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Andrew Steele

Parliament without a cause Add to ...

The current crisis in Ottawa has been compared to a game of chicken . There is actually an extensive literature in game theory in "chicken" and while this is not a true example, it still holds some lessons.

Game theory defines "chicken" or " hawk-dove" as a two-player game where both players would mildly prefer the other to yeild, but where neither yielding is the worst possible outcome.

The best illustration of Chicken was in the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause . Dean and another boy drive their cars off of a cliff, and the first one to jump out before the vehicles tumble off the precipice is the "chicken."

The cost of jumping first is real: shame. But it is also far more mild than the alternative: burning to death in gasoline filled wreckage. A reasonable person would leap from the car instantly. But would they, once they realize the other player is also reasonable and should jump early as well? The result is a stand off of rapidly escalating danger.

One of the strategies is to reduce ones own options. For instance, in the driving game of chicken where the cars head towards each other, the player can ostentaciously disengage the steering mechanism so he cannot swerve away. Then it is the other player who must swerve.

Unfortunately, options can also be reduced in such as way as to force a player into the disaster outcome. In Rebel Without a Cause, the second driver's jacket gets caught on the car and he cannot leap out before the car falls over the edge. His options were reduced as well, but in a way that forced him alone into the disaster; the only question is if poor James Dean would follow him to his death or leap first and be the chicken.

This last scenario illustrates the potential for outcomes that are lose-lose in the chicken scenario without being disasters for both sides.

The British liberal philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote at length about the game of chicken, comparing it to the brinksmanship of the cold war.

Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls 'brinkmanship'. This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practised by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called 'Chicken!'. It is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves from the white line before the other, the other, as he passes, shouts 'Chicken!', and the one who has swerved becomes an object of contempt. As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked. But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage, and only the statesmen on the other side are reprehensible. This, of course, is absurd. Both are to blame for playing such an incredibly dangerous game. The game may be played without misfortune a few times, but sooner or later it will come to be felt that loss of face is more dreadful than nuclear annihilation. The moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of 'Chicken!' from the other side. When that moment is come, the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.

While the world avoided the disaster scenario in the 40-year long game of chicken known as the Cold War, our parliamentarians might not be so lucky.

There are two reasons why.

First, this is a more complex game than simple chicken. There are four principle players, not just two. All three opposition leaders must vote down the estimates to force an election. Stephen Harper has to ignore Michael Ignatieff's demands to partially trigger his loss of confidence. That multi-dimensional game results in far more opportunities for miscommunication, with six one-one-one relationships involved, not just a single other player to worry about.

The more difficult question is the variable costs. In chicken, both players stand to face similar penalties for yielding and similar outcomes when no one yields (in the classic example, shame or crash.)

In the current crisis, the downsides are difficult to weigh because of the fog of an election. But they can be roughly calculated.

Reasonably, the Liberals can be expected to gain seats, probably between twenty and fifty, but possibly more. The most likely outcome of the election for the Liberals is a larger caucus, but short of holding enough seats to dislodge the Conservatives as the government. This is no disaster, as Michael Ignatieff's control of the party mechanisms and grassroots would probably mean a second election in his future, barring a catastrophe.

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