“Bourgeois Commitments to Virtue” Reduce Collective Action Problems

Lynne Kiesling

Lots of folks who worry about climate change argue for large-scale collective action, usually taking the form of some sort of government intervention that involves some degree of coercion. Guest-blogging at Instapundit, Megan McArdle makes a very trenchant observation about how self-reflective virtuous behavior can reduce the need for collective action, in this case with respect to climate change:

… if you want everyone to do something, you are morally bound to do it whether or not they follow suit. I am rethinking that–but I have a sense that those sorts of illogical bourgeois committments [sic.] to virtue are precisely what allow us to overcome collective action problems without coercion.

I absolutely believe that this is very true, very important, and completely overlooked in almost all policy debates. In part that’s probably because, in electricity geek-speak, it’s not dispatchable — you can’t be 100 percent sure that you can rely on it to be there at the exact time when you need it. A quest for higher certainty reduces our ability to rely on virtue, custom, and other social norms that do enforce longer-term beneficial behavior.

Naturally, my response to those who yearn for higher certainty, and implement coercive collective action policies to achieve it, is “get over it”. But that doesn’t win many arguments, even if it’s true that too often we seek more certainty than is optimal, or even feasible. That’s probably also why so many coercive collective action policies end up creating so many unintended consequences.