Image: Your Little Planet
James Madison was concerned that the basic character of man was self-interest and he would not act if in a power position for the common good. While, this self-interest aspect of people is turbo charged in capitalist nations, it may not be the choice many of us make when we see the light of the common good and make choices that benefit all of us. Certainly, Madison put great faith in a diverse, well informed citizenry making good choices for their representatives who would act with ‘enlightened interest in the public good’. Our government of checks and balances provides a way for the this enlightened good idea to be discovered from free speech and forcing self-interested people to recognize they had gone too far and needed to see the needs of all the people.
Our media has taken the negative perspective (it sells advertising and gains attention) that there is a tragedy of the commons, which Prof Garrett Hardin popularized in 1968, that people have a tendency to always go for the self–interest choice, i.e. overgrazing a plot of land to make more money from the ever increasing number of livestock that a herder wants to graze causing overgrazing and killing the life support ability of the land. There are countless examples of over farming from large regions like the Midwest in the 1930s causing huge dust storms and forcing migration of farmers to California and the West. Today, we see self-interest to the max in stock buy backs where corporations purchase their own stock to reduce the number of shares and drive the price up, so executives and shareholders would make more money – at the expense of employees not receiving raises, investments in research to increase productivity and reduce product prices or increasing investments in employee training and development.
Yet, maybe we do make the choice for the common good when offered. Lecturer, Dylan Selterman, at the University of Maryland, asked his students an extra credit question if they would like to have 2 or 6 extra credit points to your final grade, but if 10 % of the students asked for 6 extra points none would receive them. Class after class would go over the 10 % limit, until he provided a third choice – altruistic – you can select zero points. After offering the third choice enough selected the zero point or two-point option so that would be under the 10 percent limit. The classes learned if they were not too greedy with their extra credit point choice they all could win.
So, how does choice and information play a role in developing and implementing common good policy? A 2008 classic study by consumer researchers found that if hotel guests were provided a message that said ‘the majority of guest reuse their towels’ then towel recycling would increase dramatically. While, today we are used to recycling towels there were two elements: one – providing information that towel recycling would reduce water usage and two – you have a choice to reuse or not reuse your towel.
Source: Journal of Consumer Research – 2008
The common good dilemma in regulating industry is more challenging because of the profit motive and personal benefit in making more money by increasing profits and reducing costs. For chemical factories, installing scrubbers and extra equipment to return cleaner air to the sky is a cost, while just using the air for their factory and workers is free. Yet, all people beyond the factory are hurt from air pollution. Generally, penalties for violating air pollution standards, or court cases have been the only way to stop polluting behavior. But is there another way; getting an industry sector to work together, see that in their own interests if they all reduce air pollution they will benefit because they all breathe cleaner air – and they all have the similar costs if they all install equipment or even share technology and air pollution equipment in a group purchase. Maybe when everyone is taking action, it is seen as the right choice and reduce costs for all with the benefit that everyone will enjoy clean air. Plus, if everyone is making the same investment, the costs will be similar across the industry and no single company is hurt financially or by Wall Street analysts.