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Friday, February 29, 2008


A public good via self-defense

Whilst browsing blogs, I came across a post entitled Meditations on Self Defence, written by LawDog, who I believe to be a policeman in Texas. He essentially argues that if everyone learned how to defend themselves, then a public good would be created in the form of a lower crime rate. If you want to argue that point, you should comment on the original blog, as I'm going to assume that self-defense does in fact provide a collective good. What I'm interested in if this will ever actually be provided, so I will look at it using ideas from The Logic of Collective Action by Mancur Olson.

The first thing to consider is that the benefit would go to every member of society, whether or not they as individuals help in any way. Society would then definitely be a latent group, or a group that is too large to actually organize sufficiently without the use of selective incentives or coercion. Each member has little incentive to act because the group is so expansive that his individual effort would not really be noticeable, but he would still receive the collective good.

There is really no coercion currently in place in the United States. Government is the major source of coercive force, and it allows self-defense, but it doesn't force anyone to do it. Some other countries have compulsory military service, which would probably result in the same thing in a roundabout way, but many people object to the idea. I have yet to hear of any lobbying for any other kind of forced instruction.

As for selective incentives, there's really only one, but it's a big one. You improve your chances of keeping your property and avoiding harm. Some people argue that attempting to defend yourself might actually only exacerbate matters, but again, anyone who wants to argue that can comment on the original blog. Apparently, this is not enough of an incentive for most people, probably because it also incurs so much cost in terms of time and effort. Also, part of the problem is that because crime is spread throughout the whole latent group, individuals assume that they, personally, won't be attacked.

So actually lowering the crime rate using self-defense would obviously require some other type of coercion or selective incentive, which seems unlikely to occur.

I would appreciate any comments or questions.

I must respectfully disagree. Two points:

First, as I have argued elsewhere, the herd immunity threshold for self defense is very low. Unlike bacteria and viruses, critters can be deterred. Thus, it doesn't require ubiquitous implementation for the benefits to accrue widely.

Second, externally-supplied incentives or coercion are not necessary in a society of responsible adults. Norms are established through experience-based tradition and/or through appeals to reason. In other words, beneficial societal influences are not necessarily mediated through centrally-administered (state-based) incentives or coercion. Voluntary associations based on shared interest or belief can also support positive collective behavior.
Actually, part of the reason so few people would engage in self-defense is because the herd immunity threshold is so low. People know that even if they don't participate, they will still benefit, so they feel little need to contribute.

And I agree that voluntary associations can support positive collective behavior, but I don't really know of any such organizations that promote self-defense for selfless reasons. I'm not exactly an expert on the subject, but if you know of any, I would be interested in learning more about them.
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