Caltech neuroeconomists have found a solution to the free rider problem -- scan people's brains and tax them accordingly. A free rider is someone who uses a public good or benefit but who does not pay anything towards its cost. As the Caltech press release on the study explains:
Examples of public goods range from healthcare, education, and national defense to the weight room or heated pool that your condominium board decides to purchase. But how does the government or your condo board decide which public goods to spend its limited resources on? And how do these powers decide the best way to share the costs?
"In order to make the decision optimally and fairly," says [Antonio] Rangel, [Caltech associate professor of economics], "a group needs to know how much everybody is willing to pay for the public good. This information is needed to know if the public good should be purchased and, in an ideal arrangement, how to split the costs in a fair way."
In such an ideal arrangement, someone who swims every day should be willing to pay more for a pool than someone who hardly ever swims. Likewise, someone who has kids in public school should have more of her taxes put toward education.
But providing public goods optimally and fairly is difficult, Rangel notes, because the group leadership doesn't have the necessary information. And when people are asked how much they value a particular public good—with that value measured in terms of how many of their own tax dollars, for instance, they’d be willing to put into it—their tendency is to lowball.
Of course in the real world, it doesn't often work out that way. So what to do? In this case, the Caltech researchers stuck various subject inside an fMRI brain scanning machine to see how much different individuals actually valued a public good. The researchers ...
... set up a classic economic experiment, in which subjects would be rewarded (paid) based on the values they were assigned for an abstract public good.
As part of this experiment, volunteers were divided up into groups. “The entire group had to decide whether or not to spend their money purchasing a good from us,” Rangel explains. “The good would cost a fixed amount of money to the group, but everybody would have a different benefit from it.”
The subjects were asked to reveal how much they valued the good. The twist? Their brains were being imaged via fMRI as they made their decision. If there was a match between their decision and the value detected by the fMRI, they paid a lower tax than if there was a mismatch. It was, therefore, in all subjects' best interest to reveal how they truly valued a good; by doing so, they would on average pay a lower tax than if they lied.
“The rules of the experiment are such that if you tell the truth,” notes Krajbich, who is the first author on the Science paper, “your expected tax will never exceed your benefit from the good.”
In fact, the more cooperative subjects are when undergoing this entirely voluntary scanning procedure, “the more accurate the signal is,” Krajbich says. “And that means the less likely they are to pay an inappropriate tax.”
This changes the whole free-rider scenario, notes Rangel. “Now, given what we can do with the fMRI,” he says, “everybody’s best strategy in assigning value to a public good is to tell the truth, regardless of what you think everyone else in the group is doing.”
And tell the truth they did—98 percent of the time, once the rules of the game had been established and participants realized what would happen if they lied. In this experiment, there is no free ride, and thus no free-rider problem.
“If I know something about your values, I can give you an incentive to be truthful by penalizing you when I think you are lying,” says Rangel.
And what about the future?
... Rangel says, it is possible to imagine a future in which, instead of a vote on a proposition to fund a new highway, this technology is used to scan a random sample of the people who would benefit from the highway to see whether it's really worth the investment. "It would be an interesting alternative way to decide where to spend the government's money," he notes.
Free rider problems are pervade public policy, e.g., the Golden State's recent fiscal meltdown. As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently quipped:
Californians have voted to tax themselves like libertarians and subsidize themselves like socialists.
Hmmm. Could mass brain scanning have saved California?
Whole press release here.
Item via io9 and a hat tip to SugarFree.