Two early examples of economic thinking

Game theory, as a field concerned with strategic decision making, has been around for millennia.  One early example of the distribution of resources in a cooperative game is found in the Talmud, a Jewish legal text dated sometime between 0 and 500 CE.  If a man dies, the text specifies different divisions of his estate among his wives in the case where his estate is not large enough to give each wife what was originally agreed upon in their marriage contract.  The recommended divisions vary depending on how large the estate is, some equal, others not, all corresponding to what game theorists would call an equilibrium, where each player’s (wife’s) strategy is optimal given the strategies of the others.  Thus, the Talmud anticipates the modern theory of cooperative games.

As a formal field of study, game theory didn’t appear until the 20th-century.  However, there were others who anticipated some of its major ideas.  One of the most surprising of these is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll.  Dodgson/Carroll is famous for his children’s book Alice in Wonderland, and most know that he was a mathematician as well as a writer.  Few know of his interest in political science.  In 1884, Dodgson published The Principles of Parliamentary Representation, a booklet concerned with the fairness and efficiency of voting in national elections.*  Dodgson’s purpose is to find a simple method of conducting elections that results in the representation of Electors’ true choice of candidate (or, as economists would call it, their true preference).  To do so, he develops mathematical models specifying how best to construct electoral districts and the elections themselves.  As pointed out by Duncan Black, this is one of the earliest examples of a societal problem being recognized and dissected as a two-person zero-sum game (though Dodgson obviously did not refer to it as such).**  It is also noteworthy for its quantitative rather than qualitative nature.  Many aspects of this children’s author’s approach – including mathematical modeling and a concern with efficiency – would later become some of the major tenets of modern economics.   

*Available online through Swem library:


A chronology of game theory, though Dodgson’s pamphlet isn’t included:

Written by Lauren Hurley