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.