Why Would Anyone Bother to Cooperate?

From Larry Susskind’s blog on the Consensus Building Approach

In his new book, Free Riding, Richard Tuck challenges long-standing views about social cooperation.  Free riding, as most people know, involves a decisions that many of us make not to get involved in group efforts because we can see that the outcome will probably be the same whether or not we participate,  and we will reap the benefits in any case. 

“Why bring something to the pot-luck supper?  The others will bring more than enough and I’ll get plenty to eat.” This is how a supposedly rational or self-interested individual is supposed to tote up gains and losses (to them) and make intelligent judgments about what to do. Tuck thinks otherwise.  He says, (that at least historically) most people have felt a moral compulsion to cooperate (regardless of what others might do).  They cooperate because it’s the right thing to do.  In addition, by acting cooperatively they can take credit for helping to make something good happen. 

Free riding leads to what is generally known as the “tragedy of the commons.” The tragedy arises when everyone decides it is not in their best interest to take care of a common resource, so no one does, and they all suffer.  This analysis has led many observers to conclude that the only way to get people to cooperate (i.e. to do “what they ought to do”) when their collective well-being depends on it, is to coerce the appropriate behavior. More recent analysts, however, including Elinor Ostrom (Managing the Commons), have documented numerous instances of successful voluntary efforts to manage common pool resources.  Ostrom’s work suggests that the tendency to “free ride” isn’t as widespread as some people think. Tuck offers an elaborate philosophical explanation for why relatively current notions of (self-interested) rationality have taken us in the wrong direction. He suggests that for many centuries ” the idea that we should not collaborate where the outcomes would clearly be beneficial to all of us” was “very far-fetched.”  Tuck’s point is that cooperation is often in our self-interest, even when our contribution might be negligible and even if will share in the benefits if others take all the responsibility. I would argue that contributing to a group effort is not just the moral thing to do (the 18th and 19th century view) , it is actually the rational thing to do when we think about the long-term benefits (to us) as well as the long-term losses (to us)  if everyone chooses to free-ride.  We don’t need a coercive government to help us see that.  So, I think there is a utilitarian or instrumental argument against free riding, and the economists have, indeed, got us headed in the wrong direction. 

Consensus building efforts in the public arena depend on voluntary cooperation on the part of a great many stakeholders. It is not always easy to explain at the outset why being part of a collaborative policy-making or problem-solving effort will produce a “better” outcome (for everyone involved). Nevertheless, that is the argument we try to make.  Some officials seek to “sell” cooperation entirely in terms of the responsibilities of citizenship, in much the same way they argue that everyone should exercise their right to vote.  In general, though, I think we can make a strong case for cooperating in purely self-interested terms.  ”You should be part of the upcoming effort to figure out how your community is going to grow and develop.  If you don’t get involved, others may take the town in directions that erode your property values and alter the way of life that keeps you here.”  That argument only carries weight, though, when those being asked to get involved think that the officials will listen to them.  The key to that, in my view, is the choice of the decision rule that the participatory effort employs.  
If a group decides to vote on every decision and let the majority rule, then anyone with a distinctly minority point of view is sure to feel that there impact will be negligible.  That’s why a commitment to a consensus building approach — one in which groups “seek unanimity but settle for overwhelming agreement” is so much more likely to attract the full range of stakeholders. Parties say to themselves, “They’ll have to listen to me.  They’ll have to find a way to meet my wishes as well as everyone else’s or they won’t be able to take any action at all.”  
People cooperate for three reasons: (1)  because they see what will happen to them if everyone chooses to free-ride; (2) its the moral thing to do; and (3) they want to be able to shape decisions and affect outcomes.


Larry Susskind

Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973.  Professor Susskind joined the… MORE >

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