Faculty Scholarship 1994 - Present

Leviathan and The Wealth of Nations Through the Lens of Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma

Political theorists and economists have debated for centuries the relationship between Hobbesian and Smithian approaches within the individualist social contract tradition. We briefly explain Adam Smiths (1776/1965) transformation of Hobbes (1651/1962) war of every man against every man into an economic system where self interest results in economic development and consumer prosperity. We introduce the use of Axelrods (1984) iterated Prisoners Dilemma (IPD) computer program experiments to examine this relationship with a new perspective that changes the focus from opposite theories of human nature (Smithian optimism versus Hobbesian pessimism) to a structuralist discussion of the unfolding of human events under different IPD situations  with the caveat that not all social interactions have an IPD structure. The importance of Axelrods distinction between single-time versus iterated Prisoners Dilemma interactions is emphasized along with the significance of recognition and memory of the other party in ongoing social interactions. Iteration, social recognition and memory are lenses that help us explain and understand Smiths transformation of Hobbes dark war of all against all (single-time PD) into Smiths beneficial market competition (IPD). We argue that the issues here can be viewed as the logic of the IPD social situation within which people experience relationships. Thus depending on the current situation, both Hobbes and Smith are correct in their descriptions and analysis. We propose that current social theory should focus less on assumptions about human nature and more on analysis of the structural logic of conflict and cooperation utilizing the results of Axelrods pioneering IPD studies.