In recent days, Uruguay has been experiencing a situation that may seem like a paradox. Covid-19 cases and the number of people vaccinated are skyrocketing.
The government, journalists and the scientific community repeatedly insist on asking people to take the utmost precautions to avoid contagion and to register for vaccination. But the government is not imposing major restrictions on people’s mobility, instead of appealing for responsible freedom, with the expectation that people will not leave their homes when it is not necessary and, if necessary, take the utmost precautions.
The exponential growth of cases has led people to be censored for an absolute lack of responsibility and social solidarity. But, on the other hand, a large number of people registered to be vaccinated, to the point of having caused the collapse of programming systems and led to a doubling of vaccination capacity in a short period of time. In this case, it would give the impression that people are showing solidarity and responsibility. What is the right answer?
Public goods and collective action
A first way of reasoning is that they are not the same people: those responsible take care of themselves and are vaccinated while the irresponsible ones are infected and spread the virus in the community. However, this is not true. In general, the people who are infected and the people who are vaccinated are the same. What the government and journalists do not seem to understand is that perfectly rational people can, at the same time, apply to be vaccinated while living a more or less normal life, within the established restrictions. The problem of interpretation is not knowing how to assess the public good character of collective immunity.
Economic science established the existence of public goods and their difference from private goods several decades ago. In simplistic terms, there are two major differences. First, public goods – like cleaning a city -, once supplied, are consumed by all individuals who are part of a community, no one can be excluded from their consumption. Second, its willingness requires the cooperation of the individuals who make up the community; a city cannot be kept clean if people get dirty, it requires collective action to take place.
Political economy studies have shown for many decades that, in various situations, individual interests do not converge with collective interests. As Nash’s character says in the well-remembered bar scene from “A Brilliant Mind”: “Adam Smith was wrong”. This is the case with public goods: although we would all be better off with a clean city, we have no individual incentive not to get dirty. The reasoning is quite simple: if I try to contribute to cleaning by always putting the garbage in the right place at the right time, I will not make the city clean if others do not do the same.
On the other hand, if everyone else does, the city will be clean, even if I don’t. The conclusion is obvious: if there is a cost to help with cleaning, and if cleaning does not depend on what I do, I do not want to collaborate. The situation encourages the behavior that Mancur Olson – a well-known American economist and political scientist – called a “free rider”: I can get the benefit without paying the cost, and I avoid paying the cost without obtaining the benefit.
In such cases, how is cooperation promoted? Olson’s work develops a mechanism: the creation of selective incentives, whether positive or negative, that is, rewarding cooperative behavior or punishing deviations.
The responsibility of governments in the pandemic
With these elements it is sufficient to understand the rationality of the simultaneous evolution of contagion and vaccination. If the government does not repress mobility or reward isolation, individuals have an incentive to pursue their normal lives, work and socialize in any case, taking whatever precautions they deem appropriate, but ultimately contributing to the spread of Covid. But the same individuals have incentives to be vaccinated, as the vaccine protects both the individual and the community. The vaccine is a private good, it produces immunity in the individual who receives it. It also converges with the public good, collective immunity, insofar as a sufficient number of individuals do so.
No government should expect rational individuals to limit their mobility if it causes them harm and no individual benefit. The government’s obligation is to know this incentive structure and take measures conducive to the provision of public goods, creating the necessary selective incentives. In this case, establishing restrictions on mobility whose infractions can be punished. You cannot keep bars, restaurants, shopping centers and other places of entertainment open and, at the same time, complain about the appearance of people. Governments should not expect individual responsibility, but must make themselves accountable.
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