Features Australia

Conservative game theory. Is it nuts?

My response to Gerard Henderson

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

4 December 2021

9:00 AM

‘For a sitting US President to see our [Nato] allies [none of whom, save Britain, come close to meeting their treaty-mandated defense spending obligations as a percentage of GDP] as freeloaders is nuts.’: former US Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, who resigned in 2018 due to differences with then President Trump.

‘This statement [that voting for the Coalition next year would be almost as detrimental to conservatives as voting for Labor] is just, well, nuts from a political conservative point of view.’: Gerard Henderson in the Weekend Australian, 27-28  November, disagreeing with last week’s lead editorial by Rowan Dean.

I will leave establishment swamp-dweller James Mattis’s reputation to others and to history, though it seems plain to me that the sort of military brains that brought you the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, genuflections to Saudi Arabia and Russia, and a Nato arrangement under which no other main countries save the US and Britain pull their weight are ones that have not covered themselves in glory these past couple of decades. If it is ‘nuts’ to expect the democratic countries of Europe to do something other than virtue-signal, preach to others, buy oil from Russia and operate a supranational EU behemoth whose internal democratic credentials are frankly exiguously modest, all while demanding that the US use its treasure and soldiers to defend it, well call me ‘nuts’ too.

And that brings me to Gerard Henderson, conservative commentator, founder of the Sydney Institute and generally good friend to the right side of politics. He and I would agree far more than disagree. And yet, not so here. When it comes to our sainted Speccie editor’s points last week about not wanting ‘to reward the increasingly left-leaning Liberal-Nationals government’ in next year’s election, if that makes Outsider Extraordinaire Rowan Dean ‘nuts’, then please let me into that same ‘nuts, deranged, certifiable’ club too. In fact, the point Rowan was making last week is one I’ve been making for a few years now, ever since the Turnbull-orchestrated (and let us not forget, Scott Morrison-aided) defenestration of Tony Abbott. It boils down to this. In a world of dynamic, repeated interactions, sometimes it is a mistake to judge what to do based only on one single case or transaction. Signalling matters. You see this most clearly in game theory. There is a game where one party gets a chunk of money, say $100, and that person decides how much to give the other person. That second person merely gets to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If it’s the latter then neither party gets a cent. Now in a world of rational economists if you, the second person, were offered even a few cents you should take it. It’s free money after all. But in a world where you will interact with that first person in future that would be a terrible mistake. Take your losses now to signal you’re no mug. Reciprocal altruism is the winning strategy, not taking the crumbs that are better than nothing. You’ll lose in this one case but you’ll win long term. That might seem ‘nuts’ as you turn down the derisive 50 cents you’ve been offered, but next time the offer will be (and there is plenty of empirical evidence for this) pretty close to half of the pot.

Got it? So when it comes to voting we conservatives need to look to see what this Coalition government has delivered for us these past few years. For me, it’s close to nothing – the universities are more woke, more inclined to cancel culture, less friendly to conservatives than they were eight years ago. The same point goes for the ABC. As for spending, Josh Frydenberg outspent Justin Trudeau during the pandemic, in per capita terms. It seems flat out incredible to me to believe that a Labor government – remember, it would have been one with a Coalition opposition screaming from the sidelines instead of a Labor one encouraging ever more spending – would have outspent Josh had it been in power the last few years. Then there’s the total abdication of Team ScoMo on all things related to freedom and free speech. The list goes on.

So of course it is perfectly correct to say, as Gerard Henderson does, that for right-of-centre types like me to shun the Coalition at next year’s election would help see them lose. And Gerard is likewise correct that Labor would be worse. Yes it would. But, again, that is to see the world in one-off terms, not in dynamic, ongoing terms. I advocated preferencing (and in fact did myself preference) Labor over the Libs in 2016 on the basis the Libs needed to be sent a message so that, long term (that’s the key Gerard), we conservatives would be better off. Sure, it’s an unknowable, counter-factual world, but I happen to think it’s a shame Turnbull snuck back in back in 2016 – and to be clear I mean it’s a shame for those of us on the right side of politics. Long term we’d have been better off with a Lib loss. And it is that same calculation that will be in play next year. You may come to a different conclusion than Rowan or I do. Reasonable conservatives can and will differ. But it’s hardly self-evident that righties should always tick the box for ‘their’ team, one that positions itself a millimetre to the right of Labor. Doing that makes you the sort of mug that game theory tells us always loses in the long run. (Sound familiar?) Sometimes you need to signal you won’t be mugs any longer, and take your short-term medicine.

Heck, ask yourself what voting for Angela Merkel in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2018 delivered to German conservatives long term. By adopting the ‘let’s be a smidgen of a soupçon to the right of the Lefties’ Frau Merkel delivered most of the Left’s program for them – sort of like here when the Coalition signs up to net zero, shuns anything to do with freedom, doesn’t touch the ABC, oversees a worse tertiary sector than when it came in (and one that is quickly seeing conservative academics become an endangered species), makes key appointments that never – I mean never – involve any actual conservatives at all (think the top positions at the ABC, think the High Court whose Brandis-appointed judges delivered us the most activist decision of the last hundred years in the Love case and sold Peter Ridd down the river, albeit while virtue-signalling about academic freedom, think Treasury, the list goes on into the horizon).

So sure, Labor would be worse. But it’s hardly ‘nuts’ to want to see the Coalition lose next year. Long-term results are distinct from short-term results – that’s called deferred gratification, an idea that is distinctly conservative as it happens. So come and join the ‘deranged, nuts, certifiable’ club with Rowan and me. If ever a group of cowardly, careerist, conservative politicians deserved to be sent a solid bit of game theory messaging, surely it’s this craven crowd that today makes up the Coalition party room.

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