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Assume that the production of a widget produces happiness in the owner of the widget, and harm due to pollution, such that the amount of happiness and the amount of harm are equal. For convenience' sake we will represent this value as 1 and -1 util. In this case, by a strictly utilitarian calculation, making a widget and not making a widget are equally desirable, because the values cancel out.

Imagine a closed society of 100 people. Given the widget conditions stated above, we can deduce that each person will have a widget (and possibly more, but it would complicate the analysis if we attempted to take into account the diminishing returns of happiness for each individual widget owned). In this situation, the society will be experiencing 100 utils of happiness and -100 utils of pollution harm, leaving it no better off than if it had no widgets, or 50 widgets. But the society will always have 100 widgets.

Why? Dispersed burdens and concentrated benefits. Consider the decision-making process of each individal. If that individual produces a widget for herself, she will receive 1 util of happiness. She will also produce -1 util of harm. But she will not experience that harm herself. It will be distributed across all members of the society. Assuming that all members of this society are equal, -1 util of pollution distributed over all 100 members of society results in -.01 utils of harm for each member, widget ownder and non-widget owner alike. So each member of society will face an option of gaining 1 util and losing -.01 utils, for a net gain of .99 utils, if she buys a widget. Sounds like a pretty good deal.

This goes some way toward explaining the problem with the libertarian/conservative stance on economic imperialism, which goes something along the lines of "they obviously want a McDonald's on every corner, if they didn't, they wouldn't eat there, so it would go out of business." The choice faced by society -- no McDonald's (and whatever benefits come with that, I'll refer to a prettier cityscape just because it's the only one that's coming to mind at the moment) vs. fast food -- is not the same as the choice faced by the individual. The individual does not get to experience a prettier cityscape if he decides not to buy a Big Mac. The harm done by the existence of a McDonald's is dispersed among the members of a society, whereas the benefits of eating there are concentrated in the decisionmaker. So each customer is faced with the choice between having a meal, and making a tiny (and possibly worthless, if nobody else joins in the protest) contribution to driving the franchise out of business. Corporate financial backing makes that tiny contribution seem even more ineffectual, thus leaving the consumer feeling powerless to change whether there is a McDonald's there. The customer bears the burden of an uglier cityscape whether or not he eats there. So the only choice that remains is whether to gain the benefit of a McDonald's meal or not.

Boycotts must be organized. Individual boycotts hurt the boycotter more than they hurt the target of the boycott.


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