silent, then the prisoner loyal to his friend will get the harsher sentence.  If both of them refuse to testify, both will be set free. So it is a matter of trust -- can I trust you? Will you betray me? In this way, the authorities pit people against one another. Those who trust unwisely will get a harsh sentence. Those who trust and can be trusted will be set free. But those who betray trust will do better than those who are too trusting. So the lowest common denominator prevails. If one person breaks, all is lost.

Photo Credit: Anna Shoemaker of Elleimaging.com
Austin Petersen, Lauren Turner, Resa Willis, Aya Katz
In a democracy, the same game of prisoner's dilemma is played out over and over again. People are told not to vote their conscience, not to consider what would happen if the candidate of their choice won -- but to avoid the result of having the worst possible candidate come to rule over them. They are told to betray their principles in order to avoid a harsher punishment. And so over and over again the electorate betrays itself as the voters attempt to outsmart each other.

When we go to the polls to vote, most of the important decisions have already been made for us. It's too late to make any difference. The choices on the ballot were selected for us by people behind closed doors. Or rather, they were chosen for us by the political parties, at their conventions. So if we want to have a voice in the choice that everyone else gets, the place to be is at the national convention of the party of our choice. That's why I went to Orlando for the Libertarian National Convention at the end of May.

A Scene from John McAfee's party
Inside the Rosen Centre Hotel, a group of diverse libertarian delegates met to choose a presidential and vice presidential nominee, as well as to fill national party offices, such as chairman, vice chair and secretary.

Some of the presidential candidates at the Libertarian National Convention were running to win, Others were running in order to get across some kind of veiled message. Judd Weiss, John McAfee's running mate, told us these images were his "artistic vision", after he conceded and announced he was not running for VP after all.

Do people behave better when they are trying to form a coalition with somebody else? Or does coalition formation always result in something much worse than what each faction wants?

Sometimes the idiosyncrasies of various participants can come out in the wash of a general coalition. But at other times the idiosyncrasies are magnified. Take John McAfee, for example. He threw the festive pre-debate party depicted in the video below, which featured strobe lights, psychedelic music and women on stilts.

These same women on stilts were present at the convention floor while McAfee gave his nomination speech. What did these women symbolize? And why, after we all lost, did McAfee scold the delegates for being all white males, when this was patently untrue?

Running to win or running to make a point, each candidate had a motive. This interview contrasts John McAfee with Austin Petersen.

In the interview above, McAfee says right from the start that he has no intention of winning the presidential race. Austin Petersen, when he gets a chance to speak, talks about polling and about support from outside the Libertarian party. Petersen, if granted the Libertarian Party nomination, would have run a campaign intent on winning the White House. But in order to win, he needed the nomination of his party. When CNN interviewed Austin Petersen, we his loyal supporters, were right there in the room while he explained his plan to form a cross-party coalition.

"I think I am the only candidate who can bring together a coalition of not just Libertarians, but of the NeverTrump conservatives and the NeverHillary social Democrats."
Meanwhile, Governor Gary Johnson was the favorite of the party establishment and of moderates who did not really espouse libertarian ideals, but were firm on a couple of popular issues: legalizing marijuana and establishing gay marriage on the Federal level through protected class membership.

I have already written about all my experiences at the convention here:


I don't want to dwell on why it was that so many Gary Johnson votes appeared at the last moment, clinching his nomination. But in this blog post, I want to examine what it means to us as libertarians -- or simply as voters -- that coalitions seem always to go to the less principled member of the party. Rather than examining the motives of Gary Johnson and his followers, I want to dwell on what happened with our would-be allies who shared more of our core beliefs. Together, all those who did not vote for Johnson on the first ballot had a majority of the vote. All of us preferred someone else to Gary Johnson. Why could we not band together behind a candidate who shared our core values? Why did John McAfee not bow out when he saw that he could not win? Is it because he never intended any of us to win?

In the game of prisoner's dilemma that we call democracy, the failure to support a fellow prisoner is the cause of continued imprisonment for all. How can we ever break out of this game, unless we violate the NAP? Didn't the Founding Fathers do that?

There is one other way besides perfect faith among inmates to get out of prison. We don't have to play by the rules of the Prisoner's Dilemma scenario. We can just break out!  But that is hard to do without killing the guards. Must it come to that? What was McAfee hoping for when he broke faith with our cause?


  1. Has Petersen considered running on his own party platform since he has some supporters. He might not make it this time, but perhaps raise awareness for his candidacy come the next election.

    1. If you means that he should start a party of his own, leaving the Libertarian Party, I don't think that's a good idea, nor is it something he wants to do. He has promised to support Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party's nominee, and as Petersen is a man of honor, that is what he will do. It has taken the Libertarian Party decades to get where it is today, with the possibility of 50 state ballot access within reach. We have to find ways to build meaningful coalitions within the party, rather than split off every time something goes wrong, because otherwise we can never achieve anything. But Austin Petersen will run again! I think he has a great future before him. I'm just sad for those who cannot be saved by a Petersen presidency this year.

    2. He seems like a real candidate who cares. I do not agree with him on a lot of things, but I do like that he is open to people doing what they want to do with their lives. He seems more like a true Libertarian.

    3. The Libertarians are on the ballot in California. All their candidates ran. I am interesting to see who got the highest support in the primary last night. I was not registered Libertarian, but I am considering voting for Gary Johnson come November. I know he is not your favorite choice, but seems better than if Hillary and Trump are our only choices.

    4. Yes, do vote for Gary Johnson if your conscience tells you he is right for the job. I think it is important to do that.