Why aren’t we active enough in helping the poor to eliminate poverty in at least those countries which are reasonably democratic and lacking in corruption? It is clear that we have a gospel obligation to do so, and that there are programs available that work, at least to some extent. Why, then, are the poor still with us?
One factor in the explanation is almost certainly the problem known to social scientists as the “collective action dilemma.” This problem, most famously expounded by the economist Mancur Olson in 1965, involves a special set of difficulties that arise in persuading large groups of people to work together for the common good. The idea is a bit complex, but it is also quite directly relevant to problems of poverty — and the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a radical and breathtaking solution to it. Hence, I hope you will bear with a bit of explanation.
The idea of the collective action dilemma is as follows. Suppose there is some outcome that everybody wants, that we’re all free to contribute to, and that nobody can be excluded from enjoying once it exists. An interesting example is clean air in an urban area: if we all decide to contribute by driving less, the air will be cleaner and we can all enjoy the aesthetic and health benefits of a better environment. Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine that there are many people who actually prefer dirty air to clean air.
But, here’s the problem. Suppose that everybody in Chicagoland has begun bicycling to work. I’m now enjoying beautiful, clean air. But — what will happen if I drive to work? The difference in air quality from my decision to drive a single car a couple of miles won’t even be noticeable! I can drive to work and still enjoy the clean-air benefits of everybody else’s sacrifice. But the same is true for everybody else. The result? Everybody drives to work, and we all have to put up with dirty air — even if we’d all be happier bicycling to work in clean air.
More formally, collective action dilemmas arise when the benefits of a particular act are widely dispersed across society but the costs are focused on each individual. In such circumstances, the proportion of people performing the act in question will be much lower than the proportion that is socially optimal.
How is this relevant to issues of global poverty? I would argue that (virtually) everyone benefits from ending poverty. Those who are poor gain a major improvement in their quality of life. Those who are relatively affluent gain an important sense of moral peace, and probably also the much more tangible benefits of a more democratic and therefore more secure world (at least for citizens of other democratic countries). Because the costs of ending global poverty might be surprisingly affordable and the steps to do so remarkably practical, these benefits (as well as the many others that would likely arise) probably outweigh the total costs of ending extreme poverty worldwide.
But, a collective action dilemma arises. While the costs involved in ending poverty are clearly manageable on a worldwide scale, they are still large enough that my individual efforts will make only an imperceptible difference. Furthermore, the benefits of that difference will usually be quite widely dispersed. Hence, some of our underinvestment in solving the problem of poverty is probably due to a collective action problem on this issue. What to do?
The teachings of Jesus Christ provide a solution to this dilemma — a solution that requires far-reaching and radical revisions of our economic lives. Specifically, Christ asks us to value the benefits others receive as highly as we value improvements in our own personal life situations. Let me briefly quote a series of scriptural texts that support this point; links to the relevant chapters are in hypertext, and I encourage readers to look closely at the context for each quote.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself (Luke 10:27). As I have loved you…, also love one another (John 13:35). Be kindly affected one to another with brotherly love, in honor prefering one another… (Romans 12:10). [The sins of the Nephites included the fact that] they began to seek to get gain that they might be lifted up one above another… (Helaman 6:17).
Examples could be multiplied, but I think these suffice. We learn that we are to love others as much as we love ourselves. We are to honor others more than we would ourselves be honored. We understand that loving and honoring others entails not seeking to have greater material possessions than they do. Rather, because we value others as much as we value ourselves, we are just as happy when someone else’s material circumstances improve as when our own do.
Think for a moment about what this means. Not only do we rejoice with others when they experience economic bounty — we rejoice at least as much as if the bounty had been our own! Clearly, this attitude would forever end collective action dilemmas. If we value the benefits that each individual in society obtains from our actions as much as we do the things we give up by performing those actions, then we recapture the total societal benefit of our deeds. No longer will individual costs be compared with individual benefits; rather, individual costs are contrasted with societal benefits. Such a calculus would produce an outpouring of time, money, and effort on behalf of the poor worldwide.
The next time you have the opportunity to help end poverty, please stop and remember that the costs to you are offset by the worldwide benefits of your action. That, I think, is the Christlike way to approach collective action.