Collective Action: Is it a Problem?

May 29, 2004 | 6 comments
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Given our dependence on a lay ministry and an (almost) all volunteer workforce, the fact that the Church operates at all is something of a miracle. Most of us credit (perhaps self-servingly) the “20” in the “80-20 Rule,” that is, those few individuals in every ward who seem to be shouldering the greatest burdens. As my time in the Church has lengthened, my affinity for the 80-20 Rule has waned. The Rule makes sense only when you count all of those nominal members who have no emotional attachment to the Church, but these people are largely excluded from the benefits generated by the “active” members. This isn’t like national defense, where everyone benefits even if only a few pay. With few exceptions, those who obtain the benefits generated by members of the Church are those who are actively engaged as members.

To be sure, at any given time, some members are creating more benefits than they consume. Some people live their whole lives like that. Most of us, however, experience both plentiful years and lean years, times of service and times of need. Over the course of an individual lifetime, therefore, the Church economy might look very much like the old Communist dogma: “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” Why does this work (more or less) in the Church context?

I have always assumed that the Church economy depended on charity. (And if I were feeling particularly provincial, I might think that the Church was flourishing because Mormons somehow managed to develop better charity than other people.) In any event, the Church economy sometimes seems separate and distinct from other spheres of human interaction, which tend to be driven by the invisible hand of self-interest rather than the visible hand of God. Recent advances in behavioral psychology, however, suggest that the operation of the Church may be entirely predictable according to a “logic of reciprocity.” Consider the following from Dan Kahan, The Logic of Reciprocity, 102 Michigan Law Review 71 (2003):

The Logic of Collective Action has for decades supplied the logic of public-policy analysis. In this pioneering application of public choice theory, Mancur Olson elegantly punctured the premise–shared by a variety of political theories–that individuals can be expected to act consistently with the interest of the groups to which they belong. Absent externally imposed incentives, wealth-maximizing individuals, he argued, will rarely find it in their interest to contribute to goods that benefit the group as a whole, but rather will “free ride” on the contributions that other group members make. As a result, too few individuals will contribute sufficiently, and the well-being of the group will suffer. These assumptions dominate public-policy analysis and public policy itself across a host of regulatory domains–from tax collection to environmental conservation, from street-level policing to policing of the internet.

But as a wealth of social science evidence now makes clear, Olson’s Logic is false. In collective-action settings, individuals adopt not a materially calculating posture but rather a richer, more emotionally nuanced reciprocal one. When they perceive that others are behaving cooperatively, individuals are moved by honor, altruism, and like dispositions to contribute to public goods even without the inducement of material incentives. When, in contrast, they perceive that others are shirking or otherwise taking advantage of them, individuals are moved by resentment and pride to withhold their own cooperation and even to engage in personally costly forms of retaliation.

This set of dynamics–which I propose to refer to as the “logic of reciprocity”–suggests not only an alternative account of when collective-action problems will arise, but also an alternative program for solving (or simply avoiding) them through law. Whereas the conventional logic of collective action counsels the creation of appropriate external incentives, the logic of reciprocity suggests the importance of promoting trust. Individuals who have faith in the willingness of others to contribute their fair share will voluntarily respond in kind. And spontaneous cooperation of this sort breeds more of the same, as individuals observe others contributing to public goods and are moved to reciprocate. In this self-sustaining atmosphere of trust, reliance on costly incentive schemes becomes less necessary. By the same token, individuals who lack faith in their peers can be expected to resist contributing to public goods, thereby inducing still others to withhold their cooperation as a means of retaliating. In this self-sustaining atmosphere of distrust, even strong (and costly) regulatory incentives are likely to be ineffective in promoting desirable behavior.

Indeed, such incentives may well undermine the conditions of trust necessary to hold collective-action problems at bay. Conspicuous rewards and punishments can imply that others aren’t inclined to cooperate voluntarily, a message that predictably weakens individuals’ commitment to contributing to public goods. In addition, incentive schemes tend to mask the extent to which individuals are inclined to contribute to public goods voluntarily, thereby weakening the tendency of observable cooperation to generate reciprocal cooperation by others. In short, manipulating material incentives may not only be an inefficient regulatory strategy for solving collective-action problems; it may often be a self-defeating one.

If Kahan is right — and I am sympathetic to the argument — the implications are enormous, and not just for public policy. For some of us, embracing this worldview would produce change on a micro level, in the way we interact with our children and other members of the ward. If you are anything like me, you may find that a little bit of knowledge of economic incentives goes a long way, perhaps too far. (Think of the reward and punishment structure of your family.) The implication of the logic of reciprocity is that our relationships should not be governed (only? primarily?) by carrots and sticks, but by love. But I suppose we already knew that.

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6 Responses to Collective Action: Is it a Problem?

  1. Russell Arben Fox on May 29, 2004 at 9:06 am

    Sounds like a great article Gordon; thanks for bringing it to our attention. A good deal of the research and arguments which Kahan describes (unless I misunderstand him) has come to the attention of political scientists and sociologists over the last 10-15 years or so via the work of Amitai Etzioni, Mary Ann Glendon, Robert Putnam, Francis Fukuyama, and others; in terms of political theory, you can see this emphasis on trust, social capital, reciprocity and the like animating a lot of which is written by various communitarians and civic republicans. No one (not even the most quasi-socialist or egalitarian of us) is really a statist any longer; the ways in which bureaucratic collectivism (whether via rigorously enforced schemes of “rights,” or one-size-fits-all redistribution programs, etc.) ignores the value of, and thus undermines the development of, love in social and communal contexts cannot be denied. Some liberals still mock the rediscovered interest in “civic virtue” in political theory, but the evidence against traditional public choice theory is, I think, just too strong.

    It’s interesting to speculate how this sort of thinking fits well with, or can contribute to, understanding life in the church. For instance, many of those who have studied the sources of social capital have pointed to the role of a truly self-sacrificing vanguard–a cohort of people (in the the American context, Putnam pointed to the generation that worked through the Great Depression and WWII) who established standards for collective concern and the sharing of burdens that consequently inspires their descendents. Perhaps this might help us understand, at least in part, why the pioneer legacy in Utah continues to produce so many strong wards and saints: the mighty “deposit” of love and charity manifest by those who crossed the plains is still earning “interest.” On the other, more negative side, some thinkers (like Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington) have also argued that there are cultural factors which either encourage or challenge the principle of collective reciprocity: that trust is simply more likely in some places (say, East Asia) than in others (the Caribbean, for example). This might suggest that, until and unless people everywhere change their cultural assumptions (as Elder Scott once suggested they must, if they are to embrace the “gospel culture”), the world will remain divided; in some parts, where acting on the basis of shared concern comes easily, the church will flourish, whereas in others inefficient, dependent, weak, insular and divided congregations will be the norm.

  2. Adam Greenwood on May 29, 2004 at 12:29 pm

    I think we all know from experience that both models arise from human nature. Kahan’s model is that part of human nature we wish to encourage, but it can’t be done by ignoring the other. That’s why ‘reciprocity’ can never be fully reciprocal: the Grey Fox is entirely right that some vanguard must sacrifice and shame the others. Christ is pre-eminent, of course, but there are many others. That’s why the nitpick history of the American past, which contemptuously spits out words like ‘heroism’ as if they were chewing tobacco, is dangerous.

    There’s another side to the equation too. Just as some are more fully devoted to the good model than others, some are more devoted to the self-interest model than others. So reciprocity models can’t survive without an iron fist somewhere. I don’t think the church could survive without excommunication, ostracism, and the de facto second class status of people who shirk.

  3. brayden on May 29, 2004 at 7:58 pm

    There probably is some base level of material resources (selective incentive) that must be available before reciprocity becomes a viable way of creating trust. If available resources available are extremely limited, individuals may be likely to withhold trust. It pays more to be greedy if there isn’t that much to go around in the first place. This is one reason that certain places, like the Carribean, may exhibit less reciprocity. Perhaps, and this is just a hypothetical, in wards where the resource levels are greater you are more likely to see individual sacrifice. This would be one way of combining these two faces of human nature: greed versus altruism.

    Alternatively, we could argue that certain institutional systems make being greedy less plausible. If the Church, which sets out to protect its members from experiencing extreme deprivation, decreases the risk of bottoming-out, members in resource-limited areas of the Church may feel more inclined to give service than their less-protected neighbors. Again, this is just a hypothesis.

  4. Nate Oman on May 30, 2004 at 9:07 pm

    Before we completely inter public choice theory, I would point out that in relatively small groups where behavior is visible and can be sanctioned, many of Mancur Olson’s predictions don’t hold true because the optimal solution in a multi-round prisoners dilemma is not to cheat, but tit for tat, which will over time result in a stable cooperative equalibrium.

    That said, I think that the work of Putnam, Etzioni, et al (Russell, Glendon is a law prof, btw) is very useful. One interesting note of intellectual history:

    One of the earliest prophets of the “social capital” field was Edward Banfield, who wrote a study of Southern Italy called _The Moral Basis of a Backward Society_ (1958), which in turn inspired Robert Putnam’s early work on social capital and Northern Italy (_Making Democracy Work_).

    Interestingly, Banfield knew the Mormons very well. His methodology was basically anthropological. He would go to a single place and intensively observe its political and social organization, and then write a book. (This is how he wrote _Moral Basis_). One of his earliest projects consisted of such a study of Mormon political and social organization in St. George, Utah. The study was never published (in part, I am told, because Banfield thought it would compromise the privacy of some of the LDS he had come to know well in St. Goerge), but I believe that BYU library has a copy of the manuscript.

    Banfield remained a friendly Gentile throughout his life and advised a fair number of Mormon graduate students at Harvard and Princeton (including Noel Reynolds and Tony Kimball).

  5. Russell Arben Fox on May 31, 2004 at 12:30 am

    Nate, I’m familiar with Glendon’s career and work. (Did you ever take a class from her?) I threw her onto my list because so much rights-based public policy theorizing, of which she has been so highly and so convincely critical, fits into the same general mold of a lot of the reductive, non-affective social science that the article Gordon cited criticized.

    Interesting note about Banfield; I think I’d heard his name before, but I never knew anything about him. Thanks for filling me in.

  6. Matt Evans on June 1, 2004 at 12:04 pm

    Is Kahan arguing that the ‘logic of reciprocity’ solves the collective action problem, or simply highlighting another variable that should complement incentives in our policy equations?

    If the latter, then I don’t see that this is very novel — it simply notes that policies that are perceived as mechanical and calculating will encourage people to respond mechanically and calculatingly. It also seems to be attacking a straw man, as no one who favors incentives to reward conservation believes that we should stop public service announcements that encourage people to reduce, reuse and recycle. (Public choice theorists don’t believe that cooperative arrangements or appeals to altruism are frivolous.)

    If the former — if Kahan thinks he’s solved the collective action problem — then I don’t see how the Logic of Reciprocity could be applied to the environment, Internet, or taxes. Does he say how he imagines the environment or US Treasury would look if our policies were guided by the Logic of Reciprocity?

    His hypothesis makes sense to me in small groups, where information costs are low, but for the issues he mentions, the relevant groups are enormous. In the case of the environment and oceans, the group is everyone on earth. Getting people to have faith and trust in *that group* would be a mighty feat indeed.

    Can someone who’s read the article enlighten me?