TCS Daily

Bathroom Duty

By James D. Miller - March 25, 2003 12:00 AM

No one likes cleaning bathrooms, but most people like their bathrooms to be clean. When several people share a bathroom, a free rider game may manifest in which some attempt to free ride off the efforts of others.

In Iraq, America is cleaning one of the world's dirtiest bathrooms. Unfortunately, few are helping us, and some are even attempting to charge America for the privilege of cleaning up. America's strength makes her particularly vulnerable to free rider exploitation. Without our help, there is no hope of removing infectious dictators, so unlike lesser nations like France, we can't do nothing and rely on others to do the work. Furthermore, because our military strength gave us the ability to remove Saddam by ourselves, other nations knew their assistance wasn't necessary for our success.

In justifying his support of America's impending liberation of Iraq, the Japanese Prime Minister said "The U.S. is the only ally providing Tokyo with deterrent power against any foreign country that could threaten regional security, such as North Korea, and the Japanese people should never forget it." Sadly, however, while the Japanese gave us $10 billion for our first Iraq war, they probably won't give us anything for this one. Japan is facing a significant threat to her national security, recognizes the U.S. is the only country who can help, yet feels comfortable giving us only verbal support in our current struggle. While showing more gratitude than the French, the Japanese are still content to mostly free ride on American military might.

Our free rider problems aren't limited to the Iraqi conflict. American taxpayers spend more per capita on the military than any other nation. We are a relatively secure country whose people yearn for peace, so why do we have such a large military? France, Germany and Japan know that the U.S. armed forces will ultimately protect their sovereignty. Consequently, they can cut military expenditures and still feel safe by counting on America's military protection. In contrast, the American people know that their security, as well as the security of the entire Western world, is dependent upon the strength of the U.S. armed forces.

How can we overcome this free rider problem? One way would be to re-categorize our defense spending as foreign aid. Most rich nations feel some obligation to give foreign aid. Because of the worldwide good our military does, however, we should consider much of our defense spending as international charity. Perhaps we could stop funding the U.N. and give the saved resources to our military. Let Europeans with small defense budgets fund international bureaucracies.

Another way to stop nations from free riding on our military is to reward countries who assist our military ventures. Many British soldiers tragically gave their lives in the struggle to liberate Iraq while Chirac arrogantly refused to put French troops at risk. We must ensure that the British get some tangible benefits from their troops' sacrifices. This gain can't just come from the fact that Saddam was removed from power, since French security is also enhanced by his removal. Perhaps we could give the British preferential access to Iraqi rebuilding contracts.

Besides rewarding the British, we could also fight our free rider problem by punishing our ungrateful allies. Some have tried punishing France by renaming French fries, but nomenclaturic assaults are unlikely to cause the French lasting harm. If we really want to provide incentives for allies not to forsake us in future conflicts, we should take more drastic actions and perhaps follow Nick Denton's suggestions to free Africa of France's influence. Congress could also assist U.S. consumers who wish to punish France by requiring her to prominently label all her exports to America.

We could further retaliate against France by expanding NAFTA. Let's offer our reliable European allies (including "new" Europe) a free trade alliance on condition of their leaving or not entering the European Union. France and Germany tried to diplomatically isolate us; let's retaliate by economically isolating them.

America could use oil as a weapon to reward friends and punish adversaries. Control of Iraq's oil will make us the second most important player in OPEC. The U.S. will no doubt be tempted to use control of Iraq's oil reserves to crush OPEC. Why should we lower oil prices for countries who opposed the liberation of Iraq, however? We could induce OPEC to sell oil at different prices by agreeing to maintain high prices only for selected countries. OPEC would either have to go along or suffer the collapse of their cartel.

After victory in Iraq, many will suggest we have a choice between acting morally or vengefully towards reluctant allies like France and Germany. I believe, however, that the vengeful path is also the moral one. If we don't reward our allies and punish our detractors, free rider problems will doom U.S. troops to act alone in future conflicts.

James D. Miller writes "The Game Theorist" column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work which will be published this April by McGraw-Hill.

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