The limits of game theory in U.S. politics

Responding to an Intercept post apparently on the neoliberal (Democratic) party endorsing yet another so-called “centrist” (neoliberal) candidate, I posted,

I first encountered game theory in Robert Harms’ Games Against Nature in which he deployed game theory to explain a competition for resources among indigenous people, the Nunu, in equatorial Africa.[1] I was ill at ease with game theory but had to accept that it might well have had applicability in this case.

I have lost contact with Robert Hansen, a conservative who disapproved of my disdain for neoconservative John McCain, expressed immediately following McCain’s death. But I believe the post where I next encountered game theory was his, almost certainly on the now defunct Google Plus social network.

As I recall, Hansen described a role playing situation as a student somehow involving the distribution of money. The assumption underlying the situation was that each student would seek to maximize his or her gains. But Hansen’s goal was different: Hansen didn’t care about the trifling amount of money and instead sought to maximize his friendships and so astonished the game-theorizing professor.

And indeed, this is how you defeat a game theorist: You pursue a different goal from the one expected.

And so it is with the so-called Democrats, whom I prefer to call neoliberals. In a bipartisan political system, the foundational assumption is that each party seeks to win the maximum possible number of elected offices. But the neoliberal party in fact does not appear to do this. Sure, the neoliberal party is happy to win office, but its behavior is more consistent with a defense of neoliberalism,[2] as illustrated yet again with impeachment.[3]

I have pointed to the omission of articles of impeachment relating to concentration camps for migrants crossing the southern border of the U.S. with Mexico.[4] But Donald Trump’s presidency has consisted of a series of outrages, each often seemingly worse than the last, as if to divert attention from the one with another that is even more outrageous. So I have called Trump a “black hole.” There is no bottom to him; as he proceeds, he sucks the country lower and lower.

The widely held expectation of a president is that s/he should seek to unify the country and uphold the law. But many note that for our raging narcissist-in-chief, it’s all about him, and about maintaining the support of his largely authoritarian populist base. Many other observers are thus confounded because they cannot let go of their assumption of what a president should be.

Again, the game theorists of politics are defeated because Trump’s goal in fact actually more closely conforms to Hansen’s professor’s expectation, indeed the traditional game theory expectation, than it does their expectations.

This is the weakness of game theory as I have encountered it: It places too much weight on an assumption about goals, specifically that each player shares the same goals and will pursue them to the exclusion of other concerns. Harms affirmed a tragedy of the commons as he described an ecological destruction resulting from each individual’s pursuit of individual gain[5] that was very much at odds with my conception of indigenous societies living in relative harmony with nature. Harms would likely have been wrong had he attempted (he didn’t) an inference from his study of the Nunu people to most other indigenous peoples.[6]

The crucial lesson here is that no matter how seemingly sensible, assumed goals might not be universally shared.

I am not a game theorist. I here offer no predictions about the months to come. But watch this because the outcome may startle the chattering classes.

  1. [1]Robert Harms, Games Against Nature (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 1987).
  2. [2]David Benfell, “How the neoliberal (usually known as Democratic) party may well lose in 2020,” Not Housebroken, December 7, 2019,
  3. [3]David Benfell, “It’s still a smoke-filled room,” Not Housebroken, December 6, 2019,
  4. [4]David Benfell, “The whiteness of impeachment,” Not Housebroken, December 15, 2019,
  5. [5]Robert Harms, Games Against Nature (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  6. [6]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD, Altamira, 2008); William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 2008); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).

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