Voting for suboptimal

The prisoner’s dilemma is an age-old predicament. Two criminals are being interrogated separately for a crime they committed. Both have the option to either confess or not confess to the crime. While the best possible outcome would be for both of them to not confess and serve a short sentence at prison. However, both prisoners end up confessing and serving a much longer term, because in terms of payoffs it is their individual best response regardless of what the other does. By confessing there remains some scope that you might walk out free, and there is a risk that by not confessing you could end up with a life sentence. Both the individuals are playing to rational strategies and are risk averse, yet, we can see that socially the outcome is suboptimal. There exists another outcome where the payoffs would be much better for both the actors.

A closer look at electoral handouts can be an effective example to demonstrate how the prisoner’s dilemma plays out in election campaigns. Parties spend exuberant amounts of money on giving out freebies or distributing cash to voters in an attempt to appease them. The actual effectiveness of handout politics in gaining voter favour, or increasing voter turnout cannot be assessed. The free-rider problem could play out where people accept the gift but don’t burden the responsibility of voting for the candidate or party. So why continue to spend on handouts whose effectiveness cannot be assured? Parties have the choice to refrain from giving handouts altogether and avoiding the expenditure, so why engage in giving voters freebies. The answer lies in the fact that there is party competition. Parties tend to give handouts because they anticipate that other parties will also do so. Both parties are unaware of what strategies the other parties are employing to gain votes. Since they are blind to the actions the other party would take, they think it is in their better interest to give handouts just in case the other party might snatch voter loyalty by giving them some goodies. Instead, if the parties communicated and co-operated they would not have to bear the expenses and would gain votes in their favour based on the actual skill of the party in governance. We can see how this case represents a prisoner’s dilemma. An implication of more gravity is that the prisoner’s dilemma is distracting resources from actually strengthening representation of parties’ views and strengths in running the country. These resources could be used for planning policy better and recruiting officials to that cause. Rather, the competition is about who can trick the public better and who can one up each other.

I would extrapolate the analysis even further and suggest that political campaigning and advertising induces the prisoner’s dilemma. Be it slogans or advertisements, each party invests in the cause only because their competition is likely to do the same. Beyond just individual parties’ expenditure, consider how this can be dangerous when induced in the realm of policy-making. If policies or budgets are just retorts to electoral competition, the soundness of policies in actually improving the state of the nation can be put to question. For instance, the Congress’ attempt to provide a universal basic income for farmers seems to be an attempt to combat the BJP’s current success in gaining voter loyalty as reflected in poll prediction numbers. However, the concept of universal basic income has been highly debated in economics and the ability to implement it, economic consequences, budget modifications are concerns that haven’t been given their due importance.

When policies and campaign promises end up being anticipatory reactions to competition, the governments are going to fail to satisfy the wants of the populace for a better country. While competition is commonly held to increase efficiency, with parties working harder than ever to impress. Yet, socially the results are below optimal with no party managing to giving enough importance to their actual manner of governance. Hence, elected governments have often disappointed the public and been subject to scrutiny even if their campaigns were majorly successful. The prisoner’s dilemma is indicative of the immense yet unexplored scope left for better governance of this nation.


Sandhya is a first year undergraduate student who aspires to major in economics. Economics can unravel the relationships between all domains in society and therefore the subject and it’s scope fascinates her. Her idea of fun includes jamming out to K-pop, reading comics all day long and raving about cinematography.

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