Summary: Social Dilemmas

In this series of essays, the various phenomena of the so-called "Voter's Paradox", or "Social Dilemmas" have been examined in detail. There are two major aspects to this paradox -- both of which present enormous difficulties for a society based on social interaction. First, there is the problem that it seems to be quite evident that certain scenarios requiring the cooperation of all or most of the individuals in a group would provide benefits for everyone far in excess of what they would be able to do privately. Good examples are elections, roads, water supplies, river levees and other large investments. Yet, at the same time, it is obvious that for a particular individual, his or her maximum return is obtained by making no contribution - that is, freeriding. For example, if the levee could possibly break, the individual would be best served by not contributing to the sandbagging at the main levee but instead working on defenses around his own home.

The second major component of the "Voter's Paradox" is that the contribution of the individual in large groups may be absolutely or practically of no significance. On a national election, one vote cannot possibly determine the outcome of the election. If the levee broke because it was shy 100 sandbags and I could only do 50, then my effort was useless. Or if it didn't break because it had at least 50 more than it needed, my contribution would again be useless.

Societal Problems resulting from the VP

Most of the major problems facing large societies can be traced to the VP. Massive non-cooperation results in a breakdown of many group activities that would be useful. The massive growth of the welfare roles, crime, government spending, government waste, and etc. are examples of individuals maximizing their own return at the expense of the group. The paradox is that they are acting rationally!

Solutions to these problems are difficult but possible. However, the purpose of this essay is to examine and to expose the problem - not to provide solutions. Understanding what the real problems are should go a long way in helping to come up with these solutions.

Many do cooperate and that is often enough for success

That society functions at all is a testimony to the fact that a large part of society does "cooperate". According to R. Hardin, some experimental data indicates that about one half of the participants cooperate. I suspect that more cooperated in the past and less will in the future.

Fortunately, it does not require 100 percent cooperation for most group efforts to succeed. Many public projects function with only a small percentage contributing. Voting is a good example.

Another dilemma for society is that people are more likely to cooperate and not do what is in their personal best interest if they are ignorant and/or living lives controlled by myths. An educated person is more likely to be cognizant of the tradeoffs between self interest and group interest.

A meme supported moral structure could solve the "defection" problem. How to establish this required moral structure in modern society is a baffling problem, however.

Success can also be achieved for group activities that would fail if based on voluntary cooperation by invoking the force of law. Environment groups have made much use of this approach.

Privatizing and "pay-as-you-go" would solve many of the SD problems -- not without societal costs that some do not want to pay, however.

Next Segment

Back to the Table of Contents