Collective Action Problem

November 1, 2011

Political Theory


In my last discussion section, the Collective Action Problem was brought to my attention. Before going any further, I want to clarify what the Collective Action Problem actually is: the issue with people either depending upon others or simply not willing to pull their own weight. This remains to be a huge issue in society.  A simple example of this problem that we discussed in my section is as followed: power-ups have and will likely continue to be rewarded to sections based on the sections performance as a whole, accounting for everything such as weekly attendance and class participation. However, what if there are a select few students in a section that do everything to the best of their abilities: they always attend class on time, they help stimulate discussion, they do all of the readings, and they are an overall positive influence in the class? Shouldn’t they be rewarded power-ups for pulling their own weight and performing to the best of their abilities? Is it fair that they may be victims of the overwhelming majority of the class consists of “free-riders” who don’t do their fair share to spur on discussion and such? No it is not fair, however, that is a product of the world we live in. Life will not always be fair. It may not seem justified that a lesser student receives a power-up in another section because his or her section as whole is more impressive, but it will happen anyway. That is what the collective action problem is all about.

People are not always accountable for their own actions, or lack thereof, which in turn could hinder many other people, such as by missing out on power-ups.  There are enforcement mechanisms that exist, such as fines and jail time, but these consequences are not always effective. To put it in other words, here’s an additional example pertaining to a more “real life” situation: taxes. There are countless people who don’t always pay their taxes. Whether they forgot, can’t afford to, or simply choose not to is somewhat irrelevant. The fact still remains that people who don’t pay their taxes are taking away from public goods such as the paving of roads, funding of medical facilities, and improvement of educational institutions.

Having given two very simple, yet, common examples of the Collective Action Problem, it seems obvious to me that this is in fact a major ongoing issue in society. However, upon further thought, I have come to realize that this problem could actually be far more detrimental. Consider the following: Americans live in a capitalist society. In short, we live in a world that thrives on competition and the ideal of “survival of the fittest.” This is what drives Americans to try and better themselves everyday: to make themselves smarter and stronger. In most cases, if we as individuals were to stop moving forward and increasing our human capital, we would eventually be surpassed by the next person in line.

Capitalism can be used as a mechanism to ensure that individuals not only better themselves, but make society better as a whole in regards to public goods. People need to work to make a living. There are millions of Americans who are able to put food on the table through industries such as construction, national defense, and environmental protection, all of which provide public goods. They must work hard to earn their money; therefore they are motivated to provide public goods for society if that is what it takes to make money. This all comes full circle now, as these public goods-based companies are able to receive government funding by the taxes that citizens are required to pay. As a result, the money that people are paying from taxes is used for public goods, which everyone benefits from.

A capitalist society is what keeps the Collective Action Problem at bay. It is what prevents the already difficult situation from becoming horrific. That being said, the question I now pose is what are the effects of communism on the Collective Action Problem? In a society that is run by the concept of everyone being equal and receiving equal compensation, it seems extremely apparent that there would be far more dead weight. What motivation would the average person have of contributing to society if everything is set-up to revolve around equal compensation and such? What’s to stop people from simply relying on the people around them to positively contribute to society and make it functional?

Communist supporters may argue that communism promotes socioeconomic equality, which may sound very appealing to some people. Society may also be more peaceful without competition. Rather than trying to outdo the people around them, people may be more open to getting along and working together.

However, in the end, no matter who produces more for society, they’re still going to be rewarded equally, so where then does the motivation lie? Where’s the incentive for anyone to educate him or herself and to work hard and stay active? It seems as if it’s a means to no end. Having said that, it seems to me that as urgent as the Collective Action Problem is in American Capitalist society, it is likely worlds upon worlds worse in communist driven societies. Capitalism is a means to overcoming the Collective Action Problem. Although it is an imperfect system, like any other societal system, it promotes the spirit of competition. Capitalism encourages every single person to be the best they can possibly be, covering everything from morals and values to education and work ethic. What are your thoughts?

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11 Comments on “Collective Action Problem”

  1. lnk72792 Says:

    The issues with capitalism are rather simple: everything is cut throat, and many do not believe that equality exists. However, with capitalism comes many benefits. Because everyone is on their own, they have the opportunity to work on their own and do what they love. Everyone has their own shot at pursuing happiness, and following the American Dream. Although many don’t believe that they are equals, everyone does in fact have equal opportunity. The alternatives to capitalism, as described in the post, are not promising. Communism does not have good precedence, as the USSR proved.

    In summary, allowing every individual to have an equal opportunity of success is the only way to work a society. Although it may feel like everything is survival of the fittest, everyone still has the same resources to use to succeed.

  2. sbsmoler92692 Says:

    I can easily understand how some may argue that in a Communist society, the Collective Action Problem would arise as an issue of general concern. As explained, a communist society consists of everyone doing equal work and having equal wages. Equality is not only stressed, but also it is regulated and enforced. This also brings up an interesting point, because who is to judge what equality entails? How can we decide or say who is holding up their end of the labor just as equally as the others are within the Communist society? With no incentive to work harder to earn more, or provide for a family, or be able to afford luxury items and goods, there is no driving force for citizens that live in a Communist society to work any harder or put in as much effort.
    In a society that is based off of equality, equal wages, work, effort and extremely communal, I would argue that there is little to no incentive or motivation for the average citizen to work towards. Rationally, why would anyone want to work harder than anyone else if they knew they were receiving the same amount of pay and had the same amount of work as their neighbors, and friends. In a communist society, “hard work does NOT pay off.” Whereas in a democracy, hard work does pay off and people are able to live the “American Dream,” despite their disadvantages and often times are given opportunities to flourish and succeed be it economically or within society as a whole.
    If people just stopped holding their equal end of the bargain up in the communist society, the collective action problem would emerge. Because society is equally dependent on everyone’s cooperation and efficiency, there would be nobody to “pick up” another persons slack or take more of their work. Even if this did happen, it would be hard to tell if someone had taken on more responsibilities than they are to be accounted for, because there would be no way to judge or reward those who have done more than the people who failed to meet their quota in the Communist society. The Collective Action Problem, indeed, is a problem as it forces more responsibility upon those who have already held up their end of the equal work in the Communist society. This is not only unfair, but extremely unjust and counteracts the whole purpose of a Communist and equally divided society.
    I also agree that capitalism is the only rational way to decipher in society those who are hardworking from those who are not. From a socioeconomic perspective, this becomes evident within society as the rich, educated, and smart people become successful while the slackers, homeless, and less hard working citizens do not succeed or blossom within the society. Capitalism, unlike Communism, actually gives citizens within the state a choice and driving motivation towards success and to be hard working and determined. Though some can argue that there are outside factors and variables that will always interfere with a persons ability to become successful, at least everyone within a Capitalist society has motivations and potential to work hard.

  3. goldman13 Says:

    The point of communism is that the people own the means of production. There is no private property, there are no private gains, and society either moves forward or stagnates as a whole. Therefore, the collective action problem can’t even be applied to communism. You’re absolutely correct when you say that people in a communist society have no motivation to do better; they have no incentive to better themselves. This is why most communistic societies/experiments fail — if no one tries to move forward, then society stagnates.

    But i think you have part of it twisted when you say “A capitalist society is what keeps the Collective Action Problem at bay.” – the collective action problem is prevalent and (basically) unavoidable in a capitalistic society. It is a part of human nature for us to be a little bit apathetic, lazy and selfish. If someone can’t afford taxes, then they have no interest in paying more so that someone, somewhere can drive their car on nicely paved roads. Rather, a capitalist society keeps the collective action problem alive, because life without it would be an unattainable utopia.

    There is no way to give everyone the incentive and motivation to better society – selfish desires are what drive our economy, and the economies of other capitalist nations all over the world. Of course, this same selfishness power the collective action problem. But this issue is only a small price to pay for an advanced, innovative and progressing society.

  4. bmschmid Says:

    Everyone here agrees that there is not a lot of incentives to work in a Communist society, however are there that many incentives to work while sitting on the bottom of the American Capitalist totem- pole? For example, analyze a poor inner-city community. Everyone lives in large projects or individual houses that all look the same. People in these communities tend to work two or sometimes even three jobs to make ends meet. All of the children go to the same public school and learn the same things. These people don’t have the economic liberty or luxury to pick and choose their jobs and schools and in turn doesn’t give them that many options for what type of products they buy or where in town they can afford to live in. Obviously, these people have the rights and liberties to try and change their situation, but let’s be honest it usually doesn’t work out. If you grew up below the poverty line (which is now 15.1% of all Americans or 46.2 million people), and work and work and work and don’t come up with that one genius idea to pull yourself out of poverty, then your stuck. The community around you is entirely stagnant. The majority of these people who are not that 1 of a 100 or 1 of a 1000 end up just like their parents. Being born into a stagnate community that doesn’t lend itself for upward social mobility. This kind of sounds somewhat communist. On top of that, your government preaches to you that if you just keep working hard, you can one day reach that American Dream. Now, these hardworking Americans are definitely “pulling their weight” within society but they are not rewarded. They are forcibly dependent on their government to provide certain necessities to be able to live. They are doing their share, competing but not progressing. It seems like you cant fall through the floor but also cant push upward on the low ceilings of poverty in America. I don’t see where the Capitalist motivation kicks in here. It is better to have the laws behind you, so that technically anyone legally can rise in society (unlike in Communism) but the odds for these millions of Americans is slim to none. So, not everyone in American society has the same resources to succeed and not everyone has equal opportunity to succeed.

  5. #jasonschwartz Says:

    I think that if you want to argue about the collective action problem, using communism and communist countries as an idea of a good way to settle the collective action problem is totally wrong. This is so because a TON of people living in communist countries don’t want to be there. If you have people living in a country that are generally unhappy with their surroundings than, in turn, they are not going to be as productive as they can be. This is actually a huge problem in communist countries and is a major collective action problem.
    Another major thing thats wrong with communism is the fact that when everyone is equal by law, there is no incentive for ANYONE to do ANY work. For example, if the rocket scientist (who works 90 hours a week) is getting paid as much as the bus driver (40 hours a week) what incentive is there for the rocket scientist to work? None. People need incentives to work, this is a well known fact about humans and human nature. This is also why you see so many people on wall street getting HUGE bonuses. Major firms use bonuses to incentivize their workers, and as a result of this each an every banker works over 100 hours every single week.

  6. benjishanus Says:

    i may be mistaken, but you to be arguing for the same cause that I am. Whether you’re trying to use different logic to justify this claim is possible, but ultimately, we seem to be supporting the same notion. That notion is the epitome of the collective action problem, which is detrimental towards achieving public goods. People need to be motivated to work against one another in order to better themselves, and in turn, better society. I believe that private goods and public goods go hand in hand. Getting one one can easily lead to the other.

    In your first sentence, Jason, you specifically indicated that a communist society is not the solution to the collective action problem. You may be confused, as you wrote as if you are disagreeing with me, however, that claim directly justified everything that I am saying. Communism is cancer regarding the pursuit of public goods. That’s the bottom line.

  7. bmschmid Says:

    Now that this class is coming to an end, it is interesting to re-engage the topic of the Collective Action Problem in relation to how this class works. Everyone is assigned 3 power up at the beginning of class and can earn additional power-ups along the way. Many people have 3 or 4 power ups, but I haven’t heard of anyone with more than that. Why is that? Shouldn’t if you consistently work hard and do everything the author laid out above, be rewarded for your work with multiple power ups. One thing I did not realize was that power ups can only be used at the end, after you have locked in your grade assignments.

    On the point of taxes, i just researched the tax gap problem in the United States. The tax gap is the difference between what the IRS states in how much the people of the country owe in taxes and how much they actually collect. The tax gap continually exceeds $300 billion a year. So there is $300 billion out there in the country every year that if collected, could be put to use for the greater goods (that is a lot of paved roads). There many people who don’t pay taxes, but live off the immunities the state provides through other peoples taxes. Life isn’t always fair, but in a case where the state is able to put a huge dent on your earnings, but not someone else’s because they didn’t pay taxes is not fair and nor should it be pushed aside as a consequence of the Collective Action Problem or an output of an Capitalist Society. This is the difference between power ups and taxes.

  8. goldman13 Says:

    I was going through my comments, and found it interesting that i actually disagree with myself. Throughout the course, we evaluated hardships and inequalities from a political theory lens. The capitalist society in which we live does not keep the collective action problem at bay. People frequently receive things that they don’t deserve, and this nation and our society have identified this problem as unavoidable.

  9. benjishanus Says:

    Regarding the issue of the power-ups, there are in fact people who currently have more than 3-4 power-ups. The problem I have with it is that I think in general the entire system is flawed. While it is very nice to be able to receive a power-up due to the fact that a couple other of kids in your discussion section stepped up to give a presentation, that still does not seem justified in my mind. The message that I interpret is: “you’re extremely lucky that two noble kids in your section took it upon themselves to do this presentation, take this power-up on their behalf.” The issue is, so what? Does that mean we should rely on pure luck in the future? I understand that luck and circumstances are an enormous aspect of society, but it does not seem justified to promote that in academic setting in my opinion.

    Another reason why I think this luck system is unfair is because not even every section recieved the chance to “get lucky”. While I initially thought that every section had been given the chance to have representatives give a presentation and receive power-ups for the entire class, this is not the case. There is at least one section, possibly more, that did not receive this same opportunity. While I was having lunch today with a friend of mine who is also in this class, he informed that his section did not in fact receive a chance for a collective power-up. Again, I understand that life isn’t always fair, but for the sake of preserving the integrity of the University of Michigan and the student body, how can this possibly be justified?

  10. blogger32 Says:

    Something I like about this post, is that it talks about a problem we can all relate to. Nothing is more frustrating than having to deal with someone who does not pull their weight…but no matter how hard we try there is no way to get rid of those free riders. However, you make a point in your post that in a way, justifies the approach of the free riders of society. You mention that life can be viewed as survival of the fittest. Although at first, you may not think of it this way, I think this principle applies to free riders. For example, in the situation of power ups, since it’s likely the instructor gives them out to section as a whole as opposed to individuals who make an effort during class, does it really whether you contribute to the discussion? Additionally, when it comes to paying taxes, why pay them if you know you can get away with not paying them? I’d say its still pretty likely that new road or new library gets build regardless of whether one person decides to blow off their taxes. However, by deciding to not participate in discussion or pay your taxes, you do run certain getting a lower participation grade at the end of the course or in the case of taxes being sent to prison.

    To respond to your last question about how communism and collective action…I think you make a very interesting point. The main goal behind both communism and collective action is that everyone does a small piece of the work to complete the whole. However, I think you do a nice job of answering the question…the reason I think communism can and never will work is because there will always be someone who does not do their fair share, no matter how little that share may be. This is the reason why there will always be free riders in society, but at the same time there will also be citizens who pick up the slack of others to ensure societies run smoothly.

  11. lnk72792 Says:

    Regarding the rejuvenated issue of power-ups, I would like to strengthen the notion that I believe that the system is unjust. I think it is great that students are encouraged to greaten their passion for learning and through this have the opportunity to gain a coveted power-up, however, the system seems very flawed. Why are some students able to luckily stumble upon them and not others?

    That being said, I believe that the system should be altered. As the author has indicated, it needs to be a more fair process. Having said that, students should only be allowed to earn power-ups through individual achievements and hard word. I do not think that it is right to simply give them out based on a greater group effort. At the end to the day, too many students will simply be able to fall back on getting lucky, while a select few will get extremely unlucky, as was the case in this class.

    I’m all for motivation and encouraging hard work, however, I believe that there is both a right and a wrong way to do everything. While the the concept of power-ups is creative and unique, it must be altered to become a more fair system that embraces the integrity of the University of Michigan.

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