In recent days, Uruguay has experienced a situation that may seem paradoxical. Covid-19 cases and the number of people vaccinated are skyrocketing.
The government, journalists and the scientific community have repeatedly insisted on asking people to take the greatest precautions to avoid contagion and to sign up for vaccination. But the government is not imposing major restrictions on the mobility of people, instead calling for responsible freedom, in the hope that people will not leave their homes when not necessary and, if necessary, will take the greatest precautions.
The exponential growth of cases has led people to be censored for an absolute lack of accountability 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 the programming systems and led to a doubling of the vaccination capacity in a short time. In this case, it would give the impression that people are showing solidarity and responsibility. What is the good answer?
Public goods and collective action
A first way of reasoning is that they are not the same people: those in charge take care of themselves and are vaccinated while the irresponsible are infected and spread the virus in the community. However, this is not true. In general, infected and vaccinated people are the same. What the government and journalists do not seem to understand is that perfectly rational people can, at the same time, request to be vaccinated while leading a more or less normal life, within established limits. The problem of interpretation is not knowing how to assess the public interest nature of collective immunity.
Economics established the existence of public goods and their difference from private goods decades ago. In simplistic terms, there are two major differences. First, public goods – like cleaning a city -, once provided, are consumed by all the individuals who are part of a community, no one can be excluded from their consumption. Second, their will 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.
Studies of political economy have shown for many decades that, in various situations, individual interests do not converge with collective interests. As Nash’s character puts it in the famous 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 help clean up by always putting garbage in the right place at the right time, I won’t make the city clean if others don’t do the same.
On the other hand, if everyone does it the city will be clean even if I don’t. The bottom line is obvious: if there is a cost to help with the cleanup, and if the cleanup doesn’t depend on what I’m doing, I don’t want to collaborate. The situation encourages the behavior that Mancur Olson – a well-known American economist and political scientist – called “free rider”: I can get the benefit without paying the cost, and I avoid paying the cost without getting the benefit.
In such cases, how is cooperation encouraged? Olson’s work develops a mechanism: the creation of selective incentives, positive or negative, that is, rewarding cooperative behavior or punishing deviations.
The responsibility of governments in the pandemic
With these elements, it suffices to understand the rationality of the simultaneous evolution of contagion and vaccination. If the government does not suppress mobility or reward isolation, individuals are encouraged to continue with their normal lives, to work and to socialize in any case, taking whatever precautions they deem appropriate, but contributing ultimately to the spread of Covid. But the same individuals are encouraged to be vaccinated because 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, to the extent that 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 to take measures conducive to the provision of public goods, creating the necessary selective incentives. In this case, establish restrictions on mobility whose infringements can be penalized. You cannot keep bars, restaurants, malls, and other places of entertainment open and at the same time complain about how people look. Governments should not expect individual responsibility, but they must be empowered.
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