Sunday, September 4, 2016

Increasing circles of solidarity

Today is the last day of the Conference WINIR 2016 on Institutions and Human Behavior. To me, the best moment was the presentation by Louis Putterman from Brown University about a new unpublished paper on "Democracy and Collective Action." Since I volunteered to be the chair of his session (because I wanted to meet him) I could overcome my shyness to approach him at the end and not only ask him to sign a copy of his book "The Good, the Bad and the Economy" but also ask him a question about his presentation. In his new paper he addresses the topic of the sustainability of democracy, which was absent from his book. According to Putterman, the assumptions of traditional economics would make democracy unsustainable, because of the free-rider problem. That is, if all of us are selfish utility maximizers, given the costs and benefits of getting involved in collective action, nobody would pay the cost of getting informed or participate in the political process as voters, demonstrators or candidates, and democracies everywhere would be in the hands of thieves. There is little doubt that politics is in the hands of thieves in several places, and some thieves are running as candidates in some places. But it is also true that in some cases democracy has reasonably provided public goods such as health, infrastructures and basic education or law and order. Putterman says that democracy is possible because we are not like the economics textbook individuals, but we are social and political animals, as Aristotle had established long ago. We have evolved to be social like many social animals. My question to Putterman was that if we are social in the way that many social animals are, that should be good news for politicians like Trump or Farage, because the solidarity of individual animals does not go beyond the local group, and it has the dark side of violence against other groups even of the same species. Putterman briefly answered that over the history of humanity we have developed an ability to increase the circles of solidarity and that he hoped that we didn't need a threat from another planet to develop some sort of global altruism. Perhaps global climate change will do the trick. I'll read the paper of Putterman more in depth when I land on the other side of the pond and I'll look for some references he mentioned. And perhaps I'll ask him by email for more details about his idea of increasing circles of solidarity. This and a bit of feedback for my own research is what you get in these conferences.

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