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May 16, 2013 10:00 AM How Politics Can Make People Cooperate

By John Sides

Much of politics is about collective action, whereby groups of people need to cooperate in order to produce an outcome.  One of the biggest challenges is getting people to cooperate in providing a public good, which by its nature can be shared by everyone regardless of whether they’ve cooperated in the first place.

One way to enforce cooperation is via some central authority that’s external to the group (like a government).  Another way, prominent in Elinor Ostrom’s work, is via internal policing by peers within the group.

In this NSF-funded study by Guy Grossman and Delia Baldassarri show that a third way can work as well: developing a leadership or authority structure within the group itself.  More importantly, they show that the success of such an authority depends on politics itself.  Leaders need to be elected to induce cooperation.

The study was conducted among Ugandans who are members of farmer organizations and experience directly the challenges of cooperating to produce public goods.  Grossman and Baldassarri not only examined how these people behaved when asked to play a simple “public goods game” in a quasi-laboratory setting, but how they actually behaved within their farmer organization in real life.  In both contexts, members cooperated significantly more when leaders were democratically elected—as was true in one experimental condition of the public goods game—or when they perceived the leadership of their farmer organization as more legitimate.   Grossman and Baldassarri summarize one implication of this finding:

We began by demonstrating experimentally something quite intuitive—that elections increase the value of a local public good. But as we began ruling out options commonly associated with why elections are deemed beneficial, we were left with an important finding. Elections increased the value of local public goods even after we eliminate incumbents’ reelection considerations, and even when we minimize the information voters have on potential candidates, reducing their ability to select more able and more responsive leaders. We found evidence suggesting that something fundamental causes us to be more prosocial when we participate in key political process such as elections. That elections affect not only the behavior of incumbents but also the behavior of constituents who had participated in the electoral process is among the key findings of our study.

It is easy to see why such a study is valuable even by the criteria proposed by Senator Coburn.  Engendering cooperative and pro-social behavior is intrinsic not only to economic productivity—as was true in these farmer organizations—but also to ensuring security and peace.  Granted, this is but one study in one setting, but this research agenda remains fundamental.  Indeed, this agenda is the reason for Ostrom’s Nobel Prize.

[For more in this week’s presentation of NSF-funded research recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, see here, here, and here.]

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.