Individual Action and Collective Responsibility

When I was in graduate school at Harvard, I had the pleasure of taking a course in economic analysis with one of the most brilliant professors I have ever encountered. Thomas C. Schelling was a professor of economics, and he also taught courses in foreign policy, national security, nuclear strategy and arms control. But his passion was the decision-making process. In 2005, Professor Schelling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” (Parenthetically, Professor Schelling shared the prize with Professor Yisrael Aumann of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Professor Aumann, a devout Jew and a true talmid chacham, graduated from RJJ and received his doctorate in mathematics from MIT. . . but I digress.)

In 1971, Professor Schelling authored a seminal article published in The Public Interest, entitled “On the Ecology of Micromotives.” In this brilliant essay, he sought to examine—from the perspective of game theory—how individual behaviors that might be entirely rational when viewed solely from the perspective of a unique actor could nonetheless result in collective consequences that were ultimately irrational (or economically counterproductive) when viewed from the perspective of a group (or society at large), or even from the perspective of any individual within the larger collective.

Professor Schelling illustrates this conundrum with the following simple example:

A strange phenomenon on Boston’s Southeast Expressway is reported by the traffic helicopter. If a freak accident, or a severe one, occurs in the southbound lane in the morning, it slows the northbound rush-hour traffic more than on the side where the obstruction occurs. People slow down to enjoy a look at the wreckage on the other side of the divider. Curiosity has the same effect as a bottleneck. Even the driver who, when he arrives at the site, is ten minutes behind schedule is likely to feel that he’s paid the price of admission and, though the highway is at last clear in front of him, will not resume speed until he’s had his look, too.

Everybody pays his ten minutes and gets his look. But he pays ten seconds for his own look and nine minutes, fifty seconds for the curiosity of the drivers ahead of him.

It is a bad bargain. More correctly, it is a bad result because there is no bargain. As a collective body, the drivers might overwhelmingly vote to maintain speed, each foregoing a ten-second look and each saving himself ten minutes on the freeway. Unorganized, they are at the mercy of a decentralized accounting system according to which no gawking driver suffers the losses that he imposes on the people behind him.

The “accident on the expressway” illustrates any number of universal situations pitting individual decisions and collective interests. In essence, we are dealing with the rather frequent divergence between what people are individually motivated to do, and what they would like (but often cannot bring themselves) to accomplish together. Professor Schelling offers the following example:

Consider the summer brownout. We are warned ominously that unless we all cut our use of electricity in midsummer we may overload the system and suffer drastic consequences, sudden blackouts or prolonged power failures, unpredictable in their consequences. In other years we are warned of water shortages; leaky faucets account for a remarkable amount of waste, and we are urged to fit them with new washers. There just cannot be any question but that, for most of us if not all of us, we are far better off if we all switch off the lights more assiduously, cut down on air-conditioning, repair the leaky faucets, let the lawns get a little browner and the cars a little dirtier, and otherwise reduce our claims on the common pool of water and electric power.

But turning down my air conditioner, or turning the lights out for five minutes when I leave the room, or fixing that leaky faucet can’t do me any good. Mine is an infinitesimal part of the demand for water and electricity, and while the minute difference that I can make is multiplied by the number of people to whom it can make a difference, the effect on me of what I do is truly negligible.

The solutions to these conundrums depend on some type of social organization, some mechanism by which all individuals in a group agree collectively to sacrifice some measure of their autonomy in furtherance of a good that not only benefits the community generally but every individual within it. In effect, we require an enforceable “social contract,” with rules of behavior that are collectively rewarding if collectively adhered to. Such social arrangements may be contrived or spontaneous, permanent or ad hoc, voluntary or disciplined. Some institutional arrangements can organize incentive systems or regulations to help people do what individually they would not, but collectively may wish to accomplish.

We (perhaps too often) seek to remedy the inadequacies in the social-decision process by turning to government. But quite apart from government regulation or social organization, our Torah value system (in the absence of a Sanhedrin or Sanhedrin-like communal enforcement mechanism) substitutes for market or regulatory forces. It is our adherence to Torah values that compels us to do from conscience—from a sense of avodat Hashem—what in the long run we might elect to do only if assured of general reciprocation.

Let me illustrate with the following example, drawn from my OU experience. Our Teach Coalition is the OU’s advocacy arm that seeks to enhance the financial sustainability of yeshivot and day schools—and helps relieve the enormous burden on parents of ever-increasing yeshivah and day school tuition—by advocating for increased state and local funding for non-public schools. Teach Coalition currently operates in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland and California—collectively home to approximately 90 percent of yeshivah and day school students in the United States.

Since its inception approximately five years ago, Teach Coalition has been hugely successful in carrying out its mission. During this period, Teach NYS has generated over $1.1 billion in aid for nonpublic schools in New York. This includes the passage of the historic STEM reimbursement program in 2017, which was increased by 200 percent in 2018, and substantial increases in security funding from New York City and State. Teach NJ increased total funding for nonpublic school security, nursing, technology and textbook aid to a record $50 million for the 2018-19 school year, and recently achieved an unprecedented increase in nonpublic school security funding by doubling the allocation to $22.6 million. In Florida, Teach FL secured over $20 million in state scholarship funds for 2,875 Jewish students, in the 2018-19 budget. Teach PA advocated for a record $25 million increase in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, for a total of $160 million in tax-credit scholarships for K-12 students at nonpublic schools, and helped secure state backing for the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) program, funded at $50 million for 2018-19.

Areivut means that enmeshed in my own personal responsibility to God is a larger responsibility to the entire community.

The success of the Teach Coalition is attributable to the approach we have taken to professionalize our advocacy efforts to address what we consider to be the single most significant economic issue facing our community—affordable tuition for yeshivah and day school students. We have therefore hired an outstanding array of professionals to staff our operations. And we have determined to approach our advocacy efforts as would any major corporation or business seeking to affect government policy: we have invested in the best lobbyists, the most sophisticated political strategists, and the most effective public relations consultants.

But this highly effective array of resources is also expensive—very expensive. Our activities have been funded from three primary sources: the OU; private philanthropy from a group of extraordinarily generous donors who care deeply about the financial sustainability of Jewish education; and dues from a large network of yeshivot and day schools.

And here is where I revisit “The Ecology of Micromotives” to examine the conundrum of individual versus group behavior. In New York, for example, there are currently about sixty member-schools in the Teach NYS network. But there are a roughly equal number who are not currently members, but could be. They pay no dues, but benefit in the identical way as every school that does. Why? Because the programs we advocate for and the state and local dollars we seek are granted to every nonpublic school—sometimes on a school-by-school basis, and sometimes per capita based on enrollment. The work we do inures the benefit of all—whether or not they have helped to cover the cost of generating the benefits they receive. Obviously, everyone would be better off if our efforts expanded; but presumably some have concluded that they need not contribute to the collective effort while simultaneously reaping the same rewards as the contributors. And, of course, we lack any mechanism to compel collective behavior, however rational or economically sensible it might be. Space does not permit a thorough examination of the myriad comparable examples from the communal sphere that could be cited to illustrate this “individual” versus “collective” calculus. Surely, support for our shuls, our yeshivot, and chesed organizations of all types would benefit from a similar sense of communal obligation.

Fortunately, our Torah values provide both a direction and a solution to this conundrum. From a halachic perspective, there is an obligation articulated in the Talmud (Bava Batra 8a) and in Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 163) for each resident of a city to contribute towards the defense of the city and the city’s infrastructure. No one should stand aside while others bear the burden of such expenses. This is a perfect example of a universal need that the halachah mandates be addressed by every individual who will ultimately benefit from the results of the collective’s efforts.

Writing several years ago in the pages of this magazine, Rabbi Jacob J. Schachter referenced the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Pekudei 415:1), which relates that after the work of the mishkan was complete, Moshe Rabbeinu invited the Jewish people to conduct an accounting of the monies collected, and monies expended, for the construction. When the process ended, the accounting was 1,775 shekels short. Concerned that his honesty and integrity would be impugned, Moshe searched desperately to find the source of the discrepancy. Finally, God drew his attention to the tiny hooks—the “vavin la’amudim”—that held the mishkan’s pillars together; these vavin accounted for the difference between the contributions and the disbursements. This Midrash, Rabbi Schachter concludes, “teaches us the power of the vav, the connections. It is never about us as individuals; it is always about ‘us and,’ in ever-larger concentric circles—us and our families, us and our communities, us and the Jewish people, us and the larger world in which we live, and us and the Ribbono Shel Olam . . . Those wonderful hooks or connectors that held together the structure of the mishkan represent the connectors that need to hold together all Jews . . . We are one people.”

Similarly, the Talmud in Rosh Hashanah (29a) discusses a halachic concept which, on its face, would appear to be solely technical in nature, but which contains within it one of the most profound foundational concepts in Yahadut. The Gemara discusses the question whether someone who has already made a birkat mitzvah—such as Kiddush or Havdalah—has the ability to again do so on behalf of someone else. The Gemara concludes that, despite the fact that one has already fulfilled his own obligation for a specific mitzvah, that individual can still make the berachah for someone else. Rashi explains, “af al pi sheyotzei, motzi”—even though one has already fulfilled his obligation, he can nonetheless fulfill the obligation of another person. Why?  “sheharei kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh”—because “every Jew is obligated for every other Jew.” Areivut means that your obligation and mine are one and the same; they are interrelated and intertwined; my personal obligation is transformed, as it were, into a communal obligation: that until every community member’s obligation is complete, my personal obligation is not complete either. Areivut means that enmeshed in my own personal responsibility to God is a larger responsibility to the entire community.

Similarly, Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabbah (chap. 11) states:

Lefi shekol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh—because the entire Jewish people are considered guarantors for one another. U’l’mah hein domim? L’sefinah shenikra bah bayit echad. Ein omrim nikra bah bayit echad, elah kol hasefinah nikra’ah kulah; kach heim Yisrael—And to what are they compared? To a ship that has a tear in one room. We do not say that only one room has a tear, rather, the entire ship is torn. The same is with Israel.”

Game theory instructs us about the conundrum of acting on individual motivations, often in a sub-optimal fashion, rather than on the basis of communal interests that may maximize the welfare of all. But it is our Torah valuesthe “vavin la’amudim,” our areivut that ultimately animates us, obligates us to place the Klal above our individual interests, and resolves the tension between micromotives and collective well-being.

Allen I. Fagin is executive vice president of the OU.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2019.