This article was published in the Winter 1995-96 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
A Primer on Deliberate Collective Action
by Earnest E. Johnson II
This paper was presented at our 14 October 1995 Forum.

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Collective Action Defined
Individuals Organize Individual Action
The Free Market Organizes NCA
Deliberate Collective Action:  Is the State Necessary?

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Collective Action Defined

Imagine this scenario. I go down to Ebenezer Point on Lake Jordan, find a piece of chert and begin chipping away at it. In time I fashion a spear point that I can attach to a wooden shaft that I had also made from a branch. Taking my new instrument of destruction over to a shallow area, I wade quietly in and watch for a fish to appear. I soon spear a nice fat catfish, skin it with a sharp flake of waste chert, cook it over a fire I made from some dry wood and pine needles, and eat it. I have succeeded in feeding myself by myself —this was entirely an individual action.

I might be so successful that I can feed a few other people as well. However, unless they help, it is still individual action at work. Soon people gather around this great humanitarian and form a camp. Each person makes his/her own lean-to shelter and grass skirt while I go out and fish all day. A small nexus of human activity has formed, seeded by my willingness to give away the fruits of my labor but otherwise involving no cooperation whatsoever.

Imagine a day much like any other; I'm fishing and others are doing whatever they do during the day. Dark clouds roll in, a fierce wind arises, and the heavenly buckets tip. Everyone heads for their shelters to ride out the storm. Then one man closest to the lake notices the water rising. He watches helplessly as his camp floods and he is left standing in knee deep water. His neighbor offers to share his lean-too and for a time all are happy again. But the rain continues to fall and the water continues to rise. A woman tries to hold back the water by building a dam of sticks and earth. However, she cannot build one large enough before the lake claims her home as well. The lake rises still further and all are worried now. The kind hearted camper notices that the small dam did slow the flooding and enlists his guest's help in constructing a larger one. More people catch-on to the activity and pitch in realizing that a larger mound built before the lake reaches it may save their camps. Indeed, this is the case. The flood waters recede, the sun comes out, and they begin to clean-up and rebuild. But this time they begin helping one another. Sometimes the help is charitable and sometimes the help is in exchange for help in the same or other activities. For instance, I acquire a grass skirt and a lean-to for some extra fish. The campers have discovered collective action.

This very short story illustrates three concepts I would like to present and discuss. The first is individual action (IA) or activity that an individual alone may undertake and succeed in. Next is collective action that is the net result of a multiplicity of individual activities but not planned in advance nor consciously executed in a collective manner that I will refer to as non-deliberate collective action (NCA). Collective action that is planned in advance and consciously executed in a collective manner and which either would not arise spontaneously as would NCA or which people are too impatient to wait for will be termed deliberate collective action (DCA). It is the third concept, DCA, that I wish to focus on in more detail.


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Individuals Organize Individual Action

Individual action (IA) is what individuals do in pursuit of their enlightened self-interest. Obtaining food, clothing or shelter are fundamentally IA. Writing, painting, or other leisure activity is also largely carried out through IA.

True IA is necessarily limited in scope. It is an IA to drive a car but to make a car, refine the gas to fuel it, or build the road to drive it on is beyond the means of most individuals (not to mention the need to reinvent the wheel if no use is made of the knowledge of previous generations).

I think IA, with its limitations, is a concept most libertarians are familiar with as is the next one and, since it is unnecessary to elaborate on for current purposes, I will leave the topic here.

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The Free Market Organizes NCA

Non-deliberative collective action (NCA) is probably what most libertarians think about when we speak of the free market doing something. In other words, when individuals go about pursuing their enlightened self-interests through IA, a social and economic system self-organizes to accommodate and facilitate those pursuits. An excellent modern day example of this is the Internet.

Except for the start it received several decades ago from the government, the World Wide Web of today is largely the work of individuals and corporate entities pursuing their self-interest. While many "cyberpunks" have envisioned one or another version of an online society, the WWW has largely evolved from the desires of those wishing to be online and those wishing to provide the access but has not been engineered with a predetermined goal. Because the internet is enormous in scale, it is also perhaps the best example of how the free market can do something that many would think only an organization as large and pervasive as the government could accomplish since much of what is occurring involves private internet providers and software developers. This is likely one of the reasons vice-president Al Gore's attempt to have the federal government build the :information superhighway" crashed and burned as it did. It was viewed as wholly unnecessary — everything was already under construction.

Examples of such free market accomplishments abound in the literature of economics and libertarian political thought. So much so that it fosters the faith that the free market, operating in the manner that generates NCA, will ultimately accomplish everything that needs to be done. That may be. However, suppose there are social and economic equivalents to the laws of thermodynamics. There may be a kind of social and economic entropy that, unless deliberately countered, leaves few immediately available resources for some people to take advantage of or some tasks to be done. Or it may be that a self-organized system will form but the consequences of waiting are widely considered to be unacceptable. Examples of such situations include helping the homeless, funding some kinds of medical research, protecting wilderness areas from development, disaster relief, etc. Because there are instances where NCA is not timely or sufficient to meet the current needs it is usually assumed that the free market cannot do the job — market failure. At this point, a governmental solution is sought.

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Deliberate Collective Action: Is The State Necessary?

In thinking about why government is sought out to perform collective activity, three questions come to mind:

By answering these questions, I hope to progress towards a better understanding of what it takes to successfully initiate and carry-through deliberate collective action without the state.

Question #1

The state in our young nation is already a deliberate collective action. Our systems of government, as imposing as they are now, were not necessarily imposed upon us at their creation. When Europeans colonized North America, the various state and local governments were built from scratch, albeit based upon existing and familiar models. At the federal level we rebelled against an existing governing body and deliberately formulated a new one. Furthermore, it is easy to view governments that were built and maintained by the people as beneficent — the essence of democracy. So there are two elements, I think, to the immediate selection of the state to do collective things. First, the state is convenient. By virtue of being an extant deliberate collective action, why not have it do a little more (see "Ideas on Taking Apart Government" by Richard O. Hammer, April 29, 1995 Proceedings). Second, because the government is built or perpetuated by the people through democratic representation, there is a tendency to view it as an extension of themselves. When enough people feel the need to do something collectively, not a small number of them are inclined to do so by lobbying the legislature. I have recently learned that this is the prevalent view of government in the Netherlands and that for Americans to complain so bitterly about American government, or to want it doing less, is unthinkable because it is "our government."

Question #2

Let us set aside the issue of force for the moment and consider what the state does to perform collective action. Usually it creates a department dedicated to that purpose. Essentially it forms a corporation within itself, or occasionally outside itself, to accomplish the task. It then hires the staff needed or may contract-out most of the work to a private company and only supervise. For the most part, in the nuts and bolts of executing collective action, it does nothing spectacularly different from what free market players would do except that it usually does it badly.

The difference lies in at least three aspects. One, since the state is already a DCA, its existing bureaucratic structures can seed new ones either by placing the new function in an existing department until it grows large enough to warrant separation or the existing structure may act as a template for the design of the new bureaucracy. However, as I will address in answering question 3, this way of doing things need not be unique to the state. Two is where the issue of force comes into play because the state has no problem funding the collective action. It simply takes the money it needs. Coercion also allows the government to evade difficulties encountered when dealing with the private sector (e.g., eminent domain seizure). Three, any effort at persuasion to accomplish the goals need go no further than a few congressmen. It is certainly easier to persuade a few legislators rather than thousands of individuals and, except for the special interest ringleaders, I don't think most supporters immediately appreciate the element of force involved. Once a program is in place, the rest is simply to secure compliance and/or participation (force again).

Those familiar with the work of Ronald Coase may notice something here. For activists, the government acts as a firm serving to reduce their transaction costs. One-stop activism. What kinds of firms would exist in a free nation to reduce the transaction costs of activists?


Question #3

It seems to me that the first step is to realize that the job itself is not altered by the involvement of the state. Fundamentally, the entity called the state does nothing — people do. When people go about doing their government jobs, they work much the same as business people do. The state relief worker must deliver food and water to the hurricane victim the same way the private worker does. The government contractor paving a government road does exactly the same work needed to pave a private road. When Boeing builds a military transport jet, it uses the same techniques that it does to build a passenger airliner. When a nurse in a government health clinic treats a child's wound, she applies an adhesive bandage just like the one the private nurse does. When a leukemia researcher at a federally funded research facility characterizes a new protein he uses methodology shared by colleagues at St. Jude's, a private children's hospital and research facility. All the state does in its endeavors is order that it be done and that it be paid for. How, then, would free market entities perform DCA?

Next, since the involvement of the state usually inflates the costs of the DCA either by meeting whatever price is demanded thereby encouraging budget overruns or by mandating higher costs that the government must then cover (e.g., the Davis-Bacon Act), the private DCA agency may lower costs by honestly looking for the better deal. It will certainly be held more accountable by those who consciously put their money there. By lowering costs, funds raised by persuasion, not force, may be sufficient. Free market agencies are also generally more flexible than state agencies and so more likely to avoid an obstacle than to force their way through. A private climbing access agency, for instance, might work a deal with a land owner to save or open a rock wall to climbers without interfering with the owner's use of the land or seizing it by force. Such a group, The Access Fund, exists today. However, I am unsure about the extent to which it involves government to achieve its ends.

Organizing a large scale DCA is often so daunting that only the state is perceived as capable of doing it. A free market agency, though, might break it down into smaller, more autonomous units and simply coordinate their activities at the appropriate time. The American Red Cross (ARC) is already capable of coordinating some aspects of disaster relief. Beginning with the existing ARC structure, why not emulate the state and add a function that would coordinate local police, volunteer fire departments, hospitals, homeless shelters, etc. for immediate disaster relief. During rebuilding its attention would shift toward coordinating insurance companies, banks, and charitable services. It is not hard, then, to envision a private FEMA.

Sometimes organizing a DCA is as simple as deciding to do it (this is not to say that the work involved is easy). It is certainly true that some individuals find themselves in circumstances where they are not as well off as they would be in a group, the self-employed for example. There was a time when leaving a job to become self-employed meant losing group health insurance, dental coverage, etc. The mid-1980's was a time when many people found themselves in just this predicament. A number of them chose to neither endure their situation nor seek a government program to solve it. Rather, they formed a DCA called the National Association of the Self-employed (NASE) and began negotiating for group health coverage, dental plans, discounts on business services, etc. The NASE currently serves over 400,000 members. Many of the benefits are indistinguishable from those offered by businesses, which are pressured by government into offering. Yet the task of arranging those benefits was no different for the NASE; they just did it on their own initiative. Most of the lobbying done by the NASE is not to get the government to do something, but to stop making it so hard for the NASE to do it.

In a free nation the NASE could serve as a model for unions to provide similar services for labor. Unions could negotiate their own health plans, training programs, child care, etc. Such an organized labor force would make their members highly valuable to employers.

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There are three fundamental ways the free market can satisfy the needs of a free nation. Individual action is the foundation. The individual is best positioned to know what is in his or her own best interest. IA is how most people accomplish what they do on a daily basis. IA requires an environment of liberty, the free market, if it is be flexible enough to meet any challenge because only when all possible options are allowed does the individual have the opportunity to choose the appropriate one.

Social and economic systems then self-organize as a result of the activities of individuals. Stepping back, one can see collective action that appears spontaneously and without premeditation — non-deliberate collective action. NCA is fluid and adapts to changing conditions when it is free to do so. Because of its evolutionary nature, NCA only arises and works in a free-market.

Deliberate collective action, whether state-run or free market, requires premeditation. Free market DCA uses all the same fundamental mechanisms as state-run or state-mandated DCA except the force. The job skills required are the same and negotiation with contractors still takes place. Goods and services are delivered the same way for both, the state just imposes an unnecessarily large bureaucratic structure on it.

Even in the state run society we have today, we can see non-state models of deliberate collective action that would serve the free nation. The American Red Cross allows for the possibility of an existing agency acting as a seed crystal for expanded disaster relief organizations. The National Association for the Self-employed is a model that could work for virtually any groupfrom the self-employed to organized labor to home-schoolers. If free market DCA requires no more effort than a state version — then why not adopt a Nike philosophy and "Just Do It"? D


Earnest Johnson is a self-employed technical writer in Carrboro, NC. He has worked as an accounting analyst, plumber, and molecular biologist.

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