Collective Action, Copenhagen, and the Deus ex Machina

Today in Copenhagen, as the prospects for a workable climate change treaty grew very dim, President Obama said, “our ability to engage in collective action is in doubt.”  This couldn’t have been a revelation for a man who taught law at Chicago.  I think I could make a pretty good argument that what has made Chicago Chicago during the past half century is the attention its faculty has paid to the enormous obstacles to welfare-maximizing collective action in the management of a resource. 

There are several potential responses, of course, to the difficulties of welfare-maximization presented by collective action.  Most Chicagoan, perhaps, is to recognize that collective action is an inadequate instrument, and to overcome it by the allocation of private property rights in the resource instead.  This bottom-up approach works very well in many instances, but not very well between sovereign nations with regard to atmospheric emissions.  Among other reasons, attempting to create a system of allocation is itself beset by the collective action problems inherent in the management of the resource.

Another response to the collective action problem is to simply impose restrictions from above.  State-planned economies (including, in some respects and at some times, the United States) do this, in some cases disastrously, in some cases pretty well.  But there is no authority that can impose restrictions from above on sovereign nations with regard to atmospheric emissions. 

What we have, then, is the tragedy of commons without the usual means of overcoming it — dispensing with collective action.  If alternatives to welfare-maximization through collective action aren’t possible, what is left, other than collective action?  Not much.  That may be why even a man who taught at Chicago has pinned his hopes to that unlikely instrument. 

In my natural resources law seminar last semester, I had the students play a typical ‘tragedy of the commons’ game, in which a common resource was sufficient for the group to survive, but only if each member acted against her own strict self-interest, and someone was willing to incur the transactions costs associated with coordinatiing a group welfare-maximizing allocation system.  As Hardin would have predicted, the resource was soon destroyed and the students starved.  Something a student said to me then struck me as I watched President Obama’s speech today: “what we really needed was you to come in here and show us what we should do.”

In other words, what they needed — if they were to succeed collectively — was a deus ex machina to appear and, with the force of logic and moral suasion, persuade them to overcome their collective action problem.  It reminded me of Sophocles’s Philoctetes: even the good-hearted Neoptolemus cannot persuade Philoctetes give up satisfying his justifiable grudge against the Greek army at Troy, and by doing so make himself and the rest of the Greek army better off.  Only the last-minute intervention of Heracles, now a type of deity, can persuade him.  


Perhaps that is what President Obama is trying to be for the Copenhagen talks today.  It seems unlikely to work — after all, what makes the deus ex machina a deus is that it exists apart from the petty interests of the group.  President Obama will not be heard other than as the voice of one member of the group — a member which the others would rightly regard with suspicion, since it is likely to pursue its own self-interest.  I respect President Obama for trying, but I’m pessimistic.  Try as he might, he’s Neoptolemus, not Heracles.

Sorry if this sounds dramatic (so to speak), but consider this: one definition of tragedy is man’s realization that he can never be a god; that not matter how much he struggles, he is trapped within the bounds of human existence.  If that’s true, then if, as seems likely, we see President Obama fail today to successfully play the deus ex machina and persuade the individual nations from adherence to their own strict self-interest, then we will be witnessing a type of tragedy in the traditional sense of the word.  The inability of any one member of the group to assume a role above his self-interested existence, even if that is what he intends to do — in other words, to become a deus — would not surprise Sophocles.  But it’s sad to witness as member of the chorus.

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2 Responses

  1. “Sorry if this sounds dramatic (so to speak), but consider this: one definition of tragedy is man’s realization that he can never be a god…”

    What tragedy then – Evan Thomas already declared the President god-like a year ago; for Mr. Obama and many of his followers, the tragedy would not be that he never could be a god but rather the realization that he wasn’t already.

    …but for the rest of us pagans, thank (a different) God that the President just isn’t very good at being an executive.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    I don’t think Obama necessarily saw himself in the role of deus; why not the Henry Fonda role in Twelve Angry Men? That, too, would be too flattering of the US role in addressing, to say nothing of causing, climate change, but might be closer to his own understanding of what he was attempting. And in the end, at least according to the newspaper of record’s account, his direct intervention did yield some positive results, however inadequate they may be.

    I also question the appropriateness of using the resource-management approach to the climate change problem. CO2 emissions and indeed global warming itself are only very narrow aspects of a larger set of problems. Ocean acidification, sea level rise, watershed destruction (through glacial melting), disruption of agricultural cycles and who knows what other problems not yet noticed or acknowledged are also here, as a result of emissions already made. Even if emissions were cut 90% next year, those problems might persist and even intensify in the near- to mid-term because of physical, chemical and biological mechanisms poorly understood by us.

    Part of the problem is in trying to approach climate change through economics (and even worse, neoclassical economics). Much as it pretends to be, economics is no substitute for politics. The topic of politics is collective action. We — the world, collectively — need to learn how to do politics better. Then maybe we can do something about the physics, chemistry and biology of climate change.