The Logic of Reciprocity: Trust, Collective Action, and Law

The Logic of Collective Action has for decades supplied the logic of public-policy analysis. In this pioneering application of public choice theory, Mancur Olson elegantly punctured the premise – shared by a variety of political theories – that individuals can be expected to act consistently with the interest of the groups to which they belong. Absent externally imposed incentives, wealth-maximizing individuals, he argued, will rarely find it in their interest to contribute to goods that benefit the group as a whole, but rather will “free ride” on the contributions that other group members make. As a result, too few individuals will contribute sufficiently, and the well-being of the group will suffer. These assumptions dominate public-policy analysis and public policy itself across a host of regulatory domains – from tax collection to environmental conservation, from street-level policing to policing of the internet. But as a wealth of social science evidence now makes clear, Olson’s Logic is false. In collective-action settings, individuals adopt not a materially calculating posture but rather a richer, more emotionally nuanced reciprocal one. When they perceive that others are behaving cooperatively, individuals are moved by honor, altruism, and like dispositions to contribute to public goods even without the inducement of material incentives. When, in contrast, they perceive that others are shirking or otherwise taking advantage of them, individuals are moved by resentment and pride to withhold their own cooperation and even to engage in personally costly forms of retaliation.