Many Unpaid Intern’s face a “Prisoner’s Dilemma”

Many of today’s unpaid interns find themselves in the classic prisoner’s dilemma situation. For those who are not familiar with the prisoner’s dilemma, a description from Wikipedia should help:

The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interest to do so. . .  A classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma (PD) is presented as follows:

Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal—if one testifies against his partner (betrays partner), and the other remains silent (cooperates with partner), the betrayer goes free and the cooperator receives the full one-year sentence. If both remain silent (cooperate), both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other (betrays), each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do?

…In the game, the sole worry of the prisoners seems to be increasing his own reward. The interesting symmetry of this problem is that the logical decision leads both to betray the other, even though their individual ‘prize’ would be greater if they cooperated.

So, what does this have to do with unpaid interns?

In unpaid internships, interns provide labor for businesses that often need the work completed. Without the unpaid intern, the business would pay for the work to get done.  If all unpaid interns cooperated with each other (refused to work for free) and didn’t defect (agree to work for free), then many of them would get paid for their work.

Is it a perfectly analogous prisoner’s dilemma? No. It is not perfectly analogous because for some unpaid interns (those who can afford to work for free), defecting and working for free does actually provide them with a better result. It is in some “defectors’” best interest to undercut those who cannot “stick it out” for long periods of unpaid work.

Though it’s a free market and people should be allowed to compete, society does not consistently apply this belief.  We allow labor to unionize, and congress enacts laws that give businesses subsides and create big business protectionist regulations to prevent competition. We shouldn’t only make special exceptions to the labor protections for the weakest and most vulnerable people, unpaid interns. The law should apply to all or none. Be consistent. If you want unpaid internships to be legal, you must also be for getting rid of minimum wage laws and a plethora of other labor protections for everyone.

For the sake of putting things in perspective, unpaid interns who ask for minimum wage law protections are not demanding to be paid enough to afford a lavish lifestyle. They want to be able to afford their student loan payments and move out of their parents home on the  take home pay of $13,870 per year.