Living the Prisoner's Dilemma: How Cooperation Could End Mandates

New York politicians are wickedly devious. Bill de Blasio, Andrew Cuomo, and Kathy Hochul are intentionally instituting their discriminatory mandates in an incremental fashion to undermine efforts at organized resistance. And they are succeeding. First, they used a combination of pressure, shaming, and incentives to get vaccination rates up past a critical mass of the population. Once enough of the population was vaccinated, they knew they could institute mandates with less of an uproar. What persons might have balked at a vaccine mandate prior to getting vaccinated simply felt relief once a mandate was instituted. They internalized the government’s morality and projected it onto their fellow citizens: “I ignored my objections and got vaccinated, so why shouldn’t you?”

These sinister New York politicians knew that if they instituted all-encompassing, categorical mandates all at once, there would be mass uprisings. To prevent that, the enacted their mandate programs little by little. Health care workers were required to get vaccinated or test regularly. Then a vaccine passport was required for large entertainment and sporting venues and events. Next, health care workers had to be vaccinated with no testing option. Then city workers had a vaccination or test mandate. Suddenly, vaccination was required to enter restaurants, gyms, museums, and other places of entertainment. Then state workers were subjected to a vaccination or testing mandate. Subsequently, de Blasio decided that all city workers had to be vaccinated with no test option. Last week he announced that vaccination would be required for nearly all private employees in New York City. Hochul then announced that a mask mandate was being reinstituted for all businesses in the state unless those businesses banned unvaccinated persons.

It is a seemingly never-ending slope to a two-tiered apartheid state. New Yorkers are the proverbial frogs slowly being boiled to death. We see the detention camps in Australia, Germany locking down only unvaccinated individuals, and Austria fining persons who are unvaccinated thousands of dollars. We see it happening, but we continue to live in denial, thinking “that can’t happen here” even as our politicians strip away our rights and privileges one by one and make clear their intent to create a medical apartheid state. We tell ourselves that we do not have to stand up yet because someone else with more courage and less to lose will save us.

Each of these mandates is destabilizing and fear-inducing, and the result is that with each wave of panic, more people submit to a vaccination that they otherwise would refuse. This is the point for the politicians, to overcome consent by force, which is typically known as duress and is traditionally not a valid means of obtaining “consent.” With each wave of submission, the pool of resistance shrinks. Sure, these people might still talk about being against mandates, but with the threat of personal harm to themselves eliminated, there is no urgency, no personal need (aside from conscience, which was already compromised when they decided to get vaccinated against their own wishes) to stand in solidarity with their unvaccinated fellow citizens. These people were too scared to stand up for themselves; they are unlikely to stand up for others. That is the point of these slow, incremental steps— to whittle down the opposition until what little remains can be crushed with brute force.

But it does not have to be this way. We in New York City are now at our best and perhaps final moment to turn this all around, and all it would take is cooperation. Now that all employees in the city are facing a vaccination mandate, this is an excellent time to unite and push back. These people who sat on the sidelines thinking they were safe now have a stake in the game. They can join the healthcare workers, teachers, firefighters, police, restaurateurs, gym owners, and city and state employees who were already battling the previous mandates. If we all stand together at once, we would be unstoppable. But can we trust each other to have our respective backs?

The Covid Prisoner's Dilemma

We are in essence facing a prisoner’s dilemma. The concept of the prisoner’s dilemma involves two prisoners from the same crime organization who are separated and cannot communicate. Law enforcement does not have enough evidence to convict either of them for the principle charge, so they need one or both of the prisoners to confess to prosecute the case. However, they have enough evidence to convict both of lesser charges, so they try to induce them to confess by playing them against each other.

Each of the prisoners will serve only one year in prison for the lesser charges if they are not convicted of the principal charge. If convicted of the principle charge, they will serve at least three years in prison. The catch is that if one prisoner betrays the other, that prisoner will be set free while the remaining prisoner will be convicted and serve the longer sentence. However, if both decide to betray each other, they each will be convicted and receive the longer sentence. The best outcome for the prisoners collectively is the one in which they both remain silent because then the combined total number of years in prison is the lowest possible outcome.

But since the prisoners cannot communicate, they both see it in their personal interest to betray the other in hopes of walking free. The end result is that they both end up implicating the other and both serve longer sentences, which is the worst possible outcome for each of them. The prisoners both lose in that instance, and it is law enforcement that wins. The trick, then, is for the prisoners to somehow put their faith in each other above their immediate self-interest and cooperate without being able to communicate. Their true self-interest lies in mutual cooperation.

A similar phenomenon is playing out with these mandates. If every person banded together in the face of the mandates, the government would lose immediately and have to retreat from the mandates. The people would win. While people are not physically separated like the prisoners in the hypothetical, the staggered nature of the mandates and the culture of shaming and censorship has a similarly isolating effect that undermines cooperation. Every person I speak to who is against mandates feels isolated and is convinced that no one else will stand with them. Like the prisoners, they are convinced that their compatriots will betray them and comply with the mandates, leaving them on a limb alone. Once a person is so isolated that he feels like he cannot count on others to cooperate, it seems more rational to act solely with his own interests in mind, which is what he believes everyone else is doing. In that instance, compliance in violation of his own conscience seems like the best option.

When your job is on the line, when you have a family to feed, when you just took out a mortgage, when your health insurance is tied to your job, when you don’t know how you’ll make rent—the risk of betrayal by others appears too great. No one wants to be the lone person who stands up to power and gets fired. The problem is that everyone is thinking the same thing, and, by engaging in defeatist thinking, each person betrays everyone else. Everyone thinks that they will be the only one to stand strong, so there is no point in trying to resist. They give up without even trying and immediately start to sacrifice what they truly want.

I hear people rationalizing their compliance by saying, “I’ll submit to weekly testing because at least I can keep my job without getting vaccinated,” “At least if I wear a mask, I won’t have to get vaccinated,” or “I’ll get the first shot(s), but I won’t get the boosters.” In their heads, they have drawn a line in the sand which will not be crossed, but how long will that last? Politicians like de Blasio and Hochul know that people are drawing these boundaries, and the politicians are crafting their mandates to gradually overcome them. They are moving the goalposts slowly with intention. With each new measure, there are new people submitting and therefore the pool of potential resisters grows smaller. If you feel too isolated now to stand up to government, how will you find the strength to stand up over the next months as the opposition is further whittled away by these mandates? If you are too scared to risk your self-interest now, why do you think you will be less scared to do so if and when the government decides to enforce more draconian measures?

Finding Hope in Cooperation

We have to find a way to overcome this feeling of isolation and get people to have faith in each other. We need people to see that when we all cooperate with each other in resisting these mandates, we all win. To do this, first of all, we need to get rid of the defeatist thoughts; nix all fear that no one else will cooperate in resistance even if it feels hopeless. The politicians are banking on you feeling overwhelmed, alone, and hopeless.

Secondly, mobilize those around you. Many of us have been in the closet because we are scared of the reactions we will get from our Covid cultist friends, but maybe it is time we speak out and put a human face on the discrimination that is occurring. You don’t need to debate or try to convince anyone to change their positions; in fact, it is probably better if you do not. What you want to do is make your friends, family, and co-workers confront the pain they are inflicting on you and other unvaccinated people. When you are invited out to a segregated restaurant, do not hide the reason why you cannot go. Let your peers see that this is the cost of these segregationist policies and that real human beings are being affected, not “anti-vaxxer” caricatures. Or next time your coworkers are discussing the latest Covid news, try to find a way to gently plant a seed of empathy in their minds (e.g. “Yeah, the new variant is scary, but I feel bad for the employees who are going to lose their jobs during the holidays because of the latest mandate. It is an especially hard time to be without a job.”).

Finally, do not write off potential allies just because they are vaccinated. Vaccinated people can join the in resistance, and we need their support (And if that is you, dear reader, welcome!). Whether they fully endorse the Covid vaccines or just resigned themselves to get it to avoid trouble, vaccinated people can push back against the mandates. Contrary to media narratives, being opposed to mandates does not render one an “anti-vaxxer.” Whether you endorse a particular vaccine is an entirely different question from whether you think government should force people to be injected with a vaccine without their consent. The idea that consent is necessary and that people should be able to exercise control over their own bodies is one that has historically carried the day in the United States, so leave your personal theories about Covid to the side and focus on the sympathetic, unifying argument of health freedom and bodily sovereignty.

This is our moment, so let’s get out there and build up that spirit of cooperation so that we all win!