In the original Star Wars film, later dubbed A New Hope, Luke Skywalker was initially reluctant to join the rebellion against the Empire. As he told Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Look, I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now… It’s all such a long way from here.”
Luke notes that joining the rebellion would be costly. Joining the rebellion would mean failing to engage in work he has committed to do, work that helps his family. He perceives this cost as so high that he believes he “can’t get involved.”
In the real world, joining a revolutionary movement is costly too. Time and resources that someone puts towards a movement could have otherwise been used for other purposes. In addition to expending time and resources, participants may face violence from the state or rival factions. At the same time, these movements are often striving for political changes that are ultimately non-excludable. If a rebellion overthrows an unwanted government, those who stood on the sidelines are also freed from that unwanted government. This creates a collective action problem. There is an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others, rather than making the costly move of joining the fight.
And yet, despite these collective action problems, revolutions and other social movements do happen. How does this happen? Why don’t all the prospective revolutionaries choose to free ride, as The Logic of Collective Action leads us into the logic of collective inaction? Part of the answer is that rebels create selective incentives for people to participate in their movement. A selective incentive is an excludable good provided to those who contribute to the production or provision of a collective good.
While being free from a hated despot or empire is not easily excludable, plenty of other things are. For instance, a medal or some other form of accolade is excludable. So too are food and drinks offered at revolutionary gatherings. Camaraderie with and esteem from others who share your values is less tangible, but it’s still excludable and it’s still something people value. The strategies available to address collective action problems are diverse, and often these solutions will play mutually reinforcing roles. Mark Lichbach explores the diversity of these solutions in his book The Rebel’s Dilemma. Dennis Chong explores some of the ways civil rights activists addressed similar problems in his book Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement.
This literature has had a big influence on my work with Chris Coyne on polycentric defense. The diversity of real-world social movements and rebellions shows that people can address collective action problems and defend themselves from both external invaders and their own domestic governments. Too many economists see free rider problems and tacitly presume that only some intervention like taxation or conscription can address it. But sometimes people address these problems from the bottom up.
Social dilemmas are real. Contributing to a collective goal is costly, and often it may be tempting to say “I can’t get involved.” Yet in Star Wars, and in our world, that’s just the start of the story. People are capable of devising strategies from the bottom-up that convince their fellows to join them in collective action.
Nathan P. Goodman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Economics at New York University. His research interests include defense and peace economics, self-governance, public choice, institutional analysis, and Austrian economics.