It is said that society is in a moral crisis. And, what is worse, it seems to be deteriorating at an ever increasing rate. We all agree that something needs to be done. Our politicians and preachers say we need to help each other more, we need to have "family values", we need to contribute to society and we need to have high moral standards. But there is a fundamental logical reason why none of this is going to happen. This article will explore that reason in detail.
A few nights ago, my wife and I were driving along one of the lesser traveled highways. We came upon a person with a broken down vehicle in obvious distress. My wife said, "Maybe we should help". But I said, "I think not - it is not worth the risk". She responded, "But what if someday you were stranded and needed some help. Wouldn't you want someone to stop?"
Her reasoning is noble and her attitude is just exactly what our society needs. But her logic is faulty.
It is faulty on at least two counts. First off, my wife and I personally had much to lose and little to gain by helping this person. There would likely be time and expense involved to us in getting the stranger's car going again. There was some risk in that we could have been harmed by the person. The practical reward for all this was a possible future gain of being helped in a similar situation.
Secondly, how is the recipient of our compassion going to spread the word to the population that the two of us are compassionate people (so that we might be helped someday)? Of course, it would not happen. Helping this person would have no effect on our chances of ever receiving similar help in this large anonymous society we now live in.
That example illustrates a phenomenon that is ubiquitous to our society.
When an individual has reason to contribute to what is basically a group activity in which the benefits of the group activity are shared by the group, certain puzzling phenomena are evident that can only be described as "diabolical". While there is no generally accepted terminology for these phenomena, various manifestations are often referred to as the "Voter's Paradox", the "Volunteer's Paradox", the "Tragedy of the Commons", and similar terms. In this essay, these phenomena, which Garret Hardin, in his famous essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons", described as "problems that have no technical solution" and others have termed as "social dilemmas" (herein abbreviated as "SD"), will be lumped under one term -- "The Voter's Paradox" and abbreviated as "VP". The term, "Voter's Paradox", is chosen to represent the general problem of the SD since the act of voting in a large election has essentially all the characteristics of most social dilemmas and is an excellent representation of this class of phenomena.
The definition for "paradox" used in this essay is "a person, situation, act, etc. that seems to have contradictory or inconsistent qualities" from Webster's dictionary. Basically, what we have are two apparently contradictory truths in the same phenomenon.
Strangely, the "Voter's Paradox" manifestation seems to be a double paradox. The first can be expressed as, "while it is true that a particular endeavor would return a benefit to all members of the group wherein each individual would receive rewards that more than compensate for each individual's contribution, it is also true that any particular individual would receive an even greater net return by not contributing anything". I will call this the "freerider" aspect. This aspect of the phenomena is consistent with a related dilemma, the "Prisoner's Dilemma" (herein abbreviated as "PD") which has received much study and is well reported in the scientific press. In particular, in the "Prisoner's Dilemma" and in most cases of the "Voter's Paradox", if everyone (or a sufficient number) cooperated, all would receive a greater personal benefit than they will if all defect even though it is rational for each participant to defect! More on this later.
The second paradox is that, "while it is true that the outcome of a group effort is made up of the sum of the individual efforts, in many cases a particular individual's contribution makes no significant and/or measurable impact on the outcome". I will call this the "my vote doesn't count" aspect.
Reiterating, the claim here is that a situation can exist such that: (1); while everyone would be better off if everyone contributes (cooperating), a particular individual is nearly always better off not contributing (defecting) and (2); the individual's contribution will not affect the outcome anyway. That both of these conditions are satisfied for a voter in a national election is obvious on reflection. We are all better off if most people vote, but my vote will make no impact and it does cost me to vote. Hence the term, "Voter's Paradox".
The reader should not be too quick to cynically regard this assertion as some academic pathological construct. On the contrary, the situation described is extremely common -- as I will attempt to show in this essay by providing examples occurring in all walks of life.
There is a wide spectrum of manifestations of the Social Dilemmas of which many will be examined in this essay. At this point, I would like to just summarize several of the more important forms along with some of the academic disciplines that study these problems.
The common thread in the Social Dilemmas is the conflict between the choice the individual would make to maximize her self-interest and the choice that would be best for the group. The number of people in the group, the nature of the contribution (continuous or binary), the nature of the reward or Utility (proportional or step), jointness of supply, and so on define the type of Social Dilemma.
Several concepts and academic disciplines are involved in these various forms of the social problems. I will mention a few here:
Public goods are things which individuals do not own but belong to the public in general. Of course, this varies greatly with the state or society we are discussing. At one time, all the aspects of nature -- the land, water, air, the mountains, the seas, etc. were considered to be public. The concept of ownership of these things developed late in our history.
While much of nature's bounty has been moved to private ownership, there are still articles that cannot easily be privately owned and others that the public may share even if they do not technically own it. The government generally lays claim to whatever would naturally be a public good in many cases. When the government owns a "public good", then there are usually provisions for the public to use it, possibly at some costs and under certain restrictive conditions. Highways, waterways, government parks, the radio spectrum, portions of the seas, etc. are examples.
There are certain non-material objects that might fit the true definition of public goods more than do the material objects. Such things as "freedom", "protection of life and property", a "free market", etc. fit in this category.
"The Common Good" refers to something that is good for the public, in general, rather than an individual. In this essay, I will usually use the expression, "the group's best interest", rather than "common good" as it is clearer in meaning.
The definition of Public Choice Theory, as extracted from an academic course outline, is: "Public Choice is an interdisciplinary field, at the intersection of political science and economics, which draws on sophisticated quantitative tools to model the functioning of political institutions. Public Choice examines such areas as theories of voter and party choice; the theory of constitutions; the theory of committees and elections; models of regulation; problems of public goods and externalities; rent-seeking models; and issues in social choice, social welfare and demand revelation."
Basically, Public Choice Theory addresses the political situation in a scientific, hard-nosed approach, describing it as the way it is -- not the way it ought to be and the way we wish it would be. In particular, the theory recognizes that politicians and government employees are motivated by self interest -- not the welfare of the public, as popular myths would have us believe.
Game theory is sometimes described as a "multiperson decision theory or the analysis of conflict. Recurring themes include threatening and bluffing, punishing and rewarding, building reputations, signaling your unobservable 'type', and sustaining cooperation in apparently noncooperative environments through repeated interactions."
The mathematical techniques of "Game Theory" are used to study certain of the social dilemma models. The technique has had some success in the PD type games, especially in providing greater insight. I am not aware of any major success with the more general social dilemmas, such as the Voter's Paradox, the subject of this essay.
Behaviourial aspects of the human are of significance in the study of the social dilemmas especially those aspects regarding a person's belief system. The recently developed concept of "memes" has particular importance with regard to why people actually cooperate against rationality.
Ethics are intimately involved with the SD, a lack of which is considered by many to be the primary cause of the SD's. Certainly, certain ethical principles, such as trust would apparently solve the SD. This issue will be discussed in detail in this series of essays.
The fact that the best interests of the individual and the public are often at odds, presents a challeging political problem. Political philosophers suggest that government may be necessary to force people to cooperate -- for their own good. Much more will be said about this later. Theoretical aspects will be examined in the section on Public Choice.
Economic aspects come to play when a cooperative venture is financed by voluntary contributions. Usually, such efforts must find more direct methods for success as the "freerider" problem will cause the effort to fail.
Public Choice theorists attempt to apply Economic theory to the Social Dilemmas, with some limited success.
The social dilemmas are of interest to theoretical philosophers and logicians as it appears to present real paradoxes "for which there is no technical solution".
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