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Why politics too needs ‘A Beautiful Mind’

Published May 31, 2015, 11:16 am IST
Updated Mar 29, 2019, 1:01 am IST
John Nash went into redefining those situations. ‘Development politics’
John Nash and Mahatma Gandhi
 John Nash and Mahatma Gandhi

Chennai: Life is like a game of cards, the late philosopher-statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had once said. The cards you get in a round is something given, about which nothing much can be done. But the way you play the cards you get is your freedom, he had said to explain how both ‘necessity’ and ‘freedom’ play out in our lives. The crux of a range of memoirs in the media last week on the Nobel laureate in Economics, John F Nash (Jr), who along with his wife was killed in a car crash in the US, -  some papers even termed it a classical Greek tragedy-like ending to a glorious life of the mind -, was his huge contribution in enriching and taking forward the ‘Game Theory (GT)’, a powerful analytical tool that has become indispensable in Economic thought post-World War II.

While the Hollywood film, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ was based on the life of John Nash, who shared the Nobel in Economics in 1994 with John C. Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten-, the trio had contributed immensely to understanding ‘strategic interactions’-, the memoirs were also a throwback to Radhakrishnan’s thoughts on ‘chance’ and ‘necessity’, so characteristic of card games that help to get a sense of the so-called ‘strategic interactions’.


In fact, insights gleaned from card games are also said to have influenced as building blocks for game theorists, though the foundations of ‘GT’ and its application in economics, as the Swedish Academy of Sciences put it, owes to the “monumental study” by John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, entitled ‘Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944)’. It is such a highly mathematical work that very few can claim to have mastered it.

“Many situations in society, from everyday life to high-level politics are characterized by what economists call strategic interactions. When there is a strategic interaction, the outcome for one agent depends not only on what that agent does, but also very largely on how other agents act or react; Whether a political party will be successful in attracting more votes by proposing lower taxes or increased spending will depend on the proposals from other parties,” is how Prof. Karl-Goran Maler of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, introduced the complex work of Nash and two others in simple terms in his presentation speech at the award ceremony.


The ‘GT’ founders had largely confined their analysis to what are called ‘two-person zero-sum games’. In a zero-sum game, “gains of one player are equal to the losses of the other player.” But how does one reconcile differences and conflicts if several players are at the table (called n-person Games), each with very different preferences, even if some may overlap? John Nash’s genius, while he was at Princeton, was to find a universal, mathematical solution to such ‘N-persons, Non-Cooperative Games’, which came to be called the ‘Nash equilibrium’. It is that stabilising point where “all of the players expectations are fulfilled and their chosen strategies are optimal.” Of course, Game Theory assumes that all the players are rational.  


Now cut these Nash insights into the rough and tumble of power politics, an area where outcomes should, at least nominally, be better for people if some game theoretic gains went into redefining those situations. ‘Development politics’, now touted by politicians of various hues, is basically about tradeoffs, about which sections of society get how much in return for stable and sustainable economic growth.

Developed and emerging economies’ strategic bargaining at diplomatic high tables, whether it is about reductions in carbon emissions in Climate Change talks, or exchanging information on money flows at forums like the G-20 are again in a mould that seeks a ‘Nash equilibrium’. Very often it masquerades in popular media as ‘deal done’, even in foreign policy initiatives.But much before Game Theory was even heard of or became the buzzword, Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent weapon of ‘Satyagraha’, a technique which he perfected in South Africa before he jumped into the Indian Independence struggle, could be seen as a straight, practical other side of the Game Theory coin, sans all its mathematics. And that was Gandhi’s political genius.


In a colonial context of hard, oppressive and uneven bargaining, Gandhi’s method of ‘passive resistance’, based on universal intuitive notions of truth and justice, was basically about the ‘soul-force’ in man indicating what would be a reasonable give-and-take point in any dismal social situation.

As historian Ramachandra Guha captures it in great detail in his “Gandhi Before India”, as early as 1907, when the first protests against the permit system were taking shape in the Transvaal region, “Gandhi’s own belief in the power and relevance of non-violent resistance was enormous and unshakeable”. Gandhi had termed it (Satyagraha), “as being a more reliable and more honourable instrument for securing the redress of wrongs than any which has henceforth been adopted,” adds Guha. The tragic death of John Nash is yet another reminder that politics too needs more ‘Beautiful Minds’.


Location: Tamil Nadu