Free Riding

Taking a cue from the publisher, reports:

[Richard] Tuck presents a bold challenge to the skeptical account of social
cooperation so widely held today.  If accepted, his argument may over
time encourage more public-spirited behavior.

Richard Tuck, of course, is a Professor of Government and Harvard and a historian of early modern political thought.  This book has many complicated philosophic arguments, here are bites of three of them:

1. If your cooperative behavior adds positively to a Sorites problem ("how many stones make a pile?"), it can be rational for a self-interested person to see good reason to contribute.

2. Under a properly sophisticated theory of causality (with or without Sorites), you might see your contribution as helping to cause a good end to come about, even if your contribution is not "necessary" for the good end to occur.  The phrase "pre-emptive cooperation" is used.

3. Rule rather than act utilitarianism often has (rational) force on people’s behavior.

Since there is more cooperation than standard models would predict, we can’t dismiss these arguments, which by the way are used to claim that standard economic reasoning is historically contingent.  By the end of the book we are told that perfect competition may operate as oligopoly and that — don’t be surprised — more government may be both necessary and desirable.   

Think of this as a kind of verbal game theory, written for people who won’t read technical game theory or formulate a precise solution concept.  I don’t think this looser approach is always worse, though the exposition could have been more to the point.

Here is a podcast for the book.  Here are the first twenty pages.


Mr. Tuck is moving us into non-equilibrium game theory. In response to each of the points you mention:

1. The metaphor for the Sorites paradox of a sandpile is literally a system that has been studied by physicists as exhibiting the self-organized critical (SOC) phenomenon. Earthquakes are another such system. In a nutshell, when a low frequency event (sand being added to the system) occurs within a system in which relaxation process (i.e., avalaches, tectonic plate slips) are high-frequency, then what will be observed is stable equilibriums punctuated by major catastrophes.

2. This definition of causality reveals that rationality and periodicity are orthogonal. Both are necessary to determine whether social behavior will result in cooperation or conflict.

3. Rule utilitarianism has an affect on individual behavior because the rules are constituted by a collection of individual behaviors -- i.e., rule utilitarianism requires a preference function that takes many individual preference functions as its argument, and combines them into an expansion of dyadic, triadic, quadratic, ... terms. Whether the expansion converges or not is a non-trivial problem. But with lots of simplifying assumptions, the model is not more complicated than others that have been solved already in quantum field theory.

Speaking of piling stones, Robert Frost had some interesting insights into non-equilibrium game theory in the context of property rights:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.


Being rude is neither the only nor the best way to accomplish the goal of smoother traffic flow. With a clever use of technology, the power of incentives could be used to synchronize traffic flow. What if you could push a button and offer a tip (say $1) to the person in front of you to drive better?

Michael - What if you could push a button and offer a tip (say $1) to the person in front of you to drive better? -

Interesting idea. The way I drive it might pay for my gas.
Most of civilization is based on "let's agree not to fight," but is complete compliance efficient? I'm postulating that society is a bit smoother with some rudeness than with none at all

And I should add that the offer/accept tip system of improving traffic flow still allows for rudeness!

From the rational end, has any thinker looked at the effort it takes to overcome a cognitive bias and act in one's rational self-interest? If the effort costs more than the savings, that could explain part of the gap you mentioned between theory on self-interested behavior and actual observed human behavior.

These are fascinating game theory explanations, but a much simpler game theory explanation is available: people don't want to look like a schmuck. It's an iterated game: if you win one round but get exposed as a schmuck, then in future rounds you will lose heavily.

This matches intuitively what I see from human behavior. The places where people cooperate the most are those where they have little to gain by cheating, and thus the schmuck factor overwhelms the temptation to cheat.

I haven't read the original article, but this teaser seems to overlook the simple explanation in favor of ones that come off as more of a stretch.


it is not bad

a good idea

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