Free Riding

August 14, 2008

The barstool and tobacco-chewing view of politics as the activity of power-mad crooks has, of late, become the disgraceful commonplace of the yellow press. The corollary expectoration that political economy is a glass-bead game with no consequence for "real" life is of a piece with the first view. The two together, in today's malignant climate, rule out principles of conduct and ideals of mind in both polity and academy.

Yet, as has always been so, the practice of politics and therefore of the forms of our civic life are still much inflected by thinkers and their thought. Right now, the mighty contention going on in the US about the immediate direction of the most powerful country ever known bears witness to the importance of public argument about intellectual purpose. As you glance at the authors on Blackwell's shelves or hear the Nobel roll-call - Amartya Sen on freedom, Amy Gutmann on deliberative democracy, David Runciman on hypocrisy - it seems surely true that public debate and the academic conscience are in good enough shape.

Richard Tuck's difficult book bears this cheerfulness out. His concern is to address a calm assumption in economic theory that Homo economicus has no necessary reason to collaborate with other market agents, and that hitching a free ride from the co-operations of others without oneself buying a ticket is properly rational and utility-maximising, providing thereby a fixed variable in the calculus.

Tuck, rejecting as well as personally disliking this latecome piety, sets about its rebuttal in two parts. In the first, he takes the so-called "sorites paradox", or the comical difficulty of deciding the point at which a few grains of wheat become a heap (Galen's instance two millennia ago). I am one grain in the heap of national taxpayers; is my graininess negligible? Does it matter if I don't pay up, park my contribution in the Cayman Islands and ride to hospital for free?

Hobbes (Tuck's career original), in his awful severity, solved the problem by the coercion of the law. Tuck himself wants to reject the negligibility argument by reason, meanwhile, to dispatch the amiable practitioners of "fuzzy logic" as well as his students, who go for the view that you can sort out "heapiness" a bit at a time, while hanging on to Aristotle and the practical wisdom of estimating how things might be otherwise than as they are. On the way, he is tough with the school of rational choice in order to end his first half by putting down those bien-penseurs whose only route to a decision is to answer the question "What if everyone did that?"

Tuck, to my mind, brings to a triumphant conclusion his proof (shared with Philip Pettit and David Hume) that economic action is multiply motivated but largely rational, and that a science of virtue is not so unlikely an objective as the tough eggs of realism would jeeringly aver.

In his second-half assault on these same toughs, Tuck shows us the very heart and point of intellectual history. For our present algebraicists of economic behaviour eliminated rational co-operation and mutuality as facts of life only 70-odd years ago. Joining hands with Emma Rothschild in rescuing Adam Smith from the clutches of the Right, Tuck traces the lineage of his co-operativists by way of a deeply impressive platoon of eminent Victorians, including Mill, of course, then Whewell, Sidgwick and (new to me, an innocent in this) F. Y. Edgeworth's happily titled Mathematical Psychics.

It must be said that, to this common reader, Tuck fairly commands both the numbers and the concepts of this tense game. Moreover, he recreates with gripping force the exchanges of a still-vivid debate, giving his spokesmen due context, but producing their line of force into the present. Above all, he vindicates his search for "the moral basis of price" (his words), and in a world of nihilist individualism quietly reaffirms the reasonableness and the necessity of our acting together in competitive redistribution.

Free Riding

By Richard Tuck. Harvard University Press. 232pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674028340. Published 8 July 2008

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