Safety in Numbers

The podcast Freakonomics is very good.  I would highly recommend listening to it.

One of the episodes that they did was on living your life like an economist would say that we should.  Basically, every decision should be to selfish.  You should look at every decision and see if you would personally benefit from it.  One of the more interesting discussions they had on this was on things that we as a society do collectively.  Which, as a selfish person, we should totally not participate in, but completely take advantage of.

Their first example of this was a street musician.  If you have ever enjoyed listening to a street musician and have not paid that person, you have taken advantage of someone else’s generosity.  If you have paid a street musician, you have enabled that person to perform for far more people than just you. And you would be, according to an economist, a sucker.

The tricky bit here is that if no one pays the street musician, then that person will not perform and will just go away.  There won’t be anymore music for random people to enjoy. But, not everyone contributes to the street musician.  Why is that?  Well, we all know that other people will contribute.  We don’t have to, because someone else will. So, we don’t. This is a simple example that we can extrapolate to other things, such as voting.

According to voting statistics, 57.5% of the eligible voters voted in the 2012 presidential election. In non-presidential elections, the voter turnout has been much lower. In other elections, it is even worse than 40%.  Why don’t more people vote?  Well, for one thing, people may think that their vote doesn’t count.  And, they would be correct.  Each vote is almost completely meaningless.  Unless, of course, enough people don’t vote, and then individual votes can count a lot.  It is just like the street musician – the majority of people believe that it doesn’t matter if they vote (or pay the musician); someone will get elected and the world will continue pretty much exactly the same as it has. Most people are pretty fed up with politics, but very few people actually have the gumption to do anything about it.

Another example is the power of collective bargaining.  One of the strengths of unions is that the unions don’t allow people to opt out.  You have to be a member.  Therefore, you have to pay dues. Because the union represents every single person, there is significant power there.  If the union strikes, everyone strikes. There is no choice. Even if you wanted to go to work, you couldn’t.  You have to negotiate with the union leadership to get them to stop the strike.

Conversely, if you make it illegal to force people to be part of a union, then people have a choice.  Choice, it turns out, can be bad.  People don’t always choose the thing that is best for them. Shocker, I know.  And collective bargaining is almost always better for worker’s wages and benefits than not having collective bargaining rights. (You can google this and find lots of information out there.)  If you take away that mechanism that forces people to be in unions, workers will choose to not be in the union, since they may not want to pay the union wage, or may have some other excuse.  It is just like voting and paying the street musician – someone else will do it, and everything will be fine.  Then, when the union goes to negotiate a raise or better benefits, they don’t have the same amount of power anymore, and the workers end up suffering.

Even in academic departments, this same phenomena exists.  People don’t volunteer to do different committees or teach certain classes or do whatever because someone else will do it.  And someone probably will.

You can choose whether you want to be a person who takes advantage of the system or a person who feeds the system and keeps it going.  Everyday we all have to make these little decisions, which probably don’t even register (speaking of which, I probably should donate to Freakonomics Radio). While we don’t all have to become super-humans and support everything (or even a fraction of everything) and vote in every election, it is good to appreciate the fact that others are supporting things that we take advantage of.  The realization that there are a huge number of people out there who are propping up our little self-centered universes is important.  And hopefully they realize that we are propping up theirs in a different way.


About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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