Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fielding Reader Questions: Is It All Rigged?

After two weeks of holidays and actual scientific research (hush now!), I thought it time I answer an important and surprisingly interesting question in political science: is everything rigged? (Thanks to reader Tom Mesirow and others for asking the question.) To answer this question, we need to spend some taking that question apart a little bit. When we say rigged, I think what we mean is something like "are the corporations/labor unions/American Medical Association/NPR in control of politics?"

The question is about what political scientists call capture, as in, "have the corporations/labor unions/American Medical Association/NPR captured control of government?" What worries people is that although there are tons of "us," "the people," a small number of people running special interests are actually in control.

A lot of times, this is true. People often blame money, and that's probably part of the story, but I want to focus on something less obvious. Here's a line from a song I like, "Connect For" from Seattle's Common Market: "Connect for the simple fact size brings strength."

Well, maybe, but only if people get organized first. If people get organized into groups and decide, say, to get a politician to vote against gay marriage or to stop shopping at Walmart because of their labor practices, they can succeed—if nobody's shopping at Walmart because shoppers don't like their labor practices, I guarantee you Walmart will change them. And if you believe David Mayhew, politicians fear nothing more than losing office, something a coordinated citizen campaign could bring about.

Organizing and Freeriding
So why don't people get organized? To begin to answer this question, we need to talk about public goods, which are things everyone, or at least a big group of people, would like but that are costly. One that many of us think about is a healthy environment—we'd like it, but many of us drive inefficient cars or drink coffee out of non-recyclable, non-reusable cups that contribute to a less healthy environment. And the simple answer, which people often attribute to Mancur Olson and his book The Logic of Collective Action, is that individuals don't have any incentive to get organized to get what they want.

The reason for that is pretty simple. If we want a better environment (or economy, for that matter), for example, we have to buy better, more fuel-efficient cars, but if you—yes, you—buy a better car, the environment doesn't get better. A lot of people have to do it for it to work. And if a lot of people buy better cars, then it won't make much difference if you do. In other words, your contribution doesn't actually make that much difference, so you have an incentive to freeride. Since everyone has this incentive, no one actually does anything. (In game theory language, freeriding is a dominant strategy—no matter what, you never an incentive to contribute by, in this case, getting a better car.)

How to Organize: NPR mugs and The Simple Fact Lunch is Cheap
Okay, so that explains why the general public doesn't organize. Why do groups like, say, car manufacturers do it? Why did the civil rights movement work? How does NPR get funded? Political scientists starting with Olson have outlined a number of reasons.

The first is what Olson called selective benefits. This is something labor unions, the AMA, and NPR all have in common. Basically, offering a selective benefit means giving you some concrete thing that augments the benefits of organizing for some purpose. In NPR's case, for example, (some) people want NPR but don't want to pay for it, so they give you a mug. Yes, it's a $35 dollar mug with Ira Flatow's face on it, but take that mug and combine it with BBC World Service and Science Friday, and it might make it worth it. 

Here's another way to think about why selective benefits make it possible to get public goods: because they are not themselves public goods. It's something only those who contribute get, meaning it is uniquely an incentive to contribute and not itself a public good that people won't contribute to.

Also, does this count as organizing? In an important sense, yes: by getting people to give money, NPR, for example, is able to organize to provide something many people want. At the very least, it does count as public goods provision.

The second is social movements, which is to say, people get excited and derive satisfaction out of contributing. This is why you see committed, determined people toughing it out, or, depending on your point of view, this is why you see self-righteous idiots taking over the streets cheerfully shouting "join us!" under the faulty assumption you agree with their cause. You can think of social movements as a special, psychological kind of selective benefits.

The third is smaller groups. When there aren't many, say, car manufacturers, the benefit of one company's contribution is much more important, and to some extent there is a "if not me, then who?" problem. Social norms may also play a role: if you don't kick in for road-trip gas, your friends may ditch you. Finally, the costs of organization itself are lower: organizing a million people to march on Washington, D.C. costs a lot more than three executives meeting over lunch. 

Is It All Rigged? Is Lunch Cheaper Than a Ticket to National?
And this brings us back to the original question. One reason why things seem rigged, why the corporations or labor or whoever is in control, is that it is much easier to organize because there are fewer of them. Sure, the Big Three automakers in the US have (had) money to pay lobbyists, but they wouldn't do that if they didn't organize. The fact that there are basically three guys who know each other makes it easier for them to organize than it is for all of us to organize a march on the Mall to protest an auto industry bailout.

This is not to say money doesn't matter. Money buys ads, and ads get your attention and play a big role in shaping your thinking about politics, partly because ads are just there and you have to invest effort in actually understanding politics—itself something many consider a public good. But money isn't everything, and it's nothing without organization. Keep that and the tips above in mind next time you want a new swimming pool for your town or, alternatively, your back yard not to turn in to a swimming pool.