"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Internationalism and the free-rider problem

Chris Dillow uses this idea to explain why various governments, whilst they may profess a desire for peace in Lebanon, are reluctant to commit troops to a UN force in Lebanon. This is because they think peace in Lebanon is like street-lighting - a common benefit that one can't be excluded from, which gives them a disincentive to contribute towards it personally.

It's an interesting idea. On one level I'd agree with the comparison and argue that what Chris has identified here is the fact that the international order as represented by the UN simply doesn't function in the manner that so many people seem to assume. National and local governments overcome the free-rider problem by pre-empting the market through taxation and then providing the 'public good'.

The behaviour of the UN shows that the Security Council simply cannot do this because it does not have any power except that which is conferred on it by nation-states. It has none of its own. This is why I don't understand much of what is written about the UN. It's not that it's malevolent or useless. It's just that people expect too much from it, is all.

But there the analogy ends because peace in the Middle East is unlike the public good of street-lighting in the sense that a number of the significant actors involved don't see it as a benefit that they cannot be excluded from; they do not recognise it as a benefit at all. Some prefer darkness.

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