Saturday, May 31

Freeloaders versus good citizens around the world

A question that is so frequently asked in the third world countries relates to the comparison between Singapore and Country XXX about litter. See here for an example. In other words, when you would not dream of littering in a country like Singapore, why would you do so in India, Nigeria or what have you?.

But I am still not sure that littering is avoided in Singapore because their citizens are very heavily brought into the civic sense and have a sense of community or is it the threat of draconian corporal punishment if you spit or litter. My feeling is that it is a mixture with a bit more of the latter than the former, but I am happy to be corrected.

In other countries, public goods are not considered to belong to one self, they do not identify with civic society and thus are very happy to go about littering or spitting. I remember Mish, one of girls I worked with at Solly's, she went to Nepal to teach English to orphans, I spoke to her and she said in an outraged indignant tone after praising them to high heaven, but they all spit so much. As it so happens and what I found out, one does not spit in Brazil, I am afraid. But I digress. Anyway, these people who do not believe in civic society and exhibit littering behaviour are called as free loaders.

For example, if you were not involved or engaged in local government or society, then you would have no hesitation in chucking a stone at the local electronic traffic information board or destroy a bus shelter or throw litter on the ground. Leaving aside the issue of upbringing or culture or what have you, the assumption is that it is somebody else's problem and somebody else will handle it. In other words, free loaders.

But these freeloaders are punished by the law, such as in Singapore, and their behaviour changes. But one interesting question is, what is the reaction of the freeloaders to this punishment and would they retaliate against them? I read about this in the FT recently. I quote:

Students in 16 cities around the world played a "public goods" game, in which everyone is given monetary tokens. They could either keep the tokens for themselves, or put them into a common pot that yields extra interest to be shared between all the players, whether or not they contributed to the pot. After one round, everyone's contribution is revealed and players can "punish" each other by taking tokens away.

Now this was the interesting part where the national differences came through (beware of generalisations, I hate Paris but I love France, I love France but hate them frogs... :)). In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Greece, Turkey and South Korea where you have strong authoritarian institutions (either on the governmental or patriarchal society level), the freeloaders took revenge and hit back at their punishers with the sad outcome that the overall pot was reduced for everybody.

In countries of Western Europe, US, Australia and surprisingly China, there was much less freeloading and more social behaviour, less punishment was observed and the earnings actually increased over time. I think its worthwhile to quote the full conclusion by the study leader:

"The findings suggest that in societies where public co-operation is ingrained and people trust their law enforcement institutions, revenge is generally shunned. But in societies where the modern ethic of co-operation with unrelated strangers is less familiar and the rule of law is weak, revenge is more common."

Curious, no? specially the anomaly around China? But more broadly, trust in the law is crucial for civic society and that will require less authoritarianism, less patriachal behaviour and more individual freedom. For the society to be trusting, you have to trust the individual, to trust the individual, you have to have respect for individual rights. But as long as you have this idea that the government knows best or some weird religion knows best, you will end up with a bunch of anti-social freeloaders who drag down the entire society. But this, this was just an experiment and the results have to be taken with a grain of salt!

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