The Problem Defined
Why give money to public broadcasting? This question is a concrete example of a more general question I shall explore for the rest of this work. I am not just interested in public broadcasting, but in many other goods and services which resemble public broadcasting in certain significant respects. The goods that interest me are public, that is, they share two properties. First, it is too costly or not feasible to provide one person with the good and not make it available to others as well. Second, one person's use of the good does not hinder or diminish another person's use. I will discuss and refine our definition of "public goods" in the next chapter. For now, note that public broadcasting is difficult to provide exclusively to selected audiences. Once you send out a radio or television signal, anyone within the broadcast range with the right equipment can enjoy the service to their heart's content. Nor does one person's enjoyment interfere with any other person's enjoyment.
Our subject is not the actual motives of the donor, or an adequate description of how people behave (although these issues have some bearing on our topic and can never be totally ignored). Rather, I am concerned with whether and why contributors ought to voluntarily support such services as public broadcasting. The question is normative. What convincing arguments favor contributing, what are the legitimate reasons for giving? A concentration on normative or prescriptive arguments distinguishes this work from most, if not all, of the existing literature on the voluntary provision of public goods.
Economists, who have studied public goods provision the most intensively, focus on either describing actual behavior or investigating how perfectly rational, purely self-interested people would behave. I am interested in the behavior of such ideal agents too, but for slightly different reasons. If one can show that rational, self-interested people will voluntarily provide efficient levels of public goods, then rational prudence alone will provide good reasons for voluntary contributions (in sufficient amounts). Why contribute? Because it is in your interest to do so. However, for the reasons briefly described below and as I will attempt to show in greater detail in the next chapter, rational prudence does not provide such a reason.
The fundamental problem for the purely self-interested, rational donor is the opportunity to free ride. Whether you give or not, the station will continue to broadcast the same signal. So you are free to enjoy the programming without contributing. Of course, were everyone to fail to contribute, then the station would not be able to cover it's expenses. Public radio and TV stations depend heavily on many small contributions.
Related to the free-rider problem, is the problem of insignificant effect. While your contribution adds to the income of the station, and hence you are certainly not hindering the provision of the service you desire, the beneficial effect seems insignificant in size. If you send your $50 membership to your public radio station, this contribution is a small, small fraction of the station's total operating budget. Why bother?
Suppose we do not limit ourselves to prudential reasons for contributing. The problem of insignificant effect does not immediately dissolve. Do you have a duty or is it even praiseworthy for you to do what seems to have such a minute effect? What moral theory provides us with an adequate rationale? In Chapters 4-7 I consider four basic alternatives: the theory of group agency (not really a moral theory, but an extension of the argument from individual rational prudence), social norms, fairness and altruism. For example, the moral duty to treat others fairly seems at first to justify voluntary provision. However, while I consider this theory second best among the contenders, I shall argue in Chapter Six that fairness cuts both ways, since the person who contributes when others do not is being exploited. One can justify free-riding as a way to avoid exploitation (being treated unfairly). The theory which I think provides the best foundation for voluntary contributions is a consequentialist theory of partial altruism. Utilitarianism would work, but is too strong. A less demanding principle of partial altruism is enough to justify a certain level of support.
Along the way, I will explore some related issues. What, for example, is the best game theoretic model of the voluntary provision of public goods? If we are all (partial) altruists, are our actions liable to be self-defeating? If voluntary provision is possible, but not adequate, should the government take over the job of production and distribution? I will not try to answer all of these questions comprehensively, especially with regard to the last one, but aim to explore just some of the central issues and to argue for conclusions that are sometimes ordinary and sometimes novel. As an example of the latter sort, I point out in Chapter 9 that many apparent public goods are really what I call public preference, private benefit goods. I argue that the voluntary provision of public preference, private benefit goods is more likely to be adequate than the provision of public goods. I also caution that there may still be structural reasons to expect inadequate provision (say, because people vary in the strength of their preferences for public preference, private benefit public goods) and that government has an important role to play in providing these sorts of goods.
Is there an obligation to give to public radio, especially for listeners? We may give, but are we required to give? Many people do not give to public radio and some do not make any tax-deductible contributions at all. Are free riders acting wrongly? The answer to this question depends on our theory of voluntary provision. If free riding were unfair, for example, then it would be wrong not to contribute. Presumably, we ought to avoid acting unfairly. The theory I advocate suggests that free-riding is not unfair, but stingy. The altruistic justification of voluntary provision needn't imply that giving is morally required or that not giving is wrong. On the contrary, a natural interpretation of altruism is that it is morally good, but not required. Whether it is wrong to be stingy depends on whether it is wrong not to be altruistic. Should people be altruists or should they be more altruistic than they are? I tend to think that the answer is "yes"; however, nothing I shall say depends on this claim and I will not defend it here. It is consistent with an altruistic justification of voluntary provision that such actions make rational sense, but are not morally required.
I am not so much interested in persuading free-riders to contribute, as in providing donors with reasons adequate to justify their actions. The fact remains that millions of people do give small donations to non-profit organizations which provide public goods such as public radio. "Why give?" is a question I attempt to answer for the givers, not the free-riders. If I were to answer it for the free-riders, I would attempt to persuade them to become altruists, which is beyond the scope of this project.
Giving to public broadcasting provides people with a good (at least many people frequently use this service). Before the regulation of broadcasting, excessive and frivolous use of the airways imposed a public bad. Whether the externality is good or bad, the problem is nearly the same. Not providing a bad is equivalent to providing a good. I may take advantage of the generosity of those who create a public good, or the restraint of those who don't provide a public bad. What follows is intended to apply equally to actions which provide goods and inactions which avoid bads, although most of my examples involve the former.
It is worth noting that while the example of public broadcasting is relatively minor, many public goods are quite important, especially those that the government provides. Although one may quibble about the purity of some of the examples, the list includes, in addition to the regulation of broadcasting, many vital goods, such as national defense, personal security, the control of easily communicable diseases, many environmental goods such as clean air, clean water or a steady global climate, the diverse benefits of an educated electorate, published knowledge, and the enforcement of contracts. Participation in social movements or demonstrations, erecting lighthouses and exercising restraint in fishing or the use of land held in common are some other obvious examples of providing a public good.
Many vital public goods are not provided by a government because in some respects we still live in a world of nearly complete anarchy. No international authority governs the interaction of nation states. Each nation is free to pursue its own goals without any restraint imposed by a higher authority with a monopoly over power. In this arena we find public goods associated with such benefits as having international standards of measurement or uniform technologies of communication, whaling or fishing restrictions, restrictions on the atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs, nuclear reactor safety, air pollution standards, safe shipping of hazardous wastes or fuels, and world peace and stability.
In other instances, a vital public good remains voluntary, although the government could provide or require it. In most western democracies (with the exception of Australia and Italy), voting is not a legal duty. While it requires a bit of effort and time to vote, a better government benefits every citizen. Even if we think that a candidate will favor one group of citizens (say, the wealthy, or those living in Southern states), the benefits to this group are available to everyone in that group. So voting also provides an important public good.
Some goods are private only on paper. For example, although many computer programs are legally protected by copyright laws, many people commonly manage to obtain copies of desirable software, while the owners of the intellectual property are powerless to enforce exclusion.
The theories considered in the following chapters apply to more than just money donations, although my thinking has often assumed that when people support services such as public broadcasting they do so by giving money. They could give chunks of their time or parts of their art collection. However, thinking about instances in which people give money has a couple of advantages. A person's gift is continuously divisible and often relatively anonymous. Because it is divisible we are not distracted by the peculiarities of lumps or thresholds. Because it is relatively anonymous we do not have to consider the complications involved when people volunteer their time. The volunteer meets people, gains recognition, develops on-going relationships and is caught in a web of complicating factors. I want to keep matters simple. I should note, however, that volunteered time is a major form of voluntary support: around half of all Americans volunteer for service some time during the year. If you paid them for their work, the amount would roughly equal what people give financially, well over $122 billion.
The Importance of the Problem
If we consider why voluntary provision is important some methodological issues will also become clearer. If it is not important, we should not waste our time thinking about the problem. Our topic bridges two fields: political philosophy and normative moral theory. We'll consider the role of the voluntary provision of public goods in political philosophy first.
The problem of public goods is central to the justification of government. Many political theorists since Hobbes have held (correctly, in my opinion) that one of the important functions of government is to overcome a structural shortcoming in human societies without governmental institutions. People will not, left to their own devices, adequately provide public goods. This is largely a matter of fact. Will people, or will they not, perform the actions needed to make themselves well off? I don't have a direct answer and obviously much depends on who the people are, and what they believe and desire. Chapter Two argues that perfectly rational, purely self-interested people will not adequately provide themselves with public goods, under certain plausible assumptions.
I stated earlier that I was not especially concerned with a typical person's actual motives for contributing. What I've just said in the last paragraph seems to suggest that I am nonetheless interested in how people would actually behave in certain hypothetical circumstances. This is an example of how we cannot completely neglect the descriptive facts about real motives. Actual motives are highly relevant to counterfactual questions of behavior. For example, if I know that someone is motivated by a strong desire to do as others are doing, then I may reasonably expect that he would join others were enough of them providing a public good.
We will avoid some difficult questions of counterfactual possibility by limiting our inquiry to what certain ideal types of people would do. In this work we are generally concerned with what perfectly rational, reasonably decent, people would do to provide a public good, were government not providing it for them. Questions about how ideal types would behave are indistinguishable from normative questions. "What would a good person do?" is, for our purposes, the same question as "What is it good to do?" (We are not here interested in the question of which is logically prior.)
While we are not addressing the question of what would actually happen if all the governments of the world were to disappear tomorrow (and even this question would be of limited value), nonetheless, we will have supplied an argument in favor of governmental institutions if we can show that perfectly rational, reasonably decent people will fall short in adequately providing themselves with public goods. They will fall short if there are no adequate normative reasons for each person to contribute the right amount to a public good. I do not attempt to address the thorny issue of why a counterfactual shortfall justifies an actual government.
The position defended in the following chapters claims that voluntary provision will be inadequate. At the same time, I wish to justify significant voluntary provision. Hence, what I attempt to justify is significant but inadequate voluntary provision. That is how I think perfectly rational, reasonably decent people will perform. They will give voluntarily to support public goods, but not give enough. The main thrust of the dissertation is to justify moderate amounts of giving.
Justifying a moderate amount of voluntary provision, but revealing a lack of justification for full provision, not only contributes to political philosophy. It is also an exercise in normative moral theory. We are reflecting on what people ought to do and attempting to provide arguments to guide their actions. Normative moral theory, as pursued by philosophers, has generally neglected the question of public goods. The focus has instead usually been on certain traditional forms of moral behavior, such as promise keeping, truth telling, and assisting friends--acts which usually involve one person's treatment of another person. The kind of activity which I discuss here is generally anonymous, impersonal, and involves the participation of a large number of people. I think impersonal, voluntary support for independent organizations deserves equal, if not greater, attention as a model of moral behavior. I will argue for this with a brief attempt at debunking the traditional exemplars.
I do not wish to deny that moral considerations often motivate promise keeping and truth telling. There is no question, but that people perform these acts because of their commitment to morality. However, because these actions typically involve interactions between a small number of agents, typically just two, agents who know each other well and are likely to continue to interact with one another, the reasons they have for good behavior are more than just moral ones. Prudential considerations provide powerful justifications that back-up moral directives. If I fail to honor my promises, I may develop a bad reputation which harms my ability to gain the trust of others. If I do not assist my friend now, he will be less likely to assist me later. Conventional morality may conflict with an individual's short-term desires, but is much less likely to conflict with her long-term interests.
The anonymous financial contribution to an organization which provides a public good does not benefit the donor in this way. Morality and self-interest typically diverge more widely with respect to voluntary funding. Further, we no longer live in an age when an individual's power to affect others is limited to the people in his own community. By mailing a check to Oxfam America a donor can dramatically affect the lives of strangers half way across the world.
Morality has a more important role to play in advising a person on how to budget her finances and allocate her free time than advising her about whether to break a date with a friend by giving a lying excuse. I say this not because how one spends one's money has greater consequences than how one treats one's friends (though this may be true), but because self-interest and morality are more likely to coincide and provide the same advice in the latter instance, but not in the former.
One exception to the coincidence of morality and prudence in personal relationships stands out. In very rare situations, one may have an opportunity to deceive one's family or friends, with a very small probability of detection and a large pay off, or one may know that with certain people with whom one has a sufficiently isolated relationship, no further interaction is likely, say because a common project, business deal, or love affair, that brought two people together is ending. In these instances, there may be a temptation to depart from the recommendations of morality in pursuit of personal gain.
First, note that because the opportunities for affordable and effective deception diminish with proximity and most interactions have no well defined end, these sorts of instances are infrequent. If people are limited in their capacity to distinguish good and bad opportunities for moral cheating or limited in their emotional capacity to lead a double life, then a unexceptional adherence to morality will well serve their individual interests. I think it less likely that the strains of free-riding with respect to large organizations providing public goods or charitable benefits are as severe.
Second, even these infrequent opportunities for advantageous but immoral acts could be avoided if there was the need to do so, at least in principle. As communication becomes cheaper, faster and easier, someone could set up a register for depositing personal gripes and comments. Want to learn about the romantic history of your new lover? Suspect that a recent acquaintance is a chronic liar? Consult The Record of Personal Complaints and Recommendations. Even better: take a minute to consult with the 25 people who claim Johnny built up their trust only to take advantage of them at the best opportunity.
There are obviously many practical problems with such a registry. It could be used to injure enemies, act on vendettas, or discriminate against harmless social misfits. Abuse would certainly diminish its usefulness (although abusers might have to worry about their records). Equally troubling, it could lead to an atmosphere of paranoia and fear which inhibits intimacy and care-free association. However, all of these problems afflict any small community where there is frequent communication. (The registry could have an advantage over gossip in allowing the accused to know about the charges made against them. At the same time, fear of reprisal or reward might affect the honesty of reports. One could more perfectly reproduce the conditions for gossip by refusing people access to files about themselves.) A registry would make certain features of small communities available to a large, mobile and dispersed population. These features, such as having to worry about one's reputation, would likely promote the habits of considerate behavior often found in close-knit communities.
Hence, I suggest that the topic of voluntary provision is relevant to both moral and political philosophy and to the moral choices facing ordinary people today.
What Is New Here
Since collective action and the free-rider problem have been the subject of intensive study during the past quarter century, it will help to say a few words about what distinguishes the following investigation from the others that have preceded it.
Our paradigm example, the action which we take as our starting point, is an individual who, together with many others, makes a small, effectively anonymous, donation to support a large organization providing a free benefit to the donor. The benefit is free because the donor may collect it regardless of whether she supports the organization or not. Decisions of this sort fit the standard understanding of "collective action" or--when the person fails to participate--"free-riding". However, not all authors who write on this topic are as interested in small sums and large populations. Taylor, for example, primarily examines how collective action is possible in communities small enough to allow for repetitive interactions with identifiable players.
What follows also differs from other studies of collective action by avoiding a very narrow and artificial conception of rationality. Many authors who seek to analyze the free-rider problem stumble into the common pitfall of supposing that rationality implies the rational pursuit of self-interest. I retain an interest in determining what actions are rational, but reject the assumption nearly ubiquitous in the economic literature that limits human motivation to each person advancing his own interests, or--at best--the interests of his family. On the contrary, I shall be especially concerned with the appeal of moral, ethical or social considerations.
Not every author that adopts this narrow definition of rationality is seriously hampered by it. Russell Hardin, for example, explicitly equates rationality with rational self-interest, but when the subject requires it, he quickly recognizes and probes into non-rational motivations. However, even authors that consider motives beyond self-interest do so as a secondary topic, on the periphery of their primary interests. In the following chapters, I do the opposite, giving moral motivation the primary emphasis, while discussing narrow self-interest as a secondary, but unavoidable, complication.
Most importantly, I will attempt to consider the arguments for collective action, rather than describe the circumstances in which it occurs or what motivates people to avoid the temptation to free-ride. Those authors that do discuss moral or "extra-rational" motivations, almost never stop to consider the defensibility of the hypothesized motivations. Elster, for example, when he describes how fairness might keep certain collective practices going, never entertains the question whether such principles of fairness are wise, sensible, have persuasive arguments behind them, or can resist critical scrutiny. What Elster neglects I hope to explore: which arguments work and which do not.
While I will attempt a survey of the leading approaches to our problem, I have generally avoided mentioning many authors beyond footnotes which acknowledge the intellectual provenance of ideas which appear in the body of the text. I adopt this practice not only because most authors I cite propose descriptive, rather than prescriptive theories, but also because I am presenting a review of significant arguments and not a survey of the actual opinions or published writings of real people. Such a strategy leaves me free to propose the best arguments within a certain approach, without having to worry about being faithful to any author's intentions. Of course, the drawback of neglecting to portray real authors is the possibility of missing good arguments because of lax or superficial reading, a hazard which explicit interpretation might have avoided. I judge the benefits to be worth the risks.
In the following chapters I consider five ways to defend voluntary provision. Three of the five (egoism, social norms, and group agency) fail completely. Under the right conditions (when a majority of beneficiaries also donate) and with the right assumptions (certain theories of fairness), one could defend free-rider avoidance by appealing to the notion of fairness. In real world situations, favorable conditions do not occur frequently: minorities invariably sustain public broadcasting and minorities frequently are the only ones to vote in public elections.
I will argue that altruism provides by far the best defense of voluntary provision. There are many ways to be an altruist. The two that I prefer are utilitarianism and what I call "partial altruism". However, I attempt to raise some novel objections to utilitarianism and defend the less well explored alternative of partial altruism.
In addition to learning what arguments do and what arguments do not succeed, the reader will also find in the last chapter a short discussion of normative issues in the governmental provision of public goods. In this chapter I attempt to identify a peculiar kind of public good and suggest why the usual free-rider problems should not plague this kind of good. While such goods may constitute a substantial portion of all public goods and many public goods resemble these goods in significant respects, no one to my knowledge has identified or discussed them.
In sum, I should like the reader to leave this thesis knowing more about five ways to justify free-rider avoidance and how the government may need to provide a certain kind of good, but not as a result of pestilent free-riding.
Back to Table of Contents page