Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Collective Action Problem and Self-Reliance

It is often said - and I agree with those who say it - that what prevents the establishment of a free society is the collective action problem. It takes relatively few to establish an effective apparatus of aggression, violence and coercion. But it takes an effort of the whole society to bring it down. It is not the case, however, that this problem was not on some occassions and to some degree successfully addressed in the past. If it were the case, we would still live in pharaonic bondage. What was the key factor that contributed to those successes?

I would argue that it was the essence of the individualist/libertarian mindset, namely, self-reliance and independence in the pursuit of one's cherished ideas, that allowed the discontented with the statist quo to disobey the dictates of power regardless of the likelihood that others will attempt to free ride on their efforts. It seems plausible to suppose that when one treats one's guiding values as constitutive of, rather than instrumental to the attainment of one's goals, the phenomenon of free riding has no impact on the probability of achieving those goals. In other words, to the extent that one ignores free riders, they are unable to hamper one's actions.

Of course, being a Cato (no institutional association intended) and remaining completely unperturbed in the face of one's efforts being exploited by would-be friends and allies is much easier said than done, but it is worth considering whether the extent to which a free society can be established does not depend on the extent to which the supporters of liberty are willing to become Catos.

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