Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Federalist 15

Social scientists like to use games, like the famous Prisoner's Dilemma, to study human social interaction and cooperativity. In one economic game, the Ultimatum Game, two players are given a pot of money to divide among themselves. The first player must decide how to divide the money, and make an offer to the second player. The second player has to decide whether to accept the offer. If the offer is refused, neither player receives anything.

Alexander Hamilton saw the thirteen states under the Articles of Confederation as engaged in a kind of Ultimatum Game. How much power could each state reserve for itself? Hamilton, with his pessimistic view of human nature, knew that the states were essentially selfish, and each would jealously guard its own share of power. There was no reason, for example, why a strong state should submit to legislation passed by a weak central government, if the state determined that the federal legislation was against its individual interests. If a strong state fell out of line and failed to honor its obligations to the weak confederacy, the only recourse would be to military force on the part of the other members of the confederacy. But under the Constitution, a federal court system would be in place to resolve such issues without bloodshed.

Hamilton realized that without a strong central government holding the states together, their individual will to power would act as a centrifugal force, pulling apart the weak bonds of union. A strong federal government, as proposed in the Constitution, was needed to counteract this centrifugal tendency.

Sociologists who have studied games like the Ultimatum Game have discovered that "as players get to know each other better, cooperation increases" [1]. This is what Hamilton was counting on: that the states, united under the Constitution by a strong central authority, would increase their cooperation as they came to accept their common interests and common destiny. But in practice, politicians have continued to game the system to hold onto a bigger share of the pot.

[1] William F. Loomis, Life As It Is: Biology for the Public Sphere (Berkeley, U of California P, 2008), 156.

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