Hoping Someone Else Fixes Everyone's Problem

Refugees are evacuated in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, an event in which most countries did not intervene.
Refugees are evacuated in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, an event in which most countries did not intervene. (David Guttenfelder -- Associated Press)
By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, October 22, 2007

Let's say there are 10 houses on your street and a giant pothole develops right in the middle of the block. Everyone benefits if the pothole gets fixed, but that might require multiple calls to municipal authorities and a lot of hassle. Since every resident benefits even if he or she does nothing to solve the problem, each resident has an incentive to sit back and hope someone else will do the dirty work.

This phenomenon, known as the free rider problem, is ubiquitous whenever you have a combination of a public good and the need for collective action. Researchers have thought a lot about how groups can get around the problem.

Recently, a political scientist from North Carolina got to thinking about whether the free rider problem may explain a conundrum that has bedeviled international politics for decades -- a conundrum that recently reared its head in the news in multiple guises.

The problem, whether in Burma, Tibet, Armenia or Darfur, is what the world should do when people in a particular country are being oppressed. The most chilling example came in 1994, when the world sat on its hands and watched genocide unfold in Rwanda.

Most countries agree that ending genocide and political repression are important. A couple of weeks ago the U.N. Security Council unanimously declared its abhorrence for the military clampdown in Burma against Buddhist monks campaigning for human rights and democracy. The conundrum, though, is why such unanimity rarely translates into action that makes any concrete difference.

"Everyone agreeing on something is not sufficient to cause action -- that's the free rider problem," said Stephen Gent, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Gent recently analyzed all civil conflicts after World War II. He found that when the United States, Britain and other powers unanimously agreed with each other on the importance of some issue, they were the least likely to actually do anything about it, especially if no private benefit, such as access to oil or territory, was also involved.

Ending genocide, Gent argues in a study to be published in the Journal of Politics, is the ultimate public good. Everyone opposes genocide, even if they themselves do nothing to halt it. The free rider problem suggests there will be an incentive for each country to sit back and hope someone else expends blood and treasure to stop the killings.

When countries have intervened to end political repression, Gent finds, there are usually private benefits attached -- the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, was not primarily meant to help repressed Iraqis, but to buy America protection against terrorism and a strategic foothold in the Middle East.

The free rider theory provides a novel explanation of why the world regularly fails to halt genocide. Todd Sandler, a University of Texas economist who studies free rider problems, praises Gent for showing how consensus can counterintuitively lead to inaction when it comes to humanitarian causes.

But Michael Barnett, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and the author of "Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda," argues the problem is not collective inaction, but that most nations do not really care that much about repression in faraway places.

"Yes, they do not like genocide," adds Stephen Krasner, a Stanford University political scientist. "But, also yes, getting your own forces killed in a far-off place that most of your electorate has never heard of is not likely to win you votes."

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