Collective action problems: a pox on the body politic which must be eradicated at any cost - or a big, fluffy, puppy-like animal? You decide!

At the end of the day, a short observation. Something I've been thinking about for years, but which keeps cropping up in conversation these days for some reason, so I feel like writing it down:

I think that the greatest single obstacle that I can think of to the advance of human civilisation is collective action problems in all their forms. The most basic form is, I think, the prisoner's dilemma, in which the solution obviously is honour among thieves - or rather, well-founded trust, the trick of the imagination on which our societies and economies are built, and the sense of collective responsibility which that trust creates. 

If the measurement of value is projected beyond the yardstick of the self into the society surrounding it as a whole, the collective action problems go away, or at the very least become organisational and not existential. This also avoids freeloading, the cause of collective action problems, commonly presented in the form of the Tragedy of the Commons.

In short, the reason we spend more money on weapons than anything else, the reason we can't raise taxes to the proper level across the globe, the reason we can't implement proper work management laws and human rights, the reason we need to put up with populist tabloid newspapers rather than substantial vehicles for public discussion is either:

a. The value system for the change does not yet exist on a large enough scale. (Not a problem e.g. with war - who doesn't oppose war?)
b. We can't organise a change on such a massive scale for reasons of coordination costs.
c. We can't change for fear of competitive oppositional advantage. "Somebody else is doing it, so we can't stop doing it!"

C is the reason that we...

- Have an army. If not, other countries will invade us with their armies which they have for fear that you will invade them. (I still think that standing armies represent the single greatest failure of the human imagination we have.)

- Can't fix the environment. Because if we start having carbon taxes and spending lots of tax money on green infrastructure, other countries will gain a purely temporary competitive advantage which they will later lose again when they are all drowned in the seas of armed refugees, mad with hunger, pouring out of the third world as their ecosystems collapse, a problem which we should maybe have thought about sooner.

- Can't have good labour laws in, say, Malaysia - because other countries might get Malaysian manufacturing jobs.

- Can't raise taxes in states struggling to create welfare societies. If they raise taxes, business will flee.

- Have to keep making bad tv and bad newspapers, or the other tv stations/newspapers will sell more. Because God knows we're not in the business to make good tv/newspapers - we're in the business of making money.

I think that the "solution" to a lot of these issues at the present time, since "...oh, you're such an idealist, Martin! [exasperated sigh, rolling of eyes] It will never happen, dreamer!" is the proliferation of welfare states. People who are hungry and uneducated are generally not capable of projecting value into things or other people, other than their own survival.* I read somewhere recently (I forget where) that the paradox of being poor is that you have less of a buffer, so every decision you make has to be right. But you are also lacking in the resources and personal security which help you make right decisions.  I think this is exactly right. The path towards the decline of collective action problems lies in welfare and education. 

Does any of this make sense? 

* However, the opposite can also be true. Some affluent people invest a lot of personal commitment to ideology which values selfishness. I remember sitting at my computer at University a year and a half ago, seeing the person at the desk in front of me reading Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. I was reading an article on child mortality rates in the third world (30.000/day of easily preventable causes) and felt like: 

a. I wanted to smack him in the back of the head for callousness. 
b. I couldn't leave my laptop there when I went to lunch. I just couldn't trust him. 

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Blogger Mikkel said...

All the problems you mention could easily be solved in a benevolent world dictatorship. You just need to trust the benevolent world dictator. I think it should be me, because I know the proper level to raise taxes to, and I'm confident I could have this thing wrapped up by next tuesday. If you don't trust me, it's because of a failure of your imagination.

November 12, 2008 9:11 am  
Blogger mrtn said...

I, for one, welcome our new Danish overlord. I have always supported a Grüner/Grüner benevolent world dictator ticket.

November 12, 2008 9:19 am  

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