Autocracy, Democracy, Risk, & Benefit

Autocracy, Democracy, Risk, & Benefit

How often do you pick up trash along the street when you are out for a walk? If you are like most people, you probably see trash, think that someone should do something about it, and keep on walking. If you were to pick up the trash you and everyone else would benefit, but you alone pay the price of removing the trash. It may be unpleasant to pick up someone else’s water bottle. It may be expensive to pick up a TV along the side of the road and recycle it. Even though these costs are small, they are real and when a single individual pays the costs, the fact that the benefit extends not just to the individual but to other people doesn’t make up for those individual costs. The fact that others will benefit in some ways makes the individual costs harder to go through with.
 
 
The little example of the cost and benefit of picking up trash extends to larger contexts, like disposing of an autocrat. To explain how democracies have helped people become more peaceful in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker shows how democracies can overcome the individual cost problem that I demonstrated. Pinker writes, “in a dictatorship, the autocrat and his henchmen have a strong incentive to stay in power, but no individual citizen has an incentive to depose him, because the rebel would assume all the risks of the dictator’s reprisals while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everyone in the country.”
 
 
A transition to democracy, away from an autocracy, can be difficult and violent, but once you get there, society can be much more peaceful. Opposing an autocrat, as Pinker notes is dangerous. Everyone may despise the ruler and believe that things would be better without them, but taking action on their own is difficult. The costs of overthrowing the ruler are potentially life or death, making it hard for any single individual to oppose the autocrat.
 
 
But once you get past an autocrat, once enough people have joined together and once a country has democratized, peace can be more achievable. In a democracy, ousting bad leaders is easier and doesn’t have as many individual costs. The benefits are still there for everyone, but the individual costs have been reduced or eliminated, making peaceful transitions more likely. Violence within democracies comes at a cost to the individual, shifting dramatically from the arrangement in an autocracy. Ultimately, the risk and reward imbalance that individuals face is part of what helps keep autocrats in power, just as it keeps trash along the side of the road.
Fueled by Indifference

Fueled by Indifference

In December of 2021 I was in Las Vegas and on my way back to the airport the GPS took me through a tough part of town. There were numerous homeless people along one stretch and tons of trash strewn across the streets.
 
 
Today I retweeted a picture from Los Angeles with a caption, “Not a third world country, your country.” The picture featured a train pulling shipping containers along a stretch of track completely littered with garbage, boxes, and junk.
 
 
The stretch of Las Vegas I drove through and the picture from LA reflect the indifference in the United States that fuels really awful realities for so many places and lives. Our country is so focused on the individuals that we fail to see our collective responsibilities. We are so prone to thinking about improving the world through our own hard work and efforts to be a good person that we see larger problems that demand collective action and feel helpless. I couldn’t help every homeless person I drove past in Las Vegas, and I can’t clean up the train tracks in LA by myself. The problem is beyond what I could do, so why should I even think about it. It is easier to just blame others for their laziness, lack of morals, or to simply be indifferent.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference.” Harari is writing about human animal consumption, and about the way industrial agriculture operates. He is also critiquing the idea of using animals as a technology for food sources and human nutrition in general. Animals by all means appear to be conscious and have experiences, but we don’t think about it. We are indifferent to their suffering, we ignore the issue, and we go about our lives fueling great harm to animal lives that we consider lesser than human lives.
 
 
Harari’s thoughts on indifference are reflected in the two recent experiences that I shared. In LA, shipping containers on trains are being raided for the goods they contain. Amazon boxes, goods shipped from oversees, and whatever else happens to be in shipping containers are being stolen and the packaging is being tossed about. Our focus on ourselves, our own goods and experiences, and on what we have has put us in a position where we are indifferent to the damage that our personal desires have on the rest of the world. In Las Vegas we enjoy the nightlife of the strip, the shopping and entertainment of the hotels and casinos, and the renowned restaurants. We don’t think about the people who have had tough luck, made bad decisions, or just not been given extra help when they are down. Unless our GPS takes us an unconventional route, we ignore the problems of poverty around such a glitzy city. I am certainly no better than anyone else in these regards.
 
 
 
Somehow we have to find a way to be less indifferent. Somehow we have to find a way to value collective organizations and efforts. Somehow we have to empower institutions that will help us care more about other lives (human and animal) and other places. As I note, it is too hard for any one of us to help the homeless or clean the environment on our own. It is easy to be indifferent, and there are too many bad things and important causes for us to focus on anything in particular. We need to have institutions that further collective action and overcome our individual indifferences.