Saturday, October 15, 2005

Collective action problem

  ASSUME that People Are Acting Rationally (in the economic sense). Let us say that the issue is either one of environment, with a solution such as using public transport rather than cars to lessen pollution; or perhaps one of poverty, with a solution of paying more taxes to fund the worst off to prevent crime.

  1) You can co-operate, acting in a way that harms you individually but helps all collectively
  2) You can defect, acting in a way that is economically rational because you can indulge in your self-beneficial behaviour, hoping to enjoy the state of the world after enough others have co-operated. Termed 'free-riding'.

  Obviously, this sort of thing is a major issue today, because we must act collectively on many issues but we are too lazy to do so, preferring to defect. And, inexhorably, the world worsens as we sit back protecting our own position, which we are only improving in terms relative to a co-operative position, while losing out in absolute terms. It is not that many of us are doing something and the rest are 'free-riding', it is that hardly anyone is doing anything!
  As mathematician Ian Stewart put it, "sometimes rational decisions aren't sensible!" And what does this say about the economic concept of 'rationality', I wonder?

  I believe that we must escape this way of thinking, as it seems little more than a clever way of reinforcing harmful concepts. Rationality is NOT simply a measure of short-term, relative cost. And we are not experiencing a problem of free-riding. We are experiencing a problem of terrifying self-destruction. If we are free-riding anywhere, it is to a collective hell, and if anyone wants to say that this is due to most acting 'rationally' then they can live and die by their definition of the term. To me, it seems a problem of undiluted ignorance. And there is no clever way of thinking about ignorance that makes it into an edifying theoretical conundrum of the economic benefits of inaction vs. action, it simply needs to be stamped on.


Blogger Bobocop said...

On doing nothing and collective doing everything, Bertrand Russell sez:

We achieve certain things by being energetic, but it may be questioned whether, on balance, the things that we achieve are of any value. We develop wonderful skills in manufacture, part of which we devote to making ships, automobiles, telephones and other means of living luxuriously at high pressure, while another part is devoted to making guns, poison gases and aeroplanes for the purpose of killing each other wholesale.

4:54 PM  

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