The conversation spurred on by Ken Ballweg, countering Vaclav Klaus contention that environmentalism always turns to state coercion, leads me to a cool article in the Wall Street Journal about the nature of cooperation and freeloading. It turns out that freeloaders–who can range from people jumping the subway turnstiles to large corporations dumping their toxic waste in our rivers–actually can be shamed into decent behavior. But only in non-authoritarian societies.
In the most sweeping global study yet of cooperation, a team of experimental economists tested university students in 15 countries to see how people contribute to joint ventures and what happens to them when they don’t. The European research team discovered startling differences in how groups around the world react when punishment is handed out for antisocial behavior.
Among students in the U.S., Switzerland, China and the U.K., those identified as freeloaders most often took their punishment as a spur to contribute more generously. But in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Greece and Russia, the freeloaders more often struck back, retaliating against those who punished them, even against those who had given most to everyone’s benefit. It was akin to rapping the knuckles of the helping hand.
In trying to understand the very big differences in the results from the different countries, the researches came to this conclusion.
Such a readiness to retaliate, researchers said, reflected relatively lower levels of trust, civic cooperation and the rule of law as measured by social scientists in the World Values Survey, which periodically assesses basic values and beliefs in more than 80 societies. In countries with democratic market economies, peer pressure goaded people to cooperate. Among authoritarian societies or those dominated more by ties of kinship, freeloaders instead lashed out at those who censured them, the researchers found.
It seems to me that the paranoia of people like Klaus, who experienced totalitarian regimes, may lead them to believe that cooperation around issues of climate change are not possible without state coercion. But this research shows that in most democratic societies, shaming of “freeloaders” like big polluters or drivers of Hummers, actually works.