Dynamic Collective Action and the Power of Large Numbers

Paper by Marco Battaglini & Thomas R. Palfrey: “Collective action is a dynamic process where individuals in a group assess over time the benefits and costs of participating toward the success of a collective goal. Early participation improves the expectation of success and thus stimulates the subsequent participation of other individuals who might otherwise be unwilling to engage. On the other hand, a slow start can depress expectations and lead to failure for the group. Individuals have an incentive to procrastinate, not only in the hope of free riding, but also in order to observe the flow of participation by others, which allows them to better gauge whether their own participation will be useful or simply wasted. How do these phenomena affect the probability of success for a group? As the size of the group increases, will a “power of large numbers” prevail producing successful outcomes, or will a “curse of large numbers” lead to failure? In this paper, we address these questions by studying a dynamic collective action problem in which n individuals can achieve a collective goal if a share of them takes a costly action (e.g., participate in a protest, join a picket line, or sign an environmental agreement). Individuals have privately known participation costs and decide over time if and when to participate. We characterize the equilibria of this game and show that under general conditions the eventual success of collective action is necessarily probabilistic. The process starts for sure, and hence there is always a positive probability of success; however, the process “gets stuck” with positive probability, in the sense that participation stops short of the goal. Equilibrium outcomes have a simple characterization in large populations: welfare converges to either full efficiency or zero as n→∞ depending on a precise condition on the rate at which the share required for success converges to zero. Whether success is achievable or not, delays are always irrelevant: in the limit, success is achieved either instantly or never…(More)”