Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Political Prisoner's Dilemma

Let's double back to Karl Nerenberg's take on the opposition parties' messages in Canada's federal election and point out how it relates to a classic decision-making hypothetical, the prisoner's dilemma.

In the case of the federal election, here's how the dilemma plays out for anybody whose primary goal is to see the Cons replaced. (And as in any of these types of discussions, I'll leave aside what I see as the important distinctions between the parties which ensure that I'm not in that group - while also noting that the parties themselves likewise have every reason to focus on their own campaign over other considerations.)

The NDP, the Libs and their supporters surely want to see a change in government. And the more resources the opposition parties collectively dedicate to challenging the Cons rather than each other in both values and campaign strategies, the more likely that is to happen.

But both parties also want to position themselves to win power in this and future elections. And the benefit of being the sole defector rather than the sole cooperator is obvious: a party which dedicates its resources to making the case against the Cons while leaving itself vulnerable to attacks from the other figures to end up in third place, watching the other take power as the reward for its relative selfishness.

Of course, the prisoners' dilemma involves an absence of communication and trust between the two affected parties. And there's where there could be a difference in the election campaign.

I've argued before that it should be possible for our opposition parties - or at least their supporters who want to see a change in government - to work on coordinating messages to keep Stephen Harper on the defensive and avoid themes which might benefit the Cons. 

And to be fair, most of the policy contrasts being drawn between the NDP and the Libs at least avoid reinforcing the Cons' values: a contest as to who's most progressive certainly doesn't lend itself to promoting a small-c conservative worldview.

But the campaign has been defined not by policy, but by parties throwing mud at whoever appears to be gathering strength at a particular moment - with an emphasis on blowing up any trust which might otherwise build up in any competing leader. And a recent window in which a few polls placed the Cons in third place seems to have started a particularly vicious conflict between the opposition parties which shows no sign of abating.

So what are options are available to ensure that a change in government is one of the positive outcomes of the election? I'll follow up in a bit more detail from both the party level and the individual level in future posts. But for now, suffice it to say that I'd hope we can agree not to be needlessly imprisoned in another term of Con government.


  1. At that, I see this as something of a failure of vision on the part of both parties and/or leaders. Because it's not as simple as the Prisoner's Dilemma framework makes it seem. Someone who, rather than trashing the other competitor, mainly just kept on calling out Harper's record (well, and of course talking up their own alternative), could potentially reap political rewards right now. I think there could be a significant benefit to being the leader seen as the real opposition to Harper.

    1. That's possible, but I don't think it's going to be easy for anybody to stand apart on that front. Mulcair and Trudeau have framed their primary messages around change including strong critiques of Harper - I don't see that having resulted in either winning credit for particular messages (including when the NDP's ads early in the campaign consisted of particularly strong challenges to Harper), and I'd suggest we notice the attacks between the opposition parties more more because they don't fit with the cause that isn't disputed between the two.

  2. Best result I see is an accord like the Ontario Liberal NDP agreement in the 1980s. One of the common policy areas would hopefully be electoral reform, so progressives don't need to agonize so much about choosing one left leaning party over the other by the next election.

    1. Really I don't think there's much preventing an accord on policy - the problem is that Trudeau has already made non-cooperation a matter of personal disdain, and the campaign surely isn't helping on that front.