Hungry Hungry Hippos: The danger of modern politics as a zero sum game, and the need for a more hospitable public square

Did you ever play the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos?

It goes a bit like this. Only with more punching and tantrums.

It’s a mildly fun competitive board game for kids; my fear is that this is pretty much what has trained today’s adults in how to participate in the public square. Nobody plays Hungry, Hungry Hippos and sets out to ensure an equal distribution of marbles to all players so that everybody wins. We play to get more than our fair share. That’s how you win; in fact, it’s what defines winners and losers. In the ultimate victory in Hungry Hungry Hippos, you’d get all the marbles and your opponents get none.

If I’ve understood the economic theory correctly, and it’s possible I haven’t because I’m not an economist… Hungry, Hungry Hippos is a ‘zero sum game’. It’s a game where my winning is directly relating to the losing of others; every marble I munch is one my opponents can’t munch. I get 1 marble, and my opponent doesn’t just get zero, they lose the opportunity for a marble, so the ‘sum’ of the interaction is zero. Or, as wikipedia puts it:

“Zero-sum games are a specific example of constant sum games where the sum of each outcome is always zero. Such games are distributive, not integrative; the pie cannot be enlarged by good negotiation.”

Modern politics; or the modern public square, feels like a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos. We play politics these days as a zero sum game; there’s a finite amount of resources available for distribution, or there’s an issue where there’s a clear binary; winners and losers, and the major parties race to pick a side to champion (and therefore one to destroy), and we all line up behind them. We’ve lost the idea of a public square and political realm that operates for the common good of all people and we play the game as though goods are to be distributed in a sort of zero sum way; that’s sensible when it comes to dollars. You can’t just print more money to pay everybody everything they want… but it’s terrible for social policy. We’re perhaps so used to competing for marbles (or resources) when it comes to dollars and projects (whether its playing off health, education, and infrastructure development, against taxation policy) and then distributing those dollars according to priorities with a sort of ‘zero sum’ outcome, that we’ve forgotten that sometimes a commons, or a public sphere, might allow everybody to win, or nobody to win, or even for us to think in terms of things other than winning and losing, and find ways to negotiate towards acceptable outcomes for everybody.

It’s not just our political parties that take the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach to public life and policy making; its lobbyists, activists and interest groups (pretty much all the same thing)… all these groups out to get their fair share of the marbles, or their interests recognised at law at the expense of all the other players. All looking to win. In fact, I’d say it’s the lobbyists/activists who keep us playing this way, they’re often the ones with particular interests, it’s not that our political parties don’t have ideologies (though often it seems our politicians have the ideology of staying in power by being populist, and that’s why there’s a growing disillusionment with the political process in Australia), but in my observation (and dealings with politicians directly or indirectly), often politicians know that their jobs involve compromise; that’s the reality in their party rooms, and it might just be a matter of different interest groups playing a different game and producing creative alternative proposals, that would see more democratic, less ‘zero sum game’ outcomes for people.

Maybe the alternative to Hungry, Hungry Hippos democracy, which is, in social issues, about making sure your views become the views favoured, protected, or enshrined, in legislation; that you not just ‘your fair share’, but a win, is Hospitable Hippos. Maybe this looks like allowing other participants in the public sphere to get their share too, perhaps even get their share first… perhaps even to get their share at our expense, or given to them by us rather than it being something we fight to take… Could this be what it looks like to move from a ‘distributive’ zero sum game to an ‘integrative’ game where the pie is enlarged, or at least we’ve got a better sense of how to eat the pie together in peace and enjoyment.

I wrote the other day about how Christians in particular should be approaching the public square; our ‘common’ life together with our neighbours as though it’s a dining table where we think in terms of hospitality; and I’ve previously written about how real secular democracy that makes space for different views, rather than just imposing ‘majority rule’ (the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach) involves a commitment to a generous pluralism. Here’s a couple of principles, from the Bible, that should be governing Christian participation in the public square, or the life of ‘common’ community, that should cause us to rethink those times when we fall into the trap of playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos, pursuing victory at the expense of others (when there might be shared outcomes) in a ‘zero sum game’. The shortcut to thinking about why this might be good and right for all of us, not just Christians, is to imagine the other side winning a total victory and you losing, and using that imagining to come up with something a little more empathetic.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. — Matthew 7:12

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Matthew 22:36-39

(The first commandment is probably not quite so applicable to an atheist, or community of atheists, operating in a pluralistic context).

Here’s a bit where Paul fleshes out what these bits

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:4-5

To name the elephant in the room, or the hippo, this is evident in the debate around same sex marriage, which has returned to prominence in the last couple of weeks, and people have been furiously bashing buttons to make sure their little underfed hippos get as many marbles as possible; at the expense of the other players. This debate has been framed by both marriage equality advocates and Christian advocates for maintaining the definition of marriage as a zero sum game.

It scares me, as a Christian, to think what might happen if marriage equality advocates win the zero sum game, and then decide to respond by treating us Christians as they feel like they’ve been treated. There’s a palpable push from some advocates for change to not protect religious freedoms beyond a secular/sacred divide (so people conducting marriages as religious celebrants will be protected) that, as someone who rejects the idea that there’s a secular/sacred divide, or that religion is a private matter within the home or the institution of the church, is threatening… The maw of those hippos, and their deadly, terrible, teeth frighten me a little…

But we Christians are no better. We’ve set this debate up as an all or nothing thing; as though the definition of marriage provided for us from our religious convictions about God, the world, and humanity, should apply to everybody because we say he says it is good for them. No matter how you frame it this is neither hospitable, pluralistic, or generous to those who have a fundamentally different vision of human flourishing. It pushes other views, and the people who hold them, away from the table (which isn’t actually our table), and insists they eat on our terms, or not at all. It is an attempt to define what a ‘fair share’ is that leaves us holding on to more marbles than our neighbours.

By taking this zero sum game approach we’ve essentially invited our neighbours to do the same thing… in fact, we’ve given them no real alternative option, we’ve decided this how the game is going to be played, or we’ve joined in without questioning whether this is how we should be playing it. By approaching the table, the ‘board’, or the public square as a competitive environment rather than a place where we work out how to live together across difference, despite difference, in a spirit of generosity, we’ve invited other people to crush us. To me this seems to fail those two key principles Jesus says sums up the Old Testament law (which is ironic, given where we draw our arguments from), and it’s a failure to truly love the other.

There are other options that might see us keeping our marbles, rather than losing them… there’s an approach to this marriage debate that we could take that would maintain our ability to be different and distinct, but also to share a table (metaphorically and literally) with those who are also different and distinct to us, without seeking to destroy them. It’s possible we could approach this debate with less punching. We just have to change the game.

What does this look like? A hospitable, or generous, pluralism?

It looks like stepping back from fighting to define marriage for everyone, and instead asking that Christians — either in public or private — be free to understand marriage according to our convictions (and that our neighbours with other religious, political, cultural, or moral, convictions be free to do the same). It seems that lots of us think this is the thing we’ll salvage after we lose the big war, by fighting robustly on the definition front to show how much we care — but that’s not how Hungry, Hungry Hippos, or a zero sum game works.

It looks like giving up fighting for our rights to win and define things for everybody.

It looks like recognising that the government are the guardians of the commons; that we live in a democracy (not a populist country ruled by a tyranny of the majority), so that the results of a plebiscite are largely irrelevant if there are even some people in our community who feel excluded from the table by our approach. Democracy, at its best, protects minorities from the majority because it views all people as equal.

I understand that many, many, advocates for the definition of marriage are arguing on the basis of a view of human flourishing connected to the family, to the uniqueness and importance of gender difference, and ‘for the sake of the children’; these are views I share, but they are views that are contested, there are other views of human flourishing held by our neighbours and we get into dangerous territory when we, as Christians, start suggesting that our God’s views, or the views of the majority, should dictate the practices of all (again, ironically, the same people arguing most stridently against marriage definition also argue most stridently against anything that looks like sharia law).

We don’t have to lose our marbles to participate in public life and politics as Christians, but maybe we might consider giving some up? Being less hungry, and more inclined to share the table with others…