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Monday, March 31, 2008


Safety in Groups

Reading through some of the previous posts I’ve noticed more than one focus on the idea defense and protection as a public good, the most recent being “A Public Good Via Self-Defense” by Michelle Rennolet. And while these articles do a good job reviewing Olson’s theory of collective action as it may apply to such a good and the applications thereof, I’d like to continue along the same lines, but now spend a little time covering some of the actual groups that have sprung up with an eye towards providing public defense, and invite all the previous posters to join in and highlight wherever I may get it wrong.

Now the most obvious groups that exist to provide defense are the United States Armed Forces. However, the incentive that brings members of this group together, outside of providing national defense, something that benefits soldiers as well as nonsoldiers, is obvious. It’s a job that not just provides a paycheck but many other benefits, such as transferable training and college scholarships. So while membership requires no coercion (except in times of a draft) providing for the costs of membership is a little different. Paying soldiers is an expensive endeavor, and one that would undoubtedly encounter free rider problems if left purely to good natured contributions from those attempting to pay for the public good provided for them. Thus the ultimate form of coercion is required in the form of compulsory government taxes.

There are, however, true volunteer groups that attempt, or at least claim, to provide for public safety. Let’s begin with militias. The question to ask here should be why members show up at all. Unlike the armed forces and local police there’s no pay and honestly, there’s little to no good being provided as there hasn’t been much call for militias to bolster national defense since the early 1800s. Thus if the good provided by the group is negligible at best, we could assume the benefit to each individual member to be less then minute, while the drain on time and energy continues to be constant. Why then continue to attend meetings and target practices? I think the answer is social incentives. Most militias, outside of the Texas Minutemen who claim to guarding the border, have devolved into something more akin to a club then a serious gathering. The true interests are in laughs and companionship not national defense.

Among the other volunteer groups you hear about attempting to provide a public good, perhaps the most often mentioned is the neighborhood watch. This is a bit of an interesting case because it varies from formation to formation. Often they’re formed in neighborhoods with little crime to begin with and can thus be chalked up to social incentives again, with the weekly meetings taking the place of ye olde neighborhood picnics and such forth. However, in other cases there is a specific need involved because of high crime rates, or a sudden local crime spree, and here I think the small group dynamic comes into play. In essence the benefit provided to each individual member is at least equal if not greater then the effort put out. A meeting and patrol every now and then isn’t high effort and neither is agreeing to call the cops or check in with neighbors if you witness something suspicious. But in high crime neighborhoods the benefit of getting your neighbors to do the same can be of untold value. Of course there’s still likely to be a free rider problem to some extent, but in a small group like this social pressure rather then incentives can prove to be the deciding factor in getting everyone on board.

-Jaeson Madison

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