The most intriguing thing about game theory's Prisoner's Dilemma is the inherent paradox that in trying to make the most rational decisions for ourselves as individuals we often end up with outcomes that are worse for both ourselves and others. It's an unavoidable paradox proved by countless computer models that have had game theoreticians flummoxed the world over.
And the recent sweep of blue across the UK in last Friday's council elections is a perfect demonstration of this, especially when their slogan for the upcoming 2017 general election has 'a better future for you' plastered across a big blue bus. It certainly puts individualism centre stage.
We have to take as our starting point the single fact that as individuals we all pretty much want the same thing - or at least the majority of us do anyway - and as rational beings we will vote for whoever offers us what we want and need. For example, we want our children to have access to a fair and equal world-class education (nobody wants to be in the rubbish school!). And we all want our parents, in their time of aging need, to be seen quickly by a well-trained, well-resourced medical practitioner (nobody wants their parents to go to the hospital with the longest waiting times and lowest survival rates, right?). And we all want to be able to walk down the street safely and sleep sound in our beds knowing we are protected (nobody purposely asks the estate agent for a house in the most crime-riddled areas!). So, we can pretty much agree that when we raise our glass to good health and happiness, we are all roughly on the same page. What you want is the same as what I want, which is the same as what he and she wants, and so on. As individuals, we all want the same things, ish. Agreed?
The paradox here then comes when so many of us vote for a Conservative party that prides itself on making life better for the individual. You'd think this would be a marriage made in heaven - a party for individuals offering what individuals best want for themselves. But no. Because in thinking about ourselves, in wanting a party to come in and satisfy what we each of us want, just like the computerised models prove, there will only ever be trouble ahead. And the financial cuts over the past seven years has pretty much proved this point. Slashes in school budgets, poor pay for NHS nurses, and a reduction of bobbies on the beat, pretty much seals the deal. And that's not even mentioning the rise in food banks and homelessness, among so many other things. True, this could all be fake news. But I think we all know it is isn't. Even if it is. How can it be that we all want the best for ourselves, but it is getting worse in front of our very noses?
And so we are left with this strange Hellereque situation where voting rationally for what's best for ourselves leaves us worse off than when we started. And to make things even more puzzling, even after we don't get the things we want for ourselves, we vote the same government back in. It is quite staggering when you think about it. It's like, as a nation, we are all secret sadomasochists who enjoy the pain. We know they're going to do it, but we tick the box anyway. It's like we have a deep-rooted schadenfreude that encourages self-flagellation and a curiosity to see just how close to the edge we can take ourselves before we break. Yet the maths on this is quite simple; if we vote with own self-interest - which on the face of it is obviously always the most rational thing to do, we will always seem to end up with less. The proof is in the austerity pudding.
So, what's the answer? Who knows! That's the whole point of the Dilemma's paradox; there is no rational solution. It's like a trap. There is no way out. Being rational simply makes it worse. The rules are clear and we're all happy to play, but everyone loses.
Unless, it seems, we cooperate with one another. Computerised models show this works. It seems the trick is not to vote for we want for ourselves, but to vote for what is best for ourselves in conjunction with others. Working together, it seems, strikes a better deal than thinking individualistically. But that's a whole different ball game.