Home >Opinion >Online-views >Nobel prizes in an anxious world

It is not unusual for the Nobel Prizes to be controversial. When Henry Kissinger was awarded the peace prize in 1973, there was widespread scepticism. On occasion, the timing of the prize to a particular individual elicits controversy. The award to the current US president Barack Obama in 2009, the year George Bush Jr demitted that office, was widely as against the latter’s policies than an affirmation of what Obama had done in that short span of time.

The prizes for peace and economics this year fall in this category of prizes. Essentially, they are prizes of an anxious age. There is, of course, no doubt that they celebrate achievements of a high order; stunning intellectual attainment in the case of Alvin Roth and Llyod Shapley; and diplomacy and statesmanship—spread over more than 60 years—in the case of the European Union (EU). But when viewed together, the prizes send a very different signal.

Consider the economics prize first. It is the first time that game theorists of a very different persuasion—the pioneers of cooperative game theory—have been given the prize. Unlike standard, non-cooperative theory, where individuals devise and optimize strategies to “win", cooperative theory deals with coalitions of individuals who arrive at “peaceable" solutions to divide the spoils. In essence, the prize questions the very idea of Homo economicus—the rational person who calculates choices and maximizes utility. This is the second prize since the economic crisis started in 2008 that celebrates heterodox ideas in economics.

The Nobel peace prize takes this questioning of human behaviour to the political realm. The prize to the EU is perhaps the culmination of the dream of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who idealized a world of “perpetual peace", where peace prevails among nations of the world that abjure war by choice and agreement. In reality, the last century was perhaps one of the bloodiest in human history. The divisions that it created continue to motivate war to this day. The line etched between India and Pakistan exemplfies these realities. Europe may have realized the Kantian dream but much of the world follows the ideas of a very different thinker, the Englishman Thomas Hobbes, who saw nothing but anarchy and war unless a strong sovereign reined in destructive human passions. The fact that there is no “world government" translates into the ever present possibility of war.

The EU has entered a zone of peace—after nearly 500 years of warfare—but the world faces very different realities. Roth and Shapley may have devised a very different theory but it is equally true that cooperative game theory has few takers. The Nobel committee desires a different world—just read the citation for the prize to the EU—and this is laudable. But the world follows very different rules, two Nobel prizes notwithstanding.

Cooperative humans and peaceful nations: a dream? Tell us at

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