Inaction Collective Action Problems

In another note I discussed collective action problems (CAPs), particularly animal ethics and environmentalism. Both are CAPs in the same way: they involve action resulting in a bad outcome. For environmentalism, it's in our collective interest to reduce carbon emissions, but individually we don't want to suffer the cost of that reduction, so we keep on living carbon-heavy lifestyles. I'll call these “action CAPs”. The defining feature of action CAPs is that it's our acts (e.g., polluting) that are the problem.

I briefly mentioned a different sort of CAP in the last post. Giving to charity is a CAP, but instead of action resulting in a bad outcome it's inaction that causes the harm. We can all be giving to charities in much higher amounts than we are presently, but we don't. The result of our inaction is that billions of people who could be made better off are not. Let's throw caution to the wind and call these “inaction CAPs”. These are defined by what we're failing to do.

Action CAPs are a serious problem. If we don't do anything about climate change it's going to cost everyone in the future, although some will be affected more than others. Inaction CAPs, in contrast, are only costing those we're doing nothing to help, which might lead one to conclude that they're harder to solve. If there's no self-interested reason to change we are less likely to do so. But inaction CAPs are easier to get around in a different sense.

The problem with all collective action cases is they show that as individuals we'll never make a meaningful difference regardless of what we do. Therefore we might as well keep to the status quo. My proposal for getting around action CAPs is to switch our attention to methods that will force us to change. So, if a price on carbon is in our collective interest but no one is individually going to agree to a tax (or other solution) we ought to focus on getting laws enacted to institute such a system at the international level. If there's no way to solve CAPs—that is, no way to show that individually we're responsible for decreasing emissions regardless of what everyone else is doing—we ought to push for a system that will force everyone to change.

Inaction CAPs are different. For charitable giving, the problem is that donating to an international charity will never make a difference to someone's life because the effect of my donation will be too diluted to matter. Giving $10 a month to Oxfam will never make a morally relevant difference to their programs, so (the problem goes) I have no reason to give. (Compare giving $10 to one person or $10 to a charity that helps thousands of people. For the latter we can't point to anyone's life that's improved by our donation, even though collectively all donations help a lot of people.)

I think this sort of problem can be addressed more easily than action CAPs. As we've been doing all along, suppose that giving to charity won't make a morally relevant difference, so long as I'm not donating lots of money. (At some amount my donation will become relevant. The charity will be able to start a problem that they wouldn't be able to otherwise.) The problem is that my donation is diluted: $10 doesn't go directly to one person.

One solution is to donate so that the dilution problem is avoided. Giving to a charity that uses the money for a specific cause is one possibility. For example, if my $10 buys two mosquito nets then that is quantifiable and avoids dilution, whereas if my $10 goes into the pool of money that will be used in some unspecified way the dilution problem exists.

There are two problems with this requirement. First, it's really just a matter of organizing the charity in a particular way, even though it won't change its effectiveness overall. This is counterintuitive. Second, it only works for programs that are affordable for individuals. For expensive projects such as building hospitals the dilution problem returns. (But don't worry. I'll do a post soon arguing that $10 per month is much too little to be donating. And actually, there are other ways around the problem. Here's one: charities could advertise for specific projects so that donators could collaborate to build something which individually they couldn't afford. Then donators could accurately claim they build x amount of a hospital.)

Nevertheless, given how little money it takes to produce a tremendous amount of good, getting around this form of CAP is progress.