The prisoner’s dilemma, the Founding Fathers and the disabled people’s movement

By Rich Watts

Disabled people face perhaps the greatest range of challenging circumstances for a generation – individually, collectively and cumulatively. This is likely to remain the case in 2015 and beyond. There is a pressing need to discuss and articulate what equality for disabled people should look like, what needs to be done to get there, and who should contribute to getting there. Inevitably, and rightly, there are lots of different views about what might need to happen, but this is underpinned by a joint desire for the lives of and opportunities for disabled people to improve.

I think the disabled people’s movement of today can learn a lot from a famous game theory experiment known as the prisoner’s dilemma, as well as repeat the success of how the Founding Fathers of the United States navigated what equated to their own example of the prisoner’s dilemma to achieve our own equivalent aims.

The prisoner’s dilemma is summarised as follows:

There are two prisoners, A and B. Each is kept in solitary confinement and has no way of contacting the other. The police give each prisoner the opportunity either to betray the other or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent, which leads to the following scenarios:

  • If A and B both betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (or vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison.

In this simplest form of the prisoner’s dilemma, the best course of action for both A and B to take is to stay silent; that is, to cooperate with each other in their mutual interest.

A huge number of experiments and even tournaments of more complex forms of the prisoner’s dilemma have been run to try and determine what the best strategy is to consistently get the best collective outcomes. These versions introduce multiple “prisoners” facing the prisoner’s dilemma over and over again with prior knowledge of how each other acts. The results of these experiments are that “greedy” strategies (i.e. behaving only in your own interest) do very poorly in the long run, whilst more “altruistic” strategies (i.e. cooperating) do much better.

Being a bit of a US history geek, I’ve often thought that the Founding Fathers of the United States faced their own kind of prisoner’s dilemma.

All of the representatives who, in the face of British imperialist power, made the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and then developed and adopted the US Constitution in 1787 had different views on what the new country should stand for, what it should look like and how it should operate. For example, any cursory glance at what Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton respectively thought would give a flavour of just how far apart some of the delegates were on vital issues. But despite significant differences, all of the Founding Fathers were able to balance their views and coalesce at a crucial point in time to establish foundations that, with some changes (via a process built into the foundations, including the US Constitution), have withstood the test of time.

The lessons from and parallels with the prisoner’s dilemma and the Founding Fathers for the current disabled people’s movement are, I think, clear.

Any progress we make will take time (there was over 10 years between the US Declaration of Independence and the writing of the US Constitution) and any process will need to have flexibility built in. But, if we’re to learn from the prisoner’s dilemma and the Founding Fathers, we will all be better off if each relevant person and organisation cooperates and works together to the ends we all share.

About the author

Rich’s interest in disability rights and equality has been informed from a range of perspectives, including as a mental health service user and carer, in the voluntary sector and in local and national government. He also blogs at Arbitrary Constant (


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