Voting and the Free Rider Problem

I’m back in my Social Movements class. We’re talking about collective action problems – if you’re interested in a collective goal, there will be free riders: people who think “if I bother helping out towards this goal, it won’t make much difference, but I will have to sacrifice. Therefore, I can just not join in working towards this goal, and reap the benefits if it is reaped.”

Does that make sense? Ask your econ friends about the free rider problems: that’s what’s going on.

In the context of social movements, however, there have arisen a class of tools that try to deal with this.

One way: “Why don’t Americans litter as much as others?” A foreign student remarked about how she was surprised that in the US there is a lot less littering. Why? The key insight – littering is observable, and tied to morality. You don’t want to litter because its thought of as a morally wrong thing, and you don’t want others to castigate you as a litterer.

Same thing with, say, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. When you ride on the bus, it’s very visible! Your peers will look down on you!

Unions are good at dealing with this: in any given shop, you don’t need 100% of the workers to be part of the union for the union to have bargaining power. If 10% of the workers not in the union get raises as well as the union workers (and they don’t have to pay dues), that’s another example of the free rider problem. Unions deal with this by offering union-only health care plans, cookouts, etc.

In general, the way to deal with a free rider problem is to give selective incentives to those in the “in-group” (of those actually working for teh broader social good). That way, the focus is not on the overriding social goal, but in the intermediate benefits that accrue to the participants. These benefits might be psychic, social, etc, but they are important.
Anyways, I was thinking about voting. Voting is a big example of the free rider problem: your individual vote is very unlikely to be decisive, yet it takes a lot of hassle (and lost work time) to vote. Yet clearly if a bunch of people didn’t vote for this reason, we’d have problems. And this does happen!

Why not make pacts? Take 10 non-votes. Introduce them all (through the internet?) to each other, and perhaps they will make a pact that either all 10 of them vote, or none of them do. Now, in a sense, they’ve each increased their individual voting power by 10.

It’s also harder to explain to your 9 new acquaintences that you’ve let them down re-voting than to feel vaguely guilty about not voting.

Just a thought.