By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
Collective action problems are associated with inducing individuals to contribute to a common cause, when contributing to that cause is costly to the individual. Collective action problems crop up in all kinds of social interactions, and understanding how they work helps us understand a whole range of real-world issues.
When Is Collective Action Needed?
When it comes to environmental protection and conservation, a lot of issues we face share a certain set of features.
Consider something as simple as garbage floating in the ocean. It goes without saying that we all want the ocean to be clean. (Even people who litter the ocean would prefer a clean ocean to a dirty one; they just don’t want to take the steps that would be necessary to keeping it that way.)
But there’s a little peculiarity about keeping the ocean clean, and that is that no single individual’s actions make much of a difference in terms of just how pristine or polluted the ocean is. The thing that makes the ocean dirty is when lots of people litter, and when that happens, it’s going to be polluted no matter what—that is, no matter how careful one individual is about keeping it clean.
In short, keeping the ocean clean requires that all or most of us do our part. It requires collective action.
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Free Rider Problem
The problem is that keeping the ocean clean requires a sacrifice on the part of the individual, even if it’s just a small thing, like the extra time it takes to find a trash can. And since everyone gets to enjoy the ocean regardless of whether they contribute to keeping it clean or not, individuals will always be tempted to free ride—that is, to litter, knowing that their individual action won’t have a perceptible effect on the ocean either way.
The upshot is that many public goods (in this case, a clean ocean) will only become a reality if all or most people contribute to making it happen. But since that contribution entails a cost to the individual, and since our individual contributions are virtually invisible, many of us will free ride, and the public good won’t come to be, even though it’s something we all want.
This is called a collective action problem (or a free rider problem), and it explains everything from why dirty dishes accumulate in a sink to why climate change is such a difficult issue to address. Problems like these emerge from situations where society could benefit if people contributed to a common cause, but where people don’t do so because contributing is costly to the individual.
Collective action problems crop up in all kinds of social interactions, not just environmental ones, and understanding how they work helps us understand a whole range of real-world issues.
In international relations, they help us understand the dynamics of an arms race, why military alliances are so hard to keep together, and why trade agreements and treaties sometimes fall apart.
In economics, they explain everything from price wars to price-fixing, and labor disputes, and tax evasion.
And within a country, they explain why voter turnout is so low, why congressional spending is so high, and how brutal dictatorships manage to hang onto political power.
So, What Do We Do?
But wherever we encounter them, collective action problems touch on some of the most fundamental questions in comparative politics: What are the responsibilities of individual citizens in a democratic society? How do we balance individual freedom with public welfare? And what’s the proper role of government?
Because collective action problems are impossible to avoid, and because solving them is often essential, helping us overcome them is probably the single most important public good that modern governments can provide. Understanding the dilemmas associated with collective action is, therefore, crucial to understanding the role and responsibilities of the modern state.
Role of States and Governments
The common good not being achieved because of individual selfishness getting in the way is the main dilemma. But a set of rules—and someone or something with the power to enforce them—could rescue us from the dilemma. This is why institutions like the state are so often called upon to solve collective action problems. In many cases, they’re the only ones that can.
We all want roads; we all want fire protection; we all want national defense. But these things are expensive, and someone has to pay for them.
Not every road can be a toll road. We can’t pay for national defense only when we need it. A free-market, pay-as-you-go model just wouldn’t work for something like this. And so, government has to force us to pay for these things all the time and just in case. And it has to force us because no one would voluntarily pay for these things, even though we all want them.
This leads us to a whole set of difficult questions—political questions—like how much do we spend on these things, where do they go, and who pays how much. Government, law, and politics are all the unavoidable result of our attempt to make collective action possible.
The fact that non-state institutions sometimes emerge to solve collective action problems, and the fact that these problems sometimes solve themselves, brings us to some big questions: What collective action problems should the state solve? What responsibilities do we, as individuals, have to the societies in which we live? And if we decide that a social dilemma requires a collective solution, what solution do we turn to? And how do we pay for it?
These are enduring questions and the debate continues to this day. As citizens of a democratic society, we too have to weigh in on this debate. The political systems that we devise are answers that people have given to the questions throughout history of how we should organize society and make group decisions.
Common Questions about Collective Action Problems
Collective action problems are associated with inducing individuals to contribute to a common cause, when contributing to that cause is costly to the individual.
In international relations, collective action problems help us understand the dynamics of an arms race, why military alliances are so hard to keep together, and why trade agreements and treaties sometimes fall apart.
Collective action problems are impossible to avoid and solving them is often essential. Thus, helping us overcome them is what modern governments can provide.