Thursday, January 05, 2006

Terror on the Train

The Washington Post reports:
A gang of more than 20 youths -- thought to be North African immigrants -- terrorized hundreds of train passengers in a rampage of violence, robbery and sexual assault on New Year's Day, French officials said yesterday. The five-hour-long criminal frenzy was "totally unacceptable," French President Jacques Chirac told reporters. "Those guilty will be found and punished, as they deserve." The gang of between 20 and 30 youths boarded the train, heading from Nice on the French Riviera to Lyon, in eastern France, early on Jan. 1, as it carried 600 passengers home from New Year's Eve partying overnight.
How could 20 to 30 youths intimidate, rob, and terrorize 600 passengers for five hours? If all of the passengers attacked the gang, it seems clear that they could fight them off. Perhaps this situation can best be explained by applying Mancur Olson's Logic of Collective Action.

Having safety on the train is a collective good because it is nonexclusive and nonrivalrous. Each individual passenger acting rationally will see that attainment of the collective good will not be altered by his particular contribution or lack thereof. As a result, all of the passengers withhold their resource in anticipation of the collective good that will, unfortunately, never arrive.

Olson argues that there are several ways to get around this collective good problem. Small groups may be able to communicate better or create "selective incentives" to reward participation and punish abstinence. Maybe if each car of the train was locked off from the others, the groups would find that cooperation was possible. This could result from a change in costs and benefits that makes it profitable for one individual to provide the entire collective good (a "privileged" group), or it might arise simply because the group is now small enough that each member can identify who contributes and who does not (an "intermediate" group).

Another solution for large groups (what Olson calls "latent groups") to the collective good problem is to bundle a non-collective good with the collective good. If the passengers on the train were able to bundling something, perhaps heroism or the contents of the hoodlums wallets, to the goal of safety on the train, they might have been able to summon the resources to ensure that safety.

Olson also recognizes that force can help provide a collective good. Perhaps if a passenger on the train made a credible commitment to kick anyone off the train who did not help stop the rioting youth, there might have been sufficient production of the collective good.

It's truly unfortunate that the Logic of Collective Action can have such a significant, negative impact on people's lives.

Via: Catallarchy


Daniel Skarbek said...

Very interesting, the suggestion that bundling the non-collective good of the hudlums wallets with the collective good of peace may have helped actually bring about the collective good. It seems that the most direct way to actually achive this would be a change in the law stating that if you stop someone from committing some crime such as burglary, rape, mugging, or other such violent acts then you have the right to pilage their own personal belongings. This flys in the face of "criminal rights" but maybe that's a good thing. I don't think a man who breaks into my house and then steps on a nail should have the right to sue me. (The only right he should have is to be bludgeoned with a baseball bat.) Should this idea be extended to say that if you stop someone from committing a crime you get to take whatever property from them you like as a reward? In extreme cases this doesn't make sense. I don't want to loose my wallet everytime I J-walk. But in some more reasonable cases, it does make sense. If someone breaks into my house and threatens me at gun point, and I manage to overtake and subdue him, I'd like to not only beat him half to death, I'd also like to keep his gun! It'd make for a nice souvineir, and certainly I'd be using it for no worse a use than that for which the prior owner was using it. I'd love to see some sort of "Limited rights for Criminals." law put in place. No doubt some of these "property reposessions" would have to stand trial to prove that the person really was committing a crime, you truly did stop it, and the bounty taken was a fair and reasonable reward for your service of the public, but this could also no doubt lead to much greater individual responsibility toward ensuring a safe and law-abiding public. Maybe we can get Singapore to give it a test run. They seem to have a passion for law abidance.

David said...

I think the basic idea of bundling noncollective goods with collective goods is sound (and quite interesting). However, I would be much more cautious to apply it to the law more broadly. My concern is, as you pointed out, that one would get their butt kicked and robbed for littering a gum wrapper. I am curious to what extent private enforcement agencies would allow this in an environment without a monopoly on coercion.

Matt E. Ryan said...

Jaywalking and littering, however, are not direct violations of others' property rights. I don't think that changes the spirit of what's been said-- but if justified retribution is the game, it should be grounded in the violation of property rights.

David said...

I agree that property rights are key. It seems like the most moral and practical approach to such matters. However, I do think jaywalking and littering are violating the property rights of whoever owns that particular road and ground. said...

I fully match with whatever thing you've presented.