Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah coined an “emergency principle” which states, “If you are the person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and it won’t cost you much to do so, do it.” This is a minimal demand of social justice. Somewhere between singlehandedly curing world hunger, and refusing to help a grandmother pick up her purse, is the answer to; what do we owe to strangers?
While Boston couldn’t quite make up its mind between freezing rain and snow, a handful of Boston College students and myself were fortunate enough to take our studies to Sydney, Australia for the fall semester last year. The people were cheerful, outgoing and warmhearted. The communities were safe, clean and unfailingly centered around the beaches. Warm food, cold drinks, clouds were few and far between; it was paradise. Accordingly, I expected my experimental economics class to be full of camaraderie, trust and generosity.
Your instincts are correct: this was not the case.
Most notable was an experiment called the Bertrand Price Cutting Demonstration. In this experiment all the students were instructed to write down a price, they would be kept anonymous. In this imaginative experiment, there was one buyer for each of the thirty students in the class. The highest price a student was allowed to put down was five dollars. The imaginary buyers only cared about price. Therefore, if each student put down five dollars, given there were an equal number of students and imaginary buyers, each student would attract one buyer and receive five dollars. However, since the buyers only care about price, one lower price would capture the whole market. Thus if each student put down five dollars except for one student who put down one dollar, he would attract all the buyers (thirty buyers, one for each student), and receive thirty dollars. To ensure accurate results, the professor actually pays students whatever they win in the game.
The most equitable and rewarding situation for the students is for everyone to put down a selling price of five dollars, that way each student receives five dollars from one buyer, and actually gets paid by the professor. However, if someone thinks that someone else in the class will put down a lower price to capture the whole market, he or she will be inclined to undercut him with a lower price. This lack of trust and subsequent greed drives the price down. So much so, that our professor has never paid out more than one dollar per class in twenty years of doing this experiment. Not one class has ever completely trusted one another; perhaps they didn’t have the necessary motivation.
We submitted our selling price to the TA. I desperately wanted to say something, to talk to someone, to have my loyalty in my classmates reassured. I knew given the history of this experiment, that if we didn’t do something different, no one would win. If our class was to re-write history, we would need to be properly motivated. Of course, there was a strict no talking rule and some students went as low as $0.00. The seasoned professor didn’t have to shell out a single penny. Although the stakes were not particularly high, I couldn’t help but feel a little helpless and cheated. And because the stakes were not particularly high, I was certainly disappointed with the results — the lack of trust, the greed.
Next week our professor introduced the second part of the experiment. We would do the same thing, but first he asked for a volunteer to give a speech. I had been thinking about this all week, I shot my hand up (I soon realized this was a little foolish and unnecessary as no else appeared to even consider volunteering).
All week I had been thinking of what I would have said if given the chance, what the proper motivation could have been. I thought that the only way for everyone to put down five dollars would be in the name of a better cause. UNICEF’s Tap Project seemed to fit the bill; five dollars could provide one child with clean drinking water for two hundred days, without which he or she would die from diarrhea. It appeared to be a simple choice, preventing the death of a child, or extra drinking money. Surely, we owe at least this to strangers.
I proposed, and all agreed (including the professor), that if we all put down five dollars the professor would donate (thirty students x five) one hundred and fifty dollars to UNICEF. It was time for the blind vote. Thirty kids in the class. 28 put down $5, one put down $1.49, one put down zero. The professor did not have to pay a penny once again. A silenced, suspicious class couldn’t believe the results.
It is statistically and morally impossible to know exactly what the basic obligations are of each human being to strangers. When faced with impossible demands and goals it is all too easy to quit in disgust. But on the whole, we are not overwhelming ourselves with such efforts, the obligations we have are not out of reach, they entail clear-headedness, not heroism. At my placement at the Bird Street Community Center the children do not need much from us. We do not have to give them our laptops and textbooks because they could not otherwise afford them, but we at least need to be willing to talk to them and help them when they want.
I was certainly disappointed with the results, the lack of trust, the greed. In twenty years of doing that experiment, the professor never paid out more than a single dollar. We were two away from a perfect score. Later that day I received an e-mail from the professor. He wanted to let me know he contributed one hundred dollars on his own to UNICEF’s Tap Project; he even forwarded me the receipt.