Don’t encourage prisoners dilemmas

Donating money to political causes is a waste of resources

A lot of money is donated towards political causes. Most of these causes though are pretty much zero sum games. The democrats and republicans both raise vast amounts of money, but only one of them will win the election. Most of this money is thus wasted.

This is classic game of prisoners dilemma. Everybody ends up better off if each side raises just the minimum needed to disseminate their views*, leaving more money to donate to researching malaria /​ feeding the poor /​ non-political charity of your choice.

But each side gains by raising a little bit more money. So the mountains of wasted resources build up. I’m not blaming anyone for this—prisoners dilemmas are really hard to break out of. But one obvious rule is “don’t encourage them”.

However most countries give tax back off political donations just like other charities. Tax back is a policy that has to be weighed on it’s own merits, but even if you support it in general (which I think I do), what is the point of the government encouraging citizens to pour their money into promoting zero sum games?

Lets rethink Tax Back

How can we put this into policy

I think a simple rule that might be workable is:

There’s some various rules the government has on what’s a valid charity. Let’s keep those for now. However let’s separate being eligible for tax back from being a valid charity.

Every charity applying to be eligible for tax back presumably has a mission statement. Something like:

  • We aim to conserve unicorns

  • We aim to make Ralph Wiggum president


Consider a charity whose aims were the exact opposite if the mission statement, the anti-charity:

  • We aim to destroy unicorns

  • We aim to stop Ralph Wiggum being president

If the anti-charity would also be a valid charity (presumably the destroying unicorns wouldn’t and stopping Ralph Wiggum being president would), then neither the charity or the anti-charity is eligible for tax back.

Of course most charities are likely to phrase their mission statements in vague terms to avoid this problem “We aim to make sure presidents are good at their job”. For that reason tax back should be judged every year by records of what the charity actually did with their money last year, and decide whether or not a charity which put their money into opposite places would also be a valid charity.


* More Formally:

Assume there are two parties in an election r, and d. Assume an election has one result v: the fraction of the vote that voted r. Assume that, all else being equal v is a function f of spending from both sides, rs and ds.

v = f(rs, ds).

Assume f is continuous, non decreasing in rs, and non increasing in ds.

Then for any pair (rs1, ds1), let v1 = f(rs1, ds1). There exists a pair (rs2, ds2) such that either rs2 = 0 or ds2 = 0, and v1=f(rs2, ds2).

In other words, making some pretty safe assumptions (although f is not continuous, the electorate is large enough it can be approximated as continuous), it’s possible to get exactly the same result in the election, whilst having one side spend 0 money. The proof is trivial, and can trivially be extended to more complex election schemes.