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.


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