The rules of the game

I came across this interesting piece at the Economist – essentially, arguing that Obama should respond to the Republican hostage taking over the debt ceiling by doing exactly the same thing. Taking his own hostages.

The author lays it out as a logical argument, and at some level it feels as though it is. If your opponent is refusing to moderate their demands and is making extreme threats, perhaps your only option, or an optimal response, is to respond in extremes.

But at the same time I think this train of thought elides a larger point, which has been picked up by various commentators, on how crazy this Republican strategy is. [I should add at this point that although I do think the Republicans are on the wrong side of the argument, my point here isn’t primarily about the politics of that two-party system as such]. I’ve been mulling it over for some time, and I don’t think I’ve seen it clearly articulated anywhere, although I’d love to hear of sources that I’ve missed.

Essentially, there’s a ground set of rules in any negotiation/game/system like this, and to ignore them, to abuse them, to exploit them can mean winning in the short term, but ultimately it destroys the game. Because the Republicans may win politically out of this (even if it seems unlikely at the moment), and it may give them an advantage. But in the next round, they may face an opponent who’s also willing to destroy the game for the sake of winning. After all, if they don’t they simply won’t get a look in. I have no idea what the political situation in Australia will be like for the next three years, but there’s some possibility that it’ll feature an opposition that’s as negative as the last one, focusing more heavily on simply throwing sand in the gears – for whom bipartisanship is, by definition, a bad thing.

I think it’s easy, in the confines of a structured political framework that’s existed for centuries, to take that framework for granted. To see it as a set of constraints that will always be there, that will always exist, regardless of how you abuse them. But the reality is that if government stops working, there are real world consequences.

The cloture/filibuster issue in the US is one that I don’t want to get into, but it strikes me that even though the level if filibuster deployment in the current Senate is exceptional, it’s been going on for a while. And there’s a lot of context there, and perhaps that is the wrong example, but it strikes me that fundamentally, once you have played with the filibuster once, and used it to block your opponent, it’s an obvious move for your opponent to use it equally as much, and a little more. And from there you descend into gridlock.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that fundamentally, for the system to work, to be sustainable over generations, I think people working in, using the system, on both sides, have to think that the system, and its preservation by adhering to the rules, is more important than their own issues. It’s something like the concepts that Jonathan Rowe was getting at in Our Common Wealth, however much I was disappointed by the actual book. If you want the system to work, you have to play by the system – and sometimes, that means walking away from wins that you could have by damaging the system a little bit.

I know there are counter arguments, and I suspect if I were in a position where it was relevant I’d want to deploy the same tactics, to win at all costs. And there are a whole set of questions about how people buy into a system, and how the rules of the game are agreed. But I just think in this winner takes all political focus, we’re losing sight of the larger issue, which is how we make our systems work.

UPDATE: On the topic of what is and isn’t inside the rules of the game, I liked this post by James Fallows.

UPDATE: And, again from James Fallows – this excellent quote from one of his readers.

The functioning of our country depends upon consensus as to its institutions and underlying processes; and that there are boundaries that you do not cross, because to do so would harm the foundations of the institutions. 

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