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Political: Collective Action Problems

Video transcript

(intro music) Hi! My name is Jonny Anomaly, and I teach at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill. Today, I'm going to talk about collective action problems. Suppose you're in the market for a new car car, and you have a choice between buying a fuel-efficient compact car and a gas-guzzling truck to drive around Los Angeles. The car will save you money and emit less pollution, but the truck will be safer if you get in an accident. Your contribution to the amount of air pollution in Los Angeles, or to global climate change, is insignificant, even if it's true that if everyone chooses the truck, we get more pollution and less safety. The example is a typical collective action problem, which arises when people acting independently produce a worse outcome than they would if they could find a way to coordinate. Collective action problems are diverse, but one of the most common occurs when everyone in a group shares a goal, but achieving the goal requires only some members of the group to contribute. Examples of this are preserving a clean atmosphere by reducing air pollution, organizing a beach cleanup to remove trash from the sand, and saving an endangered species from extinction. While collective action problems are ubiquitous, not all of them are as serious as decisions that produce toxic air pollution or risks of fatal accidents. Consider the case of cosmetics and high heels. In some cultures, women are expected to buy expensive high-heeled shoes, which can be painful to wear, costly to buy, and can make it more difficult to run away from attackers. The main advantage to high heels is that they supposedly give women's legs a more attractive shape. If each woman within a certain social group is expected to wear heels rather than flats, the outcome is that no woman in the group has any particular advantage, but all of them bear a higher financial and physical burden from wearing high heels. Each faces the following problem. If I wear heels and others don't, I'll be a bit more attractive than those around me, given the prevailing standards of attractiveness. If others wear high heels, I'd better wear them too, to keep up with my peers. So, no matter what other women do, I should wear heels, even if all of us would be better off if heels had never been invented. It's important to recognize that not all collective action problems can be solved, and not all of them are worth solving, since the cost of collective action can exceed whatever benefits it might bring. The same point applies to prisoner's dilemmas, public goods, and commons tragedies, which often have a similar underlying structure. Still, there common ways of addressing collective action problems, including social norms, legal sanctions, and tax incentives. In the case of local air pollution, fuel taxes can reduce consumption, lead people to purchase more fuel-efficient cars, and encourage manufacturers to create cars that use less pollution-emitting energy. In the case of global pollution, like greenhouse gases that cause climate change, a carbon tax would likely lead consumers to reduce their use of carbon-intensive energy, and lead producers to search for and develop less carbon-intensive substitutes. Social norms can also help reduce pollution. For example, in some communities, people use bumper stickers to signal to other people that they drive a low-emission vehicle. They presumably do this to promote a norm in which people take pride in reducing pollution and feel ashamed of buying vehicles that pollute the environment. But when a population is large and diverse, so that interactions with the same people are less common, social norms usually can't get people to make large sacrifices to achieve a collectively beneficial goal. Back to the heels example. In some groups, especially small ones, social norms already solve the problem quite well. For example, some feminists might refrain from wearing heels because they believe high heels and cosmetics are part of a system of unfair expectations that men have of women. Agreements to reject high heels can be enforced through social sanctions, like public shaming, and through private feelings like guilt over violating a social norm. We could also impose a tax on high heels, and if that didn't work, state legislators might make buying, selling, or wearing heels a capital crime, punishable by death. But the cost of solving the problem through legal sanctions is, for most people, too high. First, some people enjoy wearing high heels, regardless of any social pressure to do so, and they would lose the liberty to dress as they please. Second, all taxpayers would have to finance the prosecution of people who are caught wearing high heels. The upshot is that even if we can imagine a social welfare improvement from banning high heels, it is not obvious that states should attempt to do so. This conclusion is universal. While norms, laws, and incentives can solve some collective action problems quite well, pollution for example, not all collective action problems are worth solving. Here's a challenge for those of you who made it to the end of the video. Think of two separate collective action problems: one that is worth solving, and one that is not, because of the problems that attempts to solve it would create. Subtitles by the Amara.org community