Hobbes’s difficult idea

One of my favorite Paul Krugman papers is called “Ricardo’s difficult idea” — on why people have such a hard time understanding the concept of “comparative advantage.” Although the situation is not quite as bad, I’ve been struck recently by how much difficulty many people have trying to understand the concept of a “collective action problem.” Although that idea has a bit more history to it, I don’t think it’s too much of a distortion of the record to call this “Hobbes’s difficult idea.”

I was prompted to think about this a couple days back, when James wrote in the comments:

I think everyone can understand free rider problems, but almost no one bothers to think of the world in that way.

Sad but true. One of the things I’m constantly amazed by in discussions over climate change is how elusive the basic concept of a collective action problem remains, and how unintuitive it is for many people (whether to grasp, or just to apply, as James suggests). I know that I certainly didn’t “get it” right away. I had been told the story of the Prisoner’s Dilemma several times before I realized that it was not just a little puzzle, but in fact a very big deal. (Probably reading Russell Hardin’s book, Collective Action, is what caused the heavens to open for me. Or perhaps David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement.)

Anyhow, since that time, seeing the world in terms of collective action problems has become such second nature to me that I have increasing difficulty imagining what it would look like in any other terms, and thus, I have difficulty believing that anyone still fails to see it in those terms. I teach the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Tragedy of the Commons, and all the basic stuff about collective action problems, every year in my classes. And yet I feel intensely self-conscious every time I do, figuring that what I’m saying is so obvious that I’m boring most of the students. (I usually preface my little lecture with an apology to all those who have heard the basic line before.)

And yet, the other day I was reading this little book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, and they totally don’t get it. The book is all about climate change, and yet the concept of it being a “collective action problem” just doesn’t show up. Thus they express complete bewilderment over the fact that we might all know that outcome x is undesirable, and yet fail to act to avoid outcome x. So they wind up getting stuck on the dilemma that so many environmentalists wind up stuck on, when it comes to explaining our inaction: either 1. it must be the fault of scientists, for somehow failing to communicate effectively how bad x is going to be, or 2. there must be some “ideology” that holds us prisoner, preventing us from acting. In the end they go with both, but leaning more towards 2 — they wind up positing an ideology, called “market fundamentalism,” which is somehow supposed to explain our inaction.

It’s hard to know what to say, other than that this sort of thing is super-frustrating. The stakes are too high to be making this kind of basic, basic mistake. I actually wrote a paper on this exact topic — how people often mistake the effects of a collective action problem for the effects of ideology — a long time ago, which I guess might be worth trying to get back into circulation (“Problems in the Theory of Ideology“). What motivated the paper, originally, was noticing the following sort of dynamic unfold among intellectuals engaged in “social criticism” when they do not understand the logic of collective action:


“Outcome x is really bad, and our doing y is making it worse. We should all stop.”

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“They must the victims of an ideology! They don’t understand just how bad x really is. We must critique this ideology.”

Time passes

“Nothing happened. Not only that, but everyone agrees with our critique of ideology, and yet they are still doing y, and we are still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“I know, they must be the victims of an even deeper, more insidious ideology, which allows them to agree with our previous critique, and yet still do y! We must develop a more radical critique of ideology.”

Time passes

“Nothing happened…”

Repeat ad infinitum….


Now that I think about it, the other horn of the dilemma (the one pertaining to scientists) generates its own dynamic of this sort:


“Outcome x is really bad, and our doing y is making it worse. We should all stop.”

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be REALLY BAD, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be a FUCKING CATASTROPHE, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened. People are still doing y, and we’re still getting outcome x. How could that be?”

“It must be that they don’t understand how bad outcome x is going to be. Guys! Outcome x is going to be the END OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, don’t you get it?

Time passes

“Nothing happened…”

Repeat ad infinitum….


I don’t think it’s too hard to see these tendencies at work in the modern environmental movement (generating “deep ecology” critiques, on the one hand, and environmental apocalypticism on the other). The solution to both problems is one and the same — to recognize that it is a collective action problem, that collective action problems are hard to solve, and so we need to stop freaking out and just get to work on it.



Hobbes’s difficult idea — 16 Comments

  1. I imagine that most people who strongly (perhaps single-mindedly?) believe in environmental causes would argue that the collective nature of the problem is irrelevant: if something within our (let’s say Canada’s) control is making climate change worse, we should stop doing it, regardless of what the rest of the world does and regardless of the resulting impacts on our economy. Since collective action problems can rest on no one being willing to take the lead, our actions could set the chain reaction in motion.

  2. I completely agree that getting people to see things in terms of collective action problems is hard. The first time I taught the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I started by just presenting the classic PD situation and then polled the class on what they’d do. Out of 80 students, only 2 voted to defect (!!). So then I lectured for a 10-15 minutes on the nature of the problem and polled them again. I’d moved them all the way up to 4 defectors of out 80.

    I also completely agree that simple appeal to ideology isn’t explanatory. But maybe ‘market fundamentalism’ is meant to stand in for ‘the thing that makes it really hard for us to solve collective action problems’? (I’ve not read Oreskes and Conway, so this is just how I’d try to charitably reconstruct the argument.) Take climate change. It’s really obvious to anyone that thinks about this as a collective action problem that what’s needed, at minimum, is a price on carbon, which will help to line up the incentives in the right way. So why don’t we have a price on carbon? Well, ‘market fundamentalism as ideology’ isn’t really an explanation, but “because our politicians either won’t propose one out of fear of being criticized as ‘job killing’, or are actively hostile to the idea, and call it ‘job killing’” is, in Canada at least, a decent explanation. The idea that the regulation involved in imposing a solution to the collective action problem would, of necessity, be bad for the economy is also fair common, and plays a big role in domestic politics. Both of these are ideas that might be described as ‘market fundamentalism.’ The federal Conservative Party has won a few elections on the basis of this kind of argument.

  3. Mathieu: When I first taught the prisoner’s dilemma, I told the class that I had graded their midterm papers too harshly, so I intended to raise their grades. Some of them already did quite well though, so I gave them the option of either having their own grade raised by 5%, or else giving everyone in the class an extra 1%. I handed out index cards, for them to write their preferences down and return the cards to me. I also had about 80 students, only 3 chose to give everyone the 1%. I then took great pleasure in pointing out that the class had just collectively passed up the opportunity to have their grades raised by 80%. Then I told them that I wasn’t actually going to raise their grades, and that it was all to prove a philosophical point. They all hated me, but I proved my point!

  4. I’ll add that an understanding of collective action problems would be just as useful for free-market thinkers as for environmentalists, if not more so. The reason being that collective action problems are the primary reason free markets don’t work as well as theories say they’re supposed to. And if we could recognize collective action problems for what they are, we could perhaps more readily accept market-correcting public policies.

  5. Understanding collective action problems is also crucial for people on the left – in particular how the extent of the problem depends on the number of players. Businesses, when limited in number, have an easier time solving their collective action problems than do consumers or workers. Hence the bias in “interest-group pluralism” towards some interests over others.

  6. Glad someone else noticed this. Typically this thinking shows up in denialists making some sort of “well, go ahead and reduce your emissions to zero if you think this is so important greenies” type snark, or accusations of hypocrisy for not doing so while advocating (collective) action to reduce emissions.

    I often think it comes from the pervasive hyper individualism pushed by neoliberal ideology. If so, ideology is to blame, albeit less directly than the environmentalists you’re critiquing think.

  7. Forgive the second comment but as I recall, the social psyche evidence suggested that the way out of PDs was to build trust over repeat iterations. Hard to do in the classic PD involving years in prison, but as climate action seems to be an endless series of small bore deals, perhaps it could be fruitful, eventually – nations start making small cuts, and build trust in each other to keep going. Still a big lift and easy for a few malign actors to screw it up, but perhaps easier than waiting for the magic binding global 350 ppm by 2030 type unicorn fell swoop deal.

  8. At first glance, it seems that it would be difficult to get an entire population to understand these concepts, let alone act on them in a way that would work in everyone’s collective best interest. On the other hand, we do have almost universal acceptance of the idea that we should stop at red lights. So it can be done.

  9. > they wind up positing an ideology, called “market fundamentalism,” which is somehow supposed to explain our inaction.

    The root issue seems to be one of revealed preferences: this approach assumes that the effective outcome reflects the realization of an underlying set of principles.

    This is correct if and only if we’re at a Pareto-optimal state.

    If we’re at a global optimum, then we’re maximizing some objective function over all possible arrangements. Then, the reasoning is straightforward, and at least with broad strokes we can begin to define the effective ideology that answers “given that society is as good as we can make it, what do we find good?”

    Practically, we’ll likely be only at a local optimum. Here, we can still make limited inferences, but we must be careful to consider only marginal changes. This is where the collective action problem comes in, in that overcoming that allows society to take progressively larger “transition” steps that leave people worse off in the interim.

    From the perspective of climate change, the collective action problem of emissions reduction works to define the scope of policy transition we’re willing to make. The technological problem of alternate energy sources works to reduce the scope of transition we must make. Finding the Holy Grail of unlimited clean, inexpensive, dense energy would act to make transitioning away from cabon-based fuels nearly painless.

    > What motivated the paper, originally, was noticing the following sort of dynamic unfold among intellectuals engaged in “social criticism” when they do not understand the logic of collective action:

    Nitpick: couldn’t this be a collective action problem in and of itself? “Hole-in-one” solutions of bad ideology where the popular consensus is Just Plain Wrong are marketable and attention-grabbing. Even if social critics do understand collective action problems, it seems to me that ones that act like they don’t will receive a disproportionate share of attention.

  10. Unlike Joe Heath, I do not think the issue of climate change, as well as many other environmental problems can be properly described as collective action problems, for the simple reason that “collective” there is no collective and that the asymmetry between involved agents is so huge that there is no possible analogy with a prisoner’s dilemma situation.
    It is wrong to believe that everyone will be equally injured in the case of unanimous defection and that the costs will be the same for everyone in the case of cooperation. The fight against climate change, as many other environmental issues, is mainly a problem of injustice.

    As in the prisoner’s dilemma, a simplified situation with two actors can be used to illustrate the Climate dilemma :
    A is US citizen and a rich shareholder of a major oil company
    B is a Senegalese farmer producing subsistence farming
    Today, we could evaluate their utility as follows:
    U (A) = 1000
    U (B) = -10
    U (A + B) = 990

    In a typical buisness-as-usual (bau) scenario, that is to say in the absence of cooperation, A will continue to expand, increase his living standards and his level of satisfaction. It may be possible that this utility gain were slightly balanced by some adverse effects, such as the stress due to living in an increasingly unequal world or the cost for personal freedom due to the strengthening of the protection of borders and the increasing of measures to control the movement of people linked to the explosion of climate migrants, legal and illegal.
    Under the same scenario, B will be in greater insecurity. Drought-flood cycles will affect his own livelihood capacities and, more broadly, the access of the poor to food markets will become more and more precarious. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that B survive at least ten years in this miserable situation.
    It can be expected that in ten years, the respective utilities will be as follows:
    Ubau (A10) = 1050
    Ubau (B10) = -50
    Ubau (A10 + B10) = 1000

    In a cooperative scenario like the “+2 degrees by the end of the century” advocated by the IPCC, A will have to reduce his emissions by 20% over the next ten years, probably resulting in a reduction of his consumption, his standard of living, and possibly his income. He will no longer travel across the world several times a year. He will certainly no longer own personal car neither. Since the whole society will be reconfigured, we can expect that a portion of this cost will be balanced by the satisfaction of living in a society having managed to tackle such a big challenge, and perhaps by some positive externalities like conviviality or the autonomy gained through the reduction of one’s dependence on fossil fuels.
    In this scenario, B will bear the cost directly related to the cooperation that will limit its opportunities for development and consumption, plus some costs associated with the inertia of climatic changes and the possible effects of the global economic recession. If the cost of cooperation for B will probably be marginally smaller, it will be much more important than for A proportionally to its original utility.
    U + 2degrees (A10) = 950
    U + 2degrees (B10) = -30
    U + 2degrees (A10 + B10) = 920

    Conclusion: the optimization of the collective utility calls for a buisness-as-usual scenario.

    Maybe one way to rephrase the description of the climate problem as a situation approaching a collective action problem would be to consider the utility for members of future generations. Again, the riches, contemporary and forthcoming, have much less to lose from defection and the poors have much less to gain from cooperation, but the imbalance will certainly diminish somewhat over time. However, since members of future generations cannot choose for cooperation or defection, it must be assumed that the utility of contemporary is strongly influenced by their concern for the well-being of their descendants. But once made such an assumption, the question of responsibility for the future should give sufficient motivation to promote energy sobriety policies. The reformulation of the Climate dilemma in terms of a collective action problem thus becomes unnecessary.

    In collective action problem, there is a “collective”. In the prisoner’s dilemma, prisoners are in strictly symmetrical situations. I believe that many environmental problems befall in contexts of great asymmetry of power, of well-being and of information. They must be seen as problems of justice and moral responsibility, and their rephrasing in terms of collective utility optimization can obscure the issues that are really at stake.

    And here I have not even talked about the interests of non-human livings, the value of biodiversity or the significance of major processes of evolution and complexity of life!!!
    By the way, thank you very much, Joe, for this stimulating opportunity to play again with all these odd utility values and totally implausible fictive scenarios. I love it!

  11. Virginie raises a good point, since whether something is truly a collective action problem depends on the payouts. In the case of climate change unfortunately we have to rely on imperfect models, but personally I’m inclined to believe the direr predictions that the overall situation will be a standard prisoner’s dilemma.

    I wonder though if Virginie has hit the nail on the head in terms of public perception: perhaps many people believe that they’ll be fine. Convincing people to cooperate when they think they’re in prisoner’s dilemma is hard enough; getting them to believe that the situation is a prisoner’s dilemma in the first place will be even more difficult.

  12. I think that Virginie’s reply raises an important question which is: what kind of “game” is climate change anyway? I think that Virginie is right that it is clearly not a standard PD between individuals. But the symmetry of the standard PD is not necessary for having a collective action problem.
    Now, if the numbers that Virginie came up with give the right tendencies, then ‘the climate game’ is not a collective action problem for those two individuals (because mutual defection leaves is actually preferable for A to mutual cooperation).

    But I think (1) these numbers aren’t right and (2) individuals are not what we should be focusing on.

    I think the numbers are wrong because they assume that the reduction in emissions will actually have an effect on the very individuals that make the decision between business and usual and emission reduction. But the climate system does not react to our actions quickly enough for that to be true. Whether we reduce our emissions or not is not going to have an effect on the Senegalese farmer in ten years, but on his great-grandchildren in 100 years. So insofar as we focus on individuals, nobody who can choose a strategy in the game now is going to profit from a reduction in emissions (not even from the ‘cooperative’ outcome).

    If, on the other hand, we focus on countries instead of individuals, the ‘climate game’ begins to look a lot more like the collective action problem Joe thinks it is. Of course, it remains the case that the players are in vastly different positions – there is no symmetry of the outcomes here – but that doesn’t undermine the claim that it is a collective action problem.

    suppose you start with something like the following numbers:
    for the US: cost of cutting emissions 1000; cost incurred by unmitigated climate change 1500
    for Senegal: cost of cutting emissions 100; cost incurred by unmitigated climate change 5000
    for Canada: cost of cutting emissions 500; cost incurred by unmitigated climate change 700

    You can see how there is (in addition to the question of justice) a collective action problem between countries here.

  13. Even if the consequences of inaction may be catastrophic for everyone in the long run, there are a lot of evidences that vulnerabilities and harms are (and will continue to be) unequally distributed between rich and poor countries at the global scale (see for instance Roberts & Parks 2007 – A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy) and between rich and poor people at the domestic scale (see for instance Wright & Bullard 2009 – Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina).

    I intentionally chose a time horizon of 10 years because my (optimist?) guess is that business as usual could let the better-off (globally and domestically) sufficiently affluent at least for the next decade (even if I prefer them not to know that it could be ok for them to continue eating meat, traveling worldwile and driving a big car!). After 10 years, discounting rates and possible technological innovations make utility calculus hardly relevant, and maybe some other basis for decision making like maximin or precautionary principle would be more appropriate.

    Having said that, I agree that it could be a good (even insincere) strategy to make people believe they are in a PD situation to motivate cooperation. But it is a hard case to make because of the asymmetry feature and the uncertainties on the real outcomes of defection.

    My main purpose in this discussion was to highlight the fact that global warming as well as many environmental issues are situations of obvious injustice where the better-off make paid to the worse-off the costs of their favorable situation. Maybe it sounds a little ideological told like this, but empirical evidence are accumulating.

    I would be very interested to know if some literature exists on the equality feature of the PD. Did some philosophers try to extend it to unequal situations (in the initial position and in the outcomes)?

  14. Hey Virginie, long time no see. Thanks for stopping by.

    Climate change in my view is a plain-vanilla negative externality/market failure problem. The question you ask, about why it should be considered a collective action problem, could be asked about most situations that call for regulation. After all, there is usually someone who is benefiting from pollution, so when you regulate against it, the outcome looks win-lose, rather than win-win — suggesting then that you’re not really doing a pareto improvement. Mere asymmetry does not matter — as long as the outcome is win-win, it doesn’t matter that some are winning more than others. But if one person is actually losing, then you have a prima facie problem with the characterization of the interaction as a collective action problem.

    Explaining why this kind of regulation is actually a collective action issue is a bit complicated, and I’ve never seen a really good explanation in the literature. I recently tried to explain it, in a rather long article on cost-benefit analysis, which I hadn’t got around to posting, but now your comment provokes me to:
    There is a discussion in section 3 of this issue. Sorry it’s too long to summarize here. Basically it’s a Coasian point, that absent the market failure parties would have contracted to a different outcome.

  15. > Basically it’s a Coasian point, that absent the market failure parties would have contracted to a different outcome.

    It’s easy enough to illustrate this with an infinitely-unequal example. Imagine that all carbon is emitted by a single person, but the costs of climate change are distributed amongst everybody.

    Presuming that climate change is worth dealing with (that the costs of change are greater than the benefits from the opportunity cost of transitioning away from emissions), then it makes sense for “everyone” to agree to compensate CO2, Inc. for its transition. Provided the compensation falls between the cost of transitioning and the cost of unmitigated climate change, the result is Pareto-improving.

    This turns into a collective action problem in two ways: there’s a free-rider problem with parts of “everyone” that benefit from emissions limits but that do not pay into the compensation, and there’s an identity problem in finding/regulating/compensating all of the disparate polluters.

  16. I’m going to wade into some territory here where its likely the case that Joseph has forgotten more than I will ever understand, but it seems to me their exists a reasonable argument that is implicit in the positions of those like Oreskes and Klein. Whether they actually lay it out – I confess I haven’t read either book so I’m not sure – but for whatever reason it’s neglected in the post. Economist Sam Bowles has been making the point (empirically) for a while that creating institutions with incentives that appeal primarily to economic self-interest may fail when they undermine the moral values that lead people to act altruistically or in other public-spirited ways. And the late philosopher Martin Hollis has made a similar persuasive point regarding how economic rationality serves to undermine trust, since it makes it rational to act in a trustworthy way less often than it takes to sustain a general trust. So the more people adopt the theory, the more fragile the bond of society becomes. What does all this have to do with the relation between ideology and collective action? Well, it may be that ‘market fundamentalism’ isn’t the ‘proximate’ cause of our inability to take effective action, but as anyone involved in complex collective negotiations will explain, trust and a mutual understanding that we have interdependent reasons for action, rather than purely individual ones, are the building blocks for success. So if we continue to institutionalize and create incentives that reward market rationality, we may help to create jobs and lift millions out of poverty, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can privately contract our way out of massively complicated collective action problems and in turn a cooler planet. Olson himself noted the paradox that lies at the heart of applying economic rationality to the logic of collective action (see Decline of Nations). Bottom line — the correct way to ‘frame’ the problem of climate change may well be as a ‘collective action problem’, but appealing to the tenets of rational action that support market capitalism might not do us any favors in terms of solving it.