Political oriented essays will also be published on my Daily Kos blog
Here is a question my good friend Jim and I posed as we were driving back from a camping trip: What does it mean if all the individual people (actors) in a system act completely rationally and make rational decisions but the sum of those rational decisions is irrational? What does that mean about the system that contains those individuals? It’s an interesting question somewhere in the overlap of economics and social psychology. Game theory might describe it with the classic problem known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Rather than trying to explain it, you can read it on wikipedia.
We were talking about the current congressional budget impasse, of course. But the prisoner’s dilemma only really describes the rationale for the actors’ decisions and the economic motives behind them. It says little about the system that would encourage or lead to individuals not acting in a way that is contrary to their better self-interests.
And yet, for the group of republican congressional representatives we refer to as the Tea Party, this seems to be exactly what is going on.
Like it or not, thanks to decades of gerrymandering we have a high percentage of very safe districts for both liberals and conservatives. If the primary reward for a congressional representative is re-election, then making decisions and voting in the way that best ensures re-election is the rationale thing to do. And thanks to citizen anger in parts of the land to Obamacare (nee: the Affordable Care Act), those Tea Party activist congressional representatives are acting in a way to ensure re-election.
I’m not going to argue the validity of the citizenry’s anger nor the representative blood-lust embodied within the Tea Party. There is plenty of analysis regarding the mis-information, subtle and not-so-subtle racial antagonism towards anything Obama. That’s for another day.
In Federalist Number 10, James Madison warns of the perils of factions and argues that the republican form of government, rather than a direct democracy, and shared powers between federal and state, would prevent fractious disruptions to the proper running of a government.
He was wrong.
The seeds of a civil war were sown in the hallowed constitution. And in addition to that war we have a history of factions disrupting the civil functioning of the government including the most recent Tea Party movement. Perhaps our founding fathers, as great as they were, were naïve to human behavior and believed too much in an Enlightenment Age view of civilization. Their high-minded ideals and philosophies assumed a level of compassion and working for the greater good, and that rational debate and science would lead us to greater knowledge. But those concepts are assumed, not well codified in the Constitution itself. The separation of powers was seen as sufficient (and revolutionary at the time) yet it has not successfully dealt with the recent passions of humankind and our descent back to superstitions and fears of science.
Now we have a minority opposed to a law passed by both houses of congress, signed by the President, and affirmed by the Supreme Court. This minority’s strategy to change the law is to shut down the government, throw people out of work, and end necessary services for the citizens they represent. If this were happening elsewhere in the world we would be debating whether to name it a coup or not.
And yet, this collection of individuals is acting rationally. Each is acting in the way most likely to achieve re-election. So when we start hearing reports that Republican congressmen secretly wish this would all just go away and pass the so-called “Clean Continuing Resolution” I can only conclude a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” like situation is in play. The best outcome for all would be for all Congressional Representatives to vote for the Clean CR and then get on with whatever they want to do to change Obamacare. But for that to happen, no one can balk and vote against it. As soon as the Tea Party wing suspects one will balk, they all must to show fealty to their constituents. And then, in fear, the rest of the Republicans do the same: Acting as rationally as the two prisoners in their dilemma.