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February 11, 2005

the Iraqi election, suicide bombing, & rational choice theory

An election is partly a public good, in the precise economist's sense. If representatives are selected peacefully and officials are made accountable to the majority, that is a good thing for most people. This good is indivisible. I cannot decide to forgo the benefits to me personally of democratic elections, nor sell my stake to someone else. Like national defense or the ozone layer, elections benefit all (or at least the whole majority faction), if they serve anyone.

There is a well-known problem with public goods. Whether a democratic election occurs depends on many people's behavior, yet each person benefits regardless of what he or she does. For example, you gain from our political system—whether or not you vote. Thus you may be tempted to free-ride and let others bear the burden of voting. Or you may feel that it's pointless to promote this public good, since others are unlikely to do their share.

The problem is not too acute when the only cost of an election is the time in takes to cast a vote. In the US, about half the eligible people choose to participate. But when voting is extremely dangerous, the cost becomes high indeed and we expect few people to turn out.

Fortunately, if many people publicly show that they are going to face the dangers of voting, then the calculation changes for other individuals. Everyone sees that collective action can work, that democracy can prevail. While the cost of their own participation remains high, the benefits also become tangible. Thus it was crucial that long lines formed early in Iraq and remained even when bombs went off.

Suicide bombing is a brilliant (although despicable) strategy for disrupting other people's collective action. It raises the "cost" of participation enormously by creating the distinct possibility that you'll die if you vote, join the civilian police force, or merely walk the streets. The best way to win a game of "chicken" is to remove your steering wheel and throw it out the window. Then it's clear that you're going to keep driving straight, and the other person must swerve aside. A suicide bomber is a person who has thrown his wheel out the window.

Nevertheless—and this is what I’m winding up to say—conspicuous collective action and solidarity can defeat suicide bombers, and that’s what seems to have happened in Iraq’s elections. I find this deeply moving. It's the best aspect of human behavior.

Elections have another side, of course. I have said that they are public goods because they produce better governments than other processes would. But elections are also competitive struggles to allocate scarce resources among parties with divergent interests. As soon as the collective ritual of voting ended in Iraq, the more mundane business of counting ballots began. As everyone knows, the detailed political situation that underlies the Iraqi vote is perilous: Shiites have too large a potential majority. They threaten to make the election a losing proposition (not a public good) for the Sunni minority. Creating public goods, a process well begun in the elections, will remain difficult for a long time to come.

February 11, 2005 9:29 AM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


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