IV. Social Norms

 Justifications That Appeal to Social Norms.

 

So far our search for a justification of voluntary provision of a public good has led us to examine norms of prudential rationality. Abandoning these norms as a possible source of justification, we now turn to non-prudential norms. The rest of this work will be devoted to examining this alternative. In the present chapter we shall consider whether social norms are adequate to ground voluntary cooperation (in situations that would tempt the egoist to free ride). We will conclude they are not.

 

Social norms are prescribed rules of behavior, the violation of which normally provokes guilt and resentment. While norms are like moral theories in providing reasons for performing an action, they differ from moral theories in not being comprehensive or overriding. Norms govern limited contexts and provide merely presumptive reasons which can be overridden by other, more weighty reasons.

 

Some social norms are conventions. There is a social norm, for example, that requires one to go to the back of a line when waiting to buy a ticket, or to show up on time when meeting someone for an appointment. Note that these norms, while conventional, are taken quite seriously by people who observe them. The failure to conform tends to cause guilt in the perpetrator and resentment in the persons affected by the violation of the norm. This norm is taken more seriously than improper table manners, for example. While we take norms seriously, they are not absolute prescriptions.

 

Consider waiting in line. Suppose there is a line outside a hotel for the next cab. If one has an emergency, for example, one needs to go to the hospital or chase a thief, one does not wait one's turn in line.

 

While the two examples mentioned above are conventions, the social norms governing the voluntary provision of public goods cannot likewise be conventions. Conventions solve coordination problems, but the norms we want to examine concern situations that are Prisoner's Dilemmas, not games of coordination.

 

The brief discussion to follow differs considerably from the usual examination of social norms. I am not so much interested in the emergence or perpetuation of norms, which is certainly an important topic. Rather I am interested in how a person may justify his action by appealing to a social norm. In this respect the endeavor resembles an examination of the Morality of Common Sense (to use Sidgwick's phrase) as applied to the problem of public goods.

 

I should make it clear that here we are not concerned with the appeal to a social norm which is backed by a comprehensive moral theory. Any adequate moral theory must take into account local practices as well as human limitations which require the use of rules of thumb. To succeed some moral theories will be two-tiered. Citing a social norm within the context of a comprehensive moral theory amounts to recognizing these local practices or rules of thumb.

 

For example, a utilitarian (someone who prescribes maximizing expected human welfare) might partially justify keeping a promise on the grounds that there is a social norm in favor of promise keeping. The utilitarian is perfectly free to appeal to the fact that people generally keep their promises and expect others to do so as well. Part of his reason for keeping a promise may be that there is a general practice, moreover, a social norm, in its favor. Ultimately, however, he will appeal to the expected difference an action makes to human welfare. Social norms may figure into this calculation as relevant empirical facts. The sort of justifications I wish to examine here are not of this kind. There is no background moral theory that buttresses the appeal to a social norm. The norm alone is thought to be enough of a justification for the actions we are considering.

 

My overall strategy in this chapter is to show that the norms governing the voluntary provision of public goods are so vague, incomplete and contradictory that they do not provide sufficient guidance to form a rational basis for our action. If we avoid free riding, it is not out of respect for the social norms that sometimes legitimate our behavior. In trying to show this, I face a slight problem. My argument will often take the form of pointing to counter examples to a proposed norm. However, social norms, by definition, are not generally applicable, exceptionless rules, but are loose strictures on behavior. I rely on these two features of limited scope and merely presumptive guidance to distinguish social norms from comprehensive moral theories.

 

In reply, I appeal to the value of consistency. If a principle applies to some situations and not others, the advocate of the principle must explain what makes the two situations different. Return to the example of waiting in line for a cab. When someone must quickly take a cab to the hospital the urgent need of medical care overrides the importance of waiting one's turn in line. So there is some more fundamental principle which gives priority to medical needs over waiting one's turn in line. To provide a fully adequate account, one must explain how other principles can override the social norm. In other words, one must offer a theory which relies on the notion of prima facia or presumptive reasons, if one is going to admit exceptions.

 

One way to do this would be to explain that some social norms trump others. There is a social norm that says one ought to take immediate action in an emergency. This norm trumps the norm which prescribes waiting in line for a service. Such a response seems ad hoc. I suspect that the only principled and systematic way to resolve conflicting norms is by appeal to a single fundamental (perhaps complex) principle. If this is true, then again we have left the realm of social norms and entered into the domain of systematic ethics addressed in later chapters. The approach we are considering here is different. We are interested in autonomously justified rules. I shall attempt to show that these rules or norms are inadequate by themselves. Let us now leave methodological issue and consider what norms are relevant to our concerns.

 

A person might appeal to any of a number of different norms to justify her voluntary contribution. I have selected four that seem to me to be the best candidates. There may be others which apply to very specific circumstances, but these four apply across a wide variety of free rider situations (except for the third norm which I include because it applies to a limited but important example--voting).

 

i) A person contemplating free riding may ask herself, "What if everybody did that?" The norm tells her to avoid those actions that she would not want everyone to do or which would be worse for everyone to do than for no one to do. Jon Elster calls this norm, "everyday Kantianism". ii) A person may simply want to avoid free riding, where free-riding is such behavior as not contributing to a pot luck dinner, but attending the dinner anyway. iii) A person may participate out of a sense of civic duty. Some people feel they have a civic duty to vote, for example. iv) A person may regard the enjoyment of a good or service for which she does not pay as a form of theft. On this view, not contributing is analogous to stealing when the probability of detection is small. One probably wouldn't get caught stealing vegetables from a farmer's unattended roadside stand, for example. Not only is this illegal, but the morality of common sense says that it is wrong--there's a social norm against it. If one could convincingly argue that the producer of a public good owns the good, including the right to prohibit its use without the producer's consent, then the norm against theft would prohibit free riding.

 

I will not address in this chapter a very important social norm: the norm of fairness or reciprocity. This norm is both endorsed by the morality of common sense and purportedly follows from a contractarian moral theory. I will devote a whole chapter to this important source of justification rather than attempt to include it here.

 

 Everyday Kantianism.

 

It is common to object to the principle of everyday kantianism that it rules out many actions that are clearly permissible. If everyone called Rhode Island, drove home or spoke out loud, all at the same time, there would be annoying busy signals, traffic congestion, or a cacophony of speech. Should one therefore not call Rhode Island, drive home, or speak out loud? Perhaps calling Rhode Island is consistent with the purported norm if we redescribe the action involved. We might redescribe the action as "calling Rhode Island when one is so inclined". Since not everyone is inclined to call Rhode Island at the same time, everyone following this maxim would not jam the telephone lines.

 

There are at least two serious problems with this rule. First, it implies that moral duties are dependent on facts of human psychology. Suppose no mother is inclined to kill her child. If so, then a mother may kill her child. If every mother who is inclined to kill her child did so, there would be no such killings, hence matters are no worse if everyone who is so inclined were to perform this action. Suppose no one were inclined to free ride. It then would be permissible to free ride, since everyone following the rule "Free ride, if so inclined!" would not lead to disaster. Perhaps it is permissible for everyone to free ride; we have not yet discovered what it is that justifies cooperation and whether it renders cooperation a duty or just a commendable action. The point here is that what people are inclined to do affects what our modified norm suggests is permissible. If people are inclined to do the act, then it is permissible not to do it. If not inclined, the act is not permissible. This dependency seems implausible.

 

Second, the norm ignores the independence of actions. Suppose it would be better if everyone were brutally honest with each other (perhaps it would improve everyone's character, make us more likely to benefit from criticism and improve our understanding of ourselves and others). Everyday Kantianism would recommend unflinching honesty, which would be a mistake. Since few people are so brutally honest, it's best to politely avoid frank comments which will probably upset others. Likewise, consider situations with thresholds. For example, suppose that if enough people in a locality were to campaign to defend a wetland, they would succeed. Since the wetland protects the community's drinking water, it would be better if everyone contributed to the campaign. However, if no one else is actually contributing, then contributing would be a waste. Everyday Kantianism recommends contributing when doing so is a mistake.

 

Hence, everyday Kantianism is not a reliable norm.

 

 

 No free riding.

 

Our second social norm disapproves of the very sort of action that is the subject of this dissertation: free riding. It is not clear, however, exactly how the social norm defines free riding without appealing to some more fundamental principle. For example, if free riding is taking a benefit without incurring a burden, then really the prohibition is against failure to reciprocate. When briefly introducing this norm above, I illustrated the concept of free riding behavior using a paradigmatic example. No doubt, people can learn to apply concepts using model examples. But we need to be able to justify condemning free riding in some instances and not in others. Justification requires consistency and principled distinctions.

 

Some instances of free riding seem perfectly permissible. For example, if I buy flowering plants for a house that I share with other people, I cannot easily exclude them from the benefit of my purchase. However, they are not required to share in the watering of these plants. The inhabitants of the house constitute a privileged group, in Olson's terminology. While my housemates might find the pleasure they take in the flowers worth the watering, they know they can rely on me to do it. Further, they at no point agreed to do the watering and perhaps know that any explicit bargaining over the matter would not alter the status quo. It seems they are not under any obligation or compunction to help out.

 

Nozick provides us with a second example. Suppose someone broadcasts entertaining programs over an outdoor public address system. If the benefit to you is not worth your share of the cost of such an enhancement, then you have no obligation to participate. However, you are still entitled to free ride and need not plug up your ears. If the benefit is worth the cost and the distribution of the cost is fair, still, you may prefer that everyone cooperate in some other endeavor and not contribute for that reason, as a protest. If there is no alternative which you prefer to the public address system, you are still not required to contribute. Nozick supports this claim with an example not involving public goods: someone shoves books into your hands and grabs your money to pay for them. You may have no better use for the money, but you are still entitled to hold onto your cash. So even without favoring any alternative, the non-contributor is permitted a free ride.

 

Consider the stock market as another example where free riding is perfectly permissible. According to the efficient market theory, the price of every stock very quickly reflects all of the available information relevant to the stock's future performance. The financial benefits of conducting in-depth research or paying an advisor will at best just pay for the cost of the information or, quite possibly, simply lower the investor's return. Hence, throwing darts or investing in a mutual fund which matches certain market indexes will provide equal or superior returns to paying for financial advice. However the advantages of indexing or dart throwing would not be possible were it not for the sincere efforts of other advisors and investors that look over annual reports, visit companies and apply economic analysis and research. If everybody blindly indexed, indexing wouldn't pay. This instance of free riding, however, doesn't seem wrong and refraining from indexing isn't praiseworthy.

 

In both the flowering plant and stock market examples, the people who make free riding possible don't perform their actions out of a sense of duty or benevolent concern for others. Would it make a difference if the motives of the providers were different? Perhaps if they were of a uniform nature. Suppose all those paying investment advisors believed they had a duty to enrich the financial services community. This might alter the obligations of the dart throwers and index users. However, large populations of diverse individuals rarely have uniform motives. Their motives are more likely to vary from person to person and even within a person, from time to time. Some may begrudge free riders, others may not. Some may have simple and others complex motives. If so, the obligations of the index users are less clear. Nonetheless, where the motives of the providers predominantly selfish, the index users are engaging in permissible free riding.

 

Hence, the simple social norm against free riding is, by itself, an inadequate justification for voluntary provision.

 

 Civic duty.

 

Do people have a civic duty to contribute to the public goods that benefit them? This norm seems to apply most appropriately to the activity of voting. Many people expect others to participate in the process which selects elected officials and decides ballot issues. While people are rarely overtly reproached for not voting, in the United States buttons are worn during election day by people who have voted. They may serve not only as reminders to those who would otherwise forget to visit the polls, but also, perhaps, as implicit forms of mild reproach to those who have no such intention. Further, they may serve as symbols of light hearted pride at having done one's civic duty.

 

The trouble with this suggestion is that it is too specific to voting. There is not a civic duty to finance political campaigns, much less contribute to non-political public goods, such as AIDS research or environmental protection. We would prefer a theory which explains all forms of voluntary provision. There seems to be a common thread running through each instance of voluntary support of a public good. The social norm in favor of fulfilling certain civic duties is too limited to justify giving in all of the relevant contexts. Essentially, the argument here is one of justificatory simplicity. If contexts a, b and c are alike in relevant respects, then a theory that justifies a certain action in a, but not b or c is inadequate. A better theory will justify the action in all relevant contexts. We favor it on grounds of simplicity and theoretical parsimony.

 

 

 Free Riding as Theft.

 

Our final appeal to a social norm attempts to subsume free riding under the concept of theft. The provider of a public good has, according to this view, a property right to that good, which she may transfer in exchange for payment. Taking the good (taking advantage of it, enjoying it) without the consent of the owner counts as theft.

 

Consider the analogy between shareware computer programs and ordinary commercial programs. The authors of both types of programs have copyright privileges over their intellectual property. However, unlike commercial vendors, producers of shareware allow users to distribute their programs freely and legally. If you use a program frequently, the owner expects you to pay a fee. Illegally copying commercial software is theft. The norm against theft prohibits this sort of activity. By analogy, frequently using shareware without paying for it is a form of theft (it too may be illegal, although this is a murkier issue). Shareware is a kind of public good, since if you make a program available to some people, it is difficult to enforce exclusion, that is, keep people from using programs they have legally copied from others. (Commercial vendors also have difficulty excluding some users and not others, however, less so since they enjoy a legal sanction against copying their programs without their permission.)

 

This analogy has a slight blemish. While it is theft to illegally copy commercial programs, this practice is common and in some circles, permitted by prevailing social norms. In fact, there is sometimes social pressure applied to those individuals not willing to illegally share their programs with their friends. However, I shall assume none of my readers are white collar criminals and are not subject to the censure of polite thieves. Hence, my readers should not find this blemish in the analogy too distracting.

 

Imagine that the state were to pass a law that in fact gave the providers of public goods legal rights over their use. Suppose, for example, that the U.S. Congress passed a law making it illegal for a person to repeatedly listen to a radio station unless the station agreed to grant the person that right. If this were true, then clearly the social norms in favor of obeying the law would condemn free riding. Free riding would literally be an instance of theft. Because such a law would be nearly impossible to enforce, however, Congress is unlikely to consider such a bill. While no such law now exists, we still think there is some justification for not free riding. Thus, if free riding is theft, there must be some natural property right of producers not dependent on statute or law.

 

Can the producers of a public good claim a natural property right over the enjoyment of what they produce? On one interpretation of Lockean principles of property rights, they can. By producing a public good they are expending their labor to improve a natural resource. A radio station, for example, propagates a pattern of energy in the air, thereby allowing someone with a radio to capture a signal from the airwaves, just as a farmer cultivates his fields, thereby allowing someone with a sickle to harvest his hay. Locke held that a person owns his own labor and hence owns that with which he mixes his labor. If a farmer takes possession of unowned land, clears a field and seeds it, he owns the crop that grows there. By these Lockean principles, the station owns the product of its labor, the signal it produces at its own expense.

 

Locke, of course, famously added a proviso that there be "enough and as good left in common for others". There are some obstacles to meeting such a proviso in practice. When a public radio station broadcasts it does not leave as good and enough for others, since there is only a limited space on the radio band for broadcasting. However, if the existing situation is dire enough to be a tragedy of the commons, then some form of exclusive property rights may not only leave as much good for others, but may succeed in providing enough for others while the absence of exclusive property rights does not. If so many stations are attempting to broadcast within the same frequency range that the result is a chaos of competing interests, then the situation takes on the aspect of a tragedy of the commons.

 

Suppose to avoid such a tragedy, we decide to auction off places on the broadcast spectrum, granting to a certain station the right to broadcast at a certain frequency. For the sake of the argument, let us suppose that having paid a fair price for its license a station is entitled to the license and is not under any moral obligation to serve the public by broadcasting worthwhile or entertaining programs (other stations do this already and make money at it). Then clearly the station does not further crowd out others if it decides to broadcast a signal rather than hold its license and not broadcast. While holding a license crowds out other potential broadcasters, emitting a signal, once one holds a license, does not. So the station satisfies the proviso of leaving enough and as good for others when it decides to broadcast.

 

Does this give the station a natural property right to exclude others from listening to their broadcasts without the station's consent?

 

I do not here intend to examine the Lockean concept of property rights in detail. I will, however, stop to consider one principle which some have suggested supports the Lockean view. Suppose we require our moral rules to be such that if they are obeyed, each person's action benefits or harms only herself, except as she herself chooses to dispose of or exchange the benefits of her action. This would justify the right of the farmer to his harvest, his right to defend his crop against others who would like to take it away, and not just the right to benefit himself without harming anyone else.

 

This principle, as stated, directly justifies a property rule which gives a producer of a public good exclusive rights over how the good is used. However, another closely related principle would also justify the farmer's property right to the fruits of his labor, but without giving an exclusive right of ownership to the producer of the public good. Suppose that instead of the above constraint we require our moral rules to be such that if they are obeyed, each person's action harms only herself and in no way benefits anyone else without similarly benefitting herself, except as she herself chooses to dispose of or exchange the benefits of her action. This principle still gives right of exclusion over rivalrous goods, where benefitting others is at some cost to oneself, but it does not give right of exclusion over non-rivalrous ones, which benefit others at no cost to oneself. Why not use this second principle to justify the Lockean rule?

 

Indeed, we must avoid the first principle in order to explain why one does not always have exclusive rights over every externality one produces, even those incidental to the production and trade of one's private goods, as in the efficient stock market example. If half of the traders in a stock market are acting out of greed alone, they clearly do not have a right to restrict other traders from taking advantage of the efficiencies they create.

 

Of course, we could appeal to a principle in between these two. We might, for example, suggest that the extent to which I have control over the external benefits of my actions depends on the particular social norms in effect in my community or society. The social norms present may give me exclusive rights over some external benefits and not others. This would be fine were it not for that fact that our social norms are not so well defined or settle in this regard. The language of property rights is used rarely, if ever, in ordinary speech to describe one's duties or obligations concerning public goods. So the analogy with theft must stand or fall on its own merits, without gaining assistance from more specific social norms in this regard.

 

I conclude that social norms cannot provide the basis for justifying the voluntary (not legally sanctioned) provision of a public good.

 

 


 

Next Segment

Back to Table of Contents page