Institutions and the Free Rider: The Assurance Problem in Collective Action

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Political and economic theory make extensive use of the one-period Prisoners’ Dilemma (PD) to model public goods problems and collective action generally. While the PD provides important insights into the breakdown of social institutions, it gives no explanation of how or why institutions are developed in the first place. Recent work on repeated PDs has emphasized the role of expectations in this process. This paper presents a related approach: the Assurance Problem (AP). The AP suggests that interdependent choice creates incentives to establish and maintain institutions that coordinate expectations based on rules of fair-mindedness. With such coordinated expectations, voluntary contributions to public goods may be utility-maximizing strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)154-181
Number of pages28
JournalThe Journal of Politics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1984

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
* My thanks to Daniel W. Bromley, John Fleishman, Ruth Haas, Russell Hardin, Gerald Marwell, Anthony Oberschall, Joe Oppenheimer, George Rabinowitz, Ken Schepsle, Carole Uhlaner, and anonymous reviewers for comments and suggestions, and to Betsy Taylor and Liz Donahue for typing assistance. This paper was presented in various forms at the Public Choice Society and American Political Science Association meetings of 1982. The Political Science Department of the University of North Carolina and the American Association for the Advancement of Science provided financial support in the course of its completion.

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