According to us Public Choice theorists, collective action problems are the primary justification for government, or at least governance. So if you're as as anti-government as I am, it's disconcerting to recognize that the social world is filled with collective action problems. That's why I was pleased today to realize that irrational people are actually a bit of a blessing.
The specific collective action problem was in finding enough volunteers to work my daughters' swim meet. The work is divided into a first half and a second half, and the norm is that you don't have to work more than one session per meet. This being an away meet for us, nobody wanted to work the second half; they all wanted to pack up and head home as soon as their kids completed all their events. Without volunteers, the meet can't take place, but there's no reward beyond the good feeling of having helped out.
So why, when I saw that nobody from our team had signed up to be a timer in the second half, did I agree to do it? I had already signed up to work the first half. Anyway, 6 timers from our team were needed, so with no one signed up, my contribution could not be expected to be critical. And I had already worked each meet (except the one my kids missed while at camp), which only a handful of others have also done.
And why did others do so as well? I like to think we are all slightly irrational, and that irrationality helps mitigate collective action problems. Sure, I can think of certain mild benefits I received: I do enjoy timing the swimmers and cheering them on; I do enjoy knowing that I've helped make the meet possible for my kids; and I do receive a greater level of friendliness from certain other parents (those, like us, who have our kids in both the summer and winter programs, and who are known to be the dependable foundations of the program).
But I receive each of those benefits by working just one half, and given the disagreeably hot and humid weather, and the Harry Potter book waiting for me under our pop-up canopy, the marginal value of those benefits was less than what i would have received by declining.
OK, that's not quite precisely true. What tipped the balance was my own choice between guilt at not doing extra, and the satisfaction of knowing I helped--even if non-critically--by doing a little extra, despite nobody else noticing. Still, if that's rational, our definitions of rationality are pretty weak. I prefer to think that a little irrationality goes a long way toward strengthening social institutions.