"For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few. Each citizen will have a thousand sons who will not be his sons individually but anybody will be equally the son of anybody, and will therefore be neglected by all alike."
-- From Aristotle's "Politics", Written c.a. 350 BC
Unless you are in certain specialties of Liberal Arts in the academic world, you probably have never heard the term, Social Dilemma, a dilemma or paradox that commonly results from Collective Action. Like me, you may have read a little bit about the Prisoner's Dilemma a few years ago when it received some publicity in well known publications such as Scientific American. Most of you probably dismissed the Prisoner's Dilemma story as just another academic construction with little real significance. But I found the "collective action problem" -- the "social dilemmas" -- that is the fundamental characteristic of the Prisoner's Dilemmas, very intriguing. Since I like puzzles, paradoxes, and examples of the apparent diabolical nature of the universe, I became very interested in the subject and continued to give it much thought.
From the Prisoner's Dilemma "game" I drifted into the more general and much more significant study of the Social Dilemmas. What I have found is that this little field of study, tucked away in several obscure corners of academia and little known by the general public, is concerned with one of most serious and baffling problems in the civilized world today! Uncontrolled government spending, the deterioration of the public schools, the near collapse of law and order, the loss of individual freedom, out of control welfare programs, teenage sexual promiscuity, are just a few examples that result from the Social Dilemmas.
So, I hope you will check out what I have to say here and whether you agree or disagree, let me know.
Let us first review the simpler, but far more well known, example -- the Prisoner's Dilemma.
The Prisoner's Dilemma model's real importance is that it is simple yet fully displays the problem of a "Social Dilemma" typically arising in a "Collective Action" -- which can be defined thusly:
"The problem of collective action can then be taken in a preliminary way to be a dilemma or conflict between collectively and individually best action, where the action required for achieving the collectively best outcome or goal is different from (and in conflict with) the action required for achieving the individually best outcome. . ."Understanding the PD, then, is the first step in understanding the Social Dilemmas in general.
(Quoted from "On the Structural Aspect of Collective Action and Free-Riding" by Raimo Tuomela, published in Theory and Decision 32: 165-202, 1992)
At this point in the explanation, most people get their hackles up and say such things as "Only a real jerk would intentionally freeload on a picnic, or such, without at least trying to contribute their share". True, but don't be too quick to dismiss the possibility that even you might free-ride! It depends on the circumstances, especially the cost. For example, most people routinely try to avoid paying any more taxes than they have to. I would say you're free-riding, particularly if you are getting more in services from the government than you are paying. Go to "examples" for more.
In this essay, I will only be able to touch the high spots of what this problem is all about but I will provide extensive references for those of you that would like to know more. Basically the issue is about the problem of group shared property where individuals that do not contribute cannot be excluded. Such individuals are often called "freeriders" and such shared goods are referred to as "public goods". "Public Goods" was precisely defined by Russell Hardin in his book, Collective Action (see references), as goods having these two characteristics:
From this we would conclude that Public TV is a "Public Good". Note that this definition of "Public Good" is overly stringent and many shared objects do not completely comply with the definition. Nevertheless, the social dilemma problem arises whether the good is a strict "public good", as defined above, or not.
The defining characteristic of the TOC, is the concept of the "common good". First off, common good is difficult to define -- see the book review of Michael Novak's Free Persons and the Common Good at FFF.There seems to be a difference in meaning between "the common good" and "a common good". "The common good" seems to be based upon the differentiation between the things that are good for individuals and the things that are good for everyone, the public welfare. For example "equality before law" might be considered a component of "the common good" and "winning your speeding ticket case" would be an individual or private good.
Herein, when I talk about "a common good", I usually am making no distinction between that expression and the expression, "a public good" although in the literature a distinction is sometimes made. We don't require the precise definition given for "public good" when we mention "a common good".
Note that some distinction still needs to be made in what we mean by common. Are we talking about our community, our nation, or the world? All are allowed -- we just need to make sure we specify the scope, for a common good in India could likely not be appropriate in the U.S., for example.
A comprehensive paper that discusses the concept of "common good" and the various definitions is available on the internet as "THE COMMON GOOD IN PHILOSOPHICAL LITERATURE AND EGO TRANSCENDENCE FOR THE COMMON GOOD IN PSYCHOLOGICAL LITERATURE" by Jacqueline B. Magness, which is a chapter in her dissertation, "The Genesis and Gestation of a Justice Journey: Catherine Pinkerton, CSJ, Champion of and Educator for the Common Good".
The abuse of the "common good" by the government is discussed in my essay, "Individual Rights and Freedoms v. The Common Good", online at the "Limited Government" site.More on The Tragedy of the Commons:
"Facing Major Major Major Major's rebuke for not wishing to fly any more bombing missions over Italy, Yossarian contends that the bombs he could drop would make little or no difference to his eventual well-being, while the risks involved in dropping them might make an enormous difference to him." - Russell Hardin commenting on Heller's Catch-22 in his book, Collective Action
A few years ago, the newspapers reported a tragic story about the murder of Kitty Genovese. Thirty-eight people watched and listened as the Queens, New York, resident was raped and stabbed to death in the courtyard of her apartment complex. Though she screamed for help for an hour and a half, no one called the police until the attack was over. This gruesome episode well illustrates the problem of the Volunteer's Dilemma. In his book, Prisoner's Dilemma, William Poundstone tells of several forms of this dilemma but the classic example is given by the story about what soldiers in a trench are suppose to do if a live grenade falls into it. If one soldier will fall on the grenade, he will die and the rest will survive. If no one falls on the grenade, they all die. What should the individual soldier do in the few seconds he has to make a decision? The choices are "die" or "maybe survive". "Maybe survive" would get most people's vote but to do that you must not volunteer (that is, wrap yourself around the grenade)! An essay by J.O. Urmson, "Saints and Heroes", is considered to be the best treatment of this subject. The essay is included in the books, Moral Concepts, ed. Joel Feinberg (London: Oxford University Press, 1969) and A. I. Melden's Essays in Moral Philosophy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958). An online reference is the article by Gregory Mellema, "Beyond the Call of Duty".
It appears that when there is some kind of undesirable activity going on in which the intervention of others could stop it, people are reluctant to act if there is more than one observer present. Each waits for the other to do something. Experiments have shown that the more people there are present, the less likely any individual will take action!
This problem, which is very representative of Social Dilemmas which generally do not have a technical solution, is related to the game of "Chicken" and the game of "Take it or Leave it". Efforts to overcome this problem by legal methods are discussed by Prof. Eugene Volokh, in "Duties to Rescue and the Anticooperative Effects of Law".
- Game Theory
- "Group of mathematical theories, applying statistical logic to the choice of strategies in a game. A game consists of a set of rules governing a competitive situation in which two or more individuals or groups attempt to maximize their own winnings or minimize their opponents. Game Theory, first developed by John Von Neumann, is applied to many fields, e.g., military problems and economics."
Game Theory provides a methodology for analyzing interactions between players more than it provides solutions. While it has had some success in analyzing the Prisoner's Dilemma, it hasn't provided much insight into the general Social Dilemma problem.
A good introduction to Game Theory is available from Roger A. McCain's course notes. Click here for an introduction and a table of contents for the complete set.
Zero-sum games are models of situations in this world in which the total rewards of a transaction is zero. That is, whatever you gain, I lose and vice versa. For example, let us say you give me $5. You are now down minus $5 and I am now up $5; the sum for the two of us did not change. Such transactions are relatively simple.
Unfortunately in the real world, the sum of the transaction rewards is rarely zero -- which results in a much more complicated scenario. Let us say I would value a certain old Hank Williams phonograph record at $50 and you wouldn't give two cents for it. But you find one in the attic of the old house your old house. You offer it to me for $20 and we make the trade. After the trade, my situation is I have give up $20 and gained $50 (in value) for a net result of plus $30. You, on the other hand have increase the value of your holdings by $20 (the 20 dollar bill that I gave you). So the net result of this "game" transaction is plus $50 -- definitely a non-zero-sum game.
The Prisoner's Dilemma and the other Social Dilemma games studied in these essays are all non-zero-sum. To learn more about these games just search the web as there is thousands of articles on the subject! A good place to start would be "Non-Zero-Sum Games", by Janet Chen, Su-I Lu, and Dan Vekhter.
The movie and book, A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar, about the mathematical genius John Nash has given the public an awareness of "Game Theory" and probably a new incentive for students to want to go into that field. John Nash made a major contribution to the analysis of games when he developed what is now called the "Nash Equilibrium", in which he defined ". . . an equilibrium of a noncooperative game to be a profile of strategies, one for each player in the game, such that each player's strategy maximizes his expected utility payoff against the given strategies of the other players.", quoted from "NASH EQUILIBRIUM AND THE HISTORY OF ECONOMIC THEORY", by Roger B. Myerson.
Unfortunately, the Nash Equilibrium, does not necessarily yield the "best" result (in the sense that we would all be better off if we cooperated with each other). In particular, the Nash Equilibrium for the Social Dilemma prototype, the "Prisoner's Dilemma", is for both parties to defect. So, it appears that the Nash Equilibrium may be a useful tool in analysis of games but is not necessarily a good indicator of what ought to be done in real life. It appears that the Nash Equilibrium can be equated with what we call "rational" and we have seen in these pages that "rational" actions do not always result in the best interests for the group.A more complicated game that also illustrates the problem of an undesirable Nash Equilibrium is the game, "The Traveler's Dilemma", as described in a classic paper by C. Monica Capra, Jacob K. Goeree, Rosario Gomez, and Charles A. Holt.
A short description of this game is given at the "veconlab.econ.virginia.edu" site:
The discussion can be motivated by a story of two travelers who lose their luggage with identical contents, and the airline official tells them to fill out claim sheets independently. The representative promises to reimburse claims fully if they are equal, but to assume that higher claims are falsely inflated and in this case to only give each person the minimum of the claims. In addition, a reward of $R is given to the low claimant, and an equal penalty is deducted from the compensation for each of the others. Discussion can lead to the discovery that only the lowest feasible claim is a Nash equilibrium. Deviations from this equilibrium are not surprising if R is relatively low. See Capra et al. "Anomolous Behavior in a Traveler's Dilemma," American Economic Review, June 1999.
Let me elaborate a bit. Let me first add that the travel agent sets upper and lower limits on the claims, e.g., "anything from $50 to $300". The situation is that the low claimant will get the minimum claim plus R dollars and the high claimant will get the minimum claim minus R dollars. Let us say the two claims are $210 and $250 (after the discussion of this game in "Ten Little Treasures of Game Theory and Ten Intuitive Contradictions" by Jacob K. Goeree and Charles A. Holt). Then the low claimer gets $210 +R dollars and the high bidder gets $210 -R.
We can do a Nash analysis of this game without specifying the value of R. Mathematically it doesn't matter. Let us consider that R is $20 and we take a look at the maximum, $300. Well that is not a good bid, for the other guy can bid $299 and he will get $319 and I will get $279. Not good. So $300 is out. But so is all the rest of the possibilities down to the minimum, $50, for the same reason. So we both bid $50 -- and that is the Nash Equilibrium for this game. Again, I want to point out that this is true regardless of what the value of R is.
But in real life, people bid differently depending on the value of R. For low values of R, the bids tend to be high, as you would expect. See the references for details of actual tests with students playing the travelers' roles.
An extensive critique of the rational choice view is given by Michael Byron, Jr.'s dissertation, Rationality and the Paradoxes of Decision Theory: A Critique of Rational Choice Views and is recommended reading (unfortunately, the essay is no longer online and I have not found a published source for it).
An excellent book on the subject that provides both a critique of the failures of Rational Choice Theory as well as an introduction to the concepts involved is the book, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory by Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro, (Copyright 1994, Yale University Press).
Some links on the net: Hans O. Melberg's essay on "Three arguments about rational choice theory in sociology" (now offline), and a list of Jon Elster's many papers, books, etc., (now offline) on the subject.
For now the best reference on this subject that I can suggest is a book by Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky called Democracy and decision, 1993, published by Cambridge University Press. Dr. Lomasky also has an article titled "The Booth and Consequences", subtitled "Why Vote?", in the November 1992 issue of Reason magazine where he is a contributing editor. Both the article and the book present a very even handed, factual account of this field and -- most refreshingly -- they are not your usual liberal pap or conservative hysteria.
An interesting article from the Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 1985, "The Human Brain, Social Conformity, and Presidential Elections", by Stephen Coleman, suggests -- with supporting evidence -- that people who vote and their selection of a candidate are mainly conforming to social norms. He further says, "If a society is conformist to a certain degree in getting people to vote, it will be conformist to the same degree in how the vote divides among the political parties." So much for critical and objective analysis by the electorate!
For my view on the sloppy thinking involved with "wasting your vote" (when you vote for candidate that is not a Republican or a Democrat), see the essay, "How to Avoid Wasting Your Vote" (A slightly shorter version is at The Vagabond).
Public Choice Theory has resulted from an application of Economics and Rational Choice Theory to the political environment. Credit for establishing the theory usually goes to James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock primarily from their book, The Calculus of Consent which they published in 1962. Their work is particular appealing in that it is, according to Buchanan, based on common sense instead of romance. I quote from an interview of Buchanan: "[Public Choice] is nothing more than common sense, as opposed to romance. To some extent, people then and now think about politics romantically. Our systematic way of looking at politics is nothing more than common sense." My essay, "An Introduction to Public Choice Theory", provides a limited introduction to this fascinating science."Public Choice" theory is closely related to the "Public Economy" field of study. I quote from the book, Political Economy in Macroeconomics, by Allan Drazen:
Public choice and political economy as defined here are clearly closely related. Many treatments of the new political economy would not make a distinction between the fields, arguing that public choice is an integral part of the new political economy. . . Our interest is in the effect of politics on economic outcomes, not on politics per se. Though the stress is on using tools of economic analysis, the interest is not in choice mechanisms themselves.
A partial text on the Theory of Public Choice is now available on the internet. This outstanding and comprehensive essay is provided by J. Patrick Gunning at his site, UNDERSTANDING DEMOCRACY (complete text seems to be online at BNET). While you are at that site, you might want to click on the "Go back to Home" link at the bottom of the page to see other relevant material.
I have made an effort to look at politics with common sense in my essay on Political Realities. To learn more consult the references, particularly books by Buchanan, Olson, Hardin, and Taylor.
My views on whether humans are actually rational or not are presented in "Humans are Rational, aren't they?".
Some of my thoughts on "memes" are contained in the article, "Common Sense".
Many people make a logical error -- the so-called "False Dilemma" argument -- in assuming that government is the solution to the Social Dilemmas. The argument is based on the idea that "given the claims A and B, if A is false, B must be true". That is, we know that free enterprise fails when it comes to the problem of public goods so government must be the answer! Wrong. Government could be worse. See the article by Adam Przeworski, "A Better Democracy, A Better Economy" that discusses the problem in a somewhat even-handed way.
Mark Irving Lichbach provides the most comprehensive discussion of potential solutions to the Social Dilemmas in his book, The Cooperator's Dilemma (University of Michigan Press, 1996). I say potential solutions since all the solutions he proposes have serious defects. Here is a list of solutions he proposes:
The Market solution is based on modifying the "cost/benefit" equation so that the benefit to the individual exceeds the cost. The main problem with this approach is that is simply not possible for many public goods.
Community solutions are based on the idea that members of the community can develop common understandings that they will act together. Of course, this relies on trust which is not practical in many communities. The main problem, however, is that this solution requires that people be altruistic rather than egoistic, which is, practically, not very realistic.
Contract solutions are based on the concept that individuals can recognize that human weaknesses include the problem of free-riding and defection and therefore may make contracts between themselves to severely punish such actions. The problem is that someone must enforce these contracts and therefore a police agency must be established. This, of course, is the beginnings of government and we know where that will lead us!
This concept requires that an hierarchical organization exist with enough power at the top to enforce the needed cooperation. Of course, we are talking about government here as Hobbes described it in his works. The problems resulting from this solution are major, as is discussed extensively in these essays.
1. By metering, I mean the charging for the use of a good based on its economic value or cost.
Aristotle's "Politics", Written c.a. 350 BC
Ashlock's and Smucker's paper, The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma with Choice and Refusal
Axelrod, Robert; The Evolution of Cooperation. Basic Books, New York, 1984.
Dawkins, Richard; The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Dawes, R. M. (1980). "Social dilemmas". Annual Review of Psychology 31: 169–193.
Dixit, Avinish and Susan Skeath; Games of Strategy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Felkins, Leon; "The Voter's Paradox" online at this and other sites.
Information on Patrick Gunning's book, UNDERSTANDING DEMOCRACY: An Introduction to Public Choice
Gauthier, David. Morals by Agreement. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1986
Glance, Natalie and Huberman, Bernardo; "Dynamics of social dilemmas". Scientific American. March, 1994 (See their page on Dynamics for some of their computer simulation results)
Green, Donald P. and Shapiro, Ian. Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994
Hardin, Garrett, "The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, 162:1243-1248, 1968.
Hardin, Russell, Collective Action, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961
Hinich, Melvin J. and Munger, Michael C., Ideology and the Theory of Political Choice, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994
John O. Ledyard's Public Goods: A Survey of Experimental Research, 1994
Lichbach, Mark Irving. The Cooperator's Dilemma. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1996.
Lomasky, Loren; "The Booth and Consequences". Reason. November, 1992. A copy is online here.
Monroe, Kristen Renwick (Editor). The Economic Approach to Politics. Harper Collins, New York, 1991.
Myerson, Roger B.: "NASH EQUILIBRIUM AND THE HISTORY OF ECONOMIC THEORY", March 1999, on the web at http://home.uchicago.edu/~rmyerson/research/jelnash.pdf
Nasar, Sylvia. 1998. A Beautiful Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action. Harvard University Press. 1971
Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990
Parfit, Derek: Reasons and Persons. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1984.
Rheingold, Howard: Literacy of Cooperation Lecture Videos, 2005, Video presentations by Rheingold, Saveri, Kollock, Hartzog, Corning, Wales, Weber, Mayfield, Rosen and Huberman. [The esay way to learn about Social Dilemmas!]
Ridley, Matt: The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Viking Penguin, New York. 1997
Sandler, Todd: Collective Action. University of Michigan Press. 1992
Saari, Donald G.: Web page at http://www.math.nwu.edu/~d_saari/ has some interesting papers on the problems and paradoxes of voting. [Oh, well, it used to. You might try Google search for 'voting' and 'Saari'.]
Eivind Tøstesen's Masters Thesis on the Dynamics of Hierarchically Clustered Cooperating Agents.
Tullock, Gordon; Seldon, Arthur and Brady, Gordon L.: Government Failure. Cato Institute. 2002
Tuomela, Raimo: "On the structural aspects of collective action and free-riding", Theory and Decision 32 (1992) , 165-202.
Tuomela, Raimo: Cooperation, Kluwer. 2000 (The first chapter and the Table of Contents plus other related essays are online at Dr. Tuomela's home page.)