Notes on the Prisoner’s Dilemma

October 2, 2013

I’ve just started reading Elinor Ostrom’s ‘Governing the Commons’ – the 1990 book summarising the research program for which she won a Nobel Prize in 2009. Ostrom’s work is interesting, empirically oriented, methodologically and theoretically eclectic, and I think provides a valuable set of resources for those trying to think about institution-building.

At the start of the book, Ostrom summarises three standard ways to understand the problem of commons governance, in the economics literature:

1) Garrett Hardin’s fable of the tragedy of the commons (written from a position of anti-population growth; Hardin is also a signatory on the notorious ‘Mainstream Science on Intelligence’ letter to the Wall Street Journal – that is to say, an advocate of scientific racism); though Ostrom (like others) draws attention to earlier figures who had described the same dynamic, such as H. Scott Gordon:

“Wealth that is free for all is valued by no one because he who is foolhardy enough to wait for its proper time of use will only find that it has been taken by another” (Gordon 1954, p. 124; quoted in Ostrom 1990, p.3)

2) The prisoner’s dilemma game. This is the famous game-theoretic scenario in which two participants have to choose one of two courses of action (cooperate or defect). The game scenario is set up such that if the other player defects, one is better off defecting; and if the other player cooperates, there is no disadvantage to defecting (though no advantage either). In this circumstance, it seems ‘irrational’ not to defect; but if both players defect, both players are worse off than if they had cooperated. In Wikipedia’s always-useful words:

“[The prisoner’s dilemma] was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma””

(I need to read all this work.)

3) The logic of collective action. In his 1965 book of this name, Mansur Olson writes:

“unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests” (Olson 1965, p.2,; emphasis in the original; quoted in Ostrom 1990, p.6)

I haven’t read Olson and can’t summarise his arguments; I should look at all of that too.

Anyway – Ostrom has various criticisms of all this: notably that these various analyses of commons governance typical presuppose given, immutable rules that determine the choices available to actors in these scenarios; but in actual social life the social rules and institutional frameworks within which we must make our decisions and take our actions are themselves also determined by our collective actions. To put things crudely: if we’re faced with a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, why can’t we do something about the prison?

I wanted to briefly mention another issue with the prisoner’s dilemma, and related models, though. In Ostrom’s words:

“those attempting to use these models as the basis for policy prescription frequently have achieved little more than a metaphorical use of the models” (Ostrom 1990 p.7)

The use of such models as metaphor, though, can have a specific ideological function beyond the occlusion of the possibility of institutional change. The basis of a prisoner’s dilemma or tragedy of the commons scenario, is a situation in which economic actors engage on more or less equal terms, and where it is indeed the case that absent cooperation no economic actor will be better off. This is what makes the ‘tragedy of the commons’ a tragedy, rather than simply the defeat of some actors by others.

In some commons scenarios, however, it may be (indeed it sometimes is) the case that some specific actor or actors, in taking the ‘defect’ strategy, will be better off in absolute terms. If a specific actor can benefit sufficiently from the extraction of resources from the commons, it may not matter if the commons is exhausted or destroyed in the process – the actor who benefits most may still be on top, relative to even the best-case ‘cooperative’ scenario. All else being equal, the greater the power differentials between the different actors (and the greater the resources to be appropriated), the more likely this scenario is. If we consider that actors can (in fact) move between different ‘commons’ extracting resources from each, and so an actor’s considerations don’t have to be restricted to the specific game we’re currently imagining, this scenario seems quite a bit more likely. (And, of course, there are plenty of examples of actual real-world resource depletion or appropriation that seem to fit this model very well.)

That is to say – this framing of the problem of commons governance can de-emphasise one central way in which such governance can fail: not lack of coordination, but simple domination. A full reckoning with the challenges of institution-building needs to take account of both of these issues (and many others).

I’m sure there’s lots of work that’s been done on this and similar scenarios – but I don’t know this work. I’d like to explore these issues – and, in general, I’d like to look at how power differentials can be given a more central place in this kind of modelling of economic phenomena.


Works cited:

Gordon, H. Scott. “The economic theory of a common-property resource: the fishery.” The Journal of Political Economy 62, no. 2 (1954): 124-142.

Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons∗.” Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research 1, no. 3 (2009) [1968]: 243-253.

Olson, Mancur. The logic of collective action: public goods and the theory of groups. Vol. 124. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press, 1990.

Wikipedia contributors, “Prisoner’s dilemma,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 2, 2013).


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