Ahead of the crucial negotiations in Brussels today the new Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has published an opinion article in the New York Times responding to commentators who alleged that he plays a game in the negotiations given his background as a game theory scholar. We published the column by Anatole Kaletsky that made this point.
In a very clear-cut way, Varoufakis makes the obvious point that studying a subject doesn’t necessarily mean that the scholar embraces its principles (I don’t want to imagine what the academic discipline of history would look like if this were the case…):
The trouble with game theory, as I used to tell my students, is that it takes for granted the players’ motives. In poker or blackjack this assumption is unproblematic. But in the current deliberations between our European partners and Greece’s new government, the whole point is to forge new motives. To fashion a fresh mind-set that transcends national divides, dissolves the creditor-debtor distinction in favor of a pan-European perspective, and places the common European good above petty politics, dogma that proves toxic if universalized, and an us-versus-them mind-set.
Rather than playing games according to the game theory rulebook, Varoufakis claims that his strategy is enlightened by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant: do what is right! (Also note our recent article by Gesine Schwan who suggested that Wolfgang Schäuble has an urgent need to learn a few Kantian lessons). How do you know what is right? Varoufakis has an emotional answer:
How do we know that our modest policy agenda, which constitutes our red line, is right in Kant’s terms? We know by looking into the eyes of the hungry in the streets of our cities or contemplating our stressed middle class, or considering the interests of hard-working people in every European village and city within our monetary union. After all, Europe will only regain its soul when it regains the people’s trust by putting their interests center-stage.
Yanis Varoufakis’ eloquent answer to his critics contains more than immediately meets the eye. In essence, it presents a counter-model to the technocratic politician – a political manager who excessively tries to be seen as ‘competent’ and runs after public opinion rather than shape it. This is the kind of person who applies game theory and always tries to win (without attempting to create win-wins).
What Varoufakis describes is in effect a return of the conviction politician: somebody who has a moral compass, rather than a technocratic one, and who negotiates based on principles with a view to changing society for the better.
Today, Europe is drowning in technocratic politics. We have an urgent need for more conviction politicians who can inspire and lead rather than manage and follow. Yanis Varoufakis is a breath of fresh air and I hope he is successful today.
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