Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Social Cooperation in Ferguson: An Interview with Michael Thomas

by , Contributing Editor, Free Liberal

Michael D. Thomas is an assistant professor in the Heider College at Creighton University. He is a public choice economist and has published on topics including welfare economics, transportation economics, and tax policy.

Tom Thrasher: So Michael, you’re a public choice economist and as part of that you study the methods people coordinate economic and social interests through political systems. With Ferguson, MO in the news I think a lot of people are trying to grapple with how and why things became so severe so quickly.

Can you give us a quick run down of what you think is happening and how to approach analyzing Ferguson?

Michael Thomas: Yes, In this case it is important to focus on social cooperation especially and Ferguson is one of the more extreme cases where this has broken down. Economic literature such as that of Elinor Ostrom shows that we better understand social order when we start from the assumption of cooperation and then discuss what went wrong.

We want to know why cooperation, which starts as a pervasive social tendency, fails. We want to know the institutions which allow cooperation to scale such that a whole community cooperates. When we see a place like Ferguson, we cannot help but question the pathologies of the institutions, and this is the right way to approach any social scientific study of what is wrong.

If that is the case, what public choice is telling us is that the violence we’re seeing in Ferguson is an outcome of the breakdown of social order not just occurring in a vacuum but as the product of institutions. Basically so if we’re running with a touch of Hayek, we’re looking at the unintended consequences of police and institutions?

Yes, it is correct to start with a critique of the police because they are a main source of stability in a society when functioning correctly, that allow for transparency and accountability to enter into social order through the protection of property rights. To begin to answer the question as to how social coordination can be improved we must first attempt to take into account of where institutional instability is entering the story.

Predatory and destructive behavior come when cooperative social interactions are not correctly incentivized. The implication of this insight is clear; the adversarial stance adopted by the Ferguson Police Department becomes a driving factor of social and cooperative breakdown.

As we observe in Ferguson, intangible capital such as trust, perceptions of clear remunerative behaviors, accountability, and fairness are key to improving outcomes.

Command and control coming from adversarial police tactics crowd out social order which arises within the community, i.e. police who see themselves as part of the community and have ties to it.

Are the police in Ferguson responding ineffectively, or is it that they’re missing the point entirely?

Assigning blame isn’t exactly the point, there is complexity in the right and wrong aspect of the Ferguson matter. The police want to defend themselves by saying that they were trying to prevent looting, but they are starting at a point of abstraction too removed from the problem.

So your point is that the framework we’re approaching the unrest with is fundamentally flawed because it tends to either overemphasize the retributive justice elements of the Ferguson matter or underemphasize the arrangement of trust and property rights in the community.

Yes, that is in a sense what I’m saying. If basic protections such as that of the person, and the more concrete rights such as individual and group safety are not first provided, discussions of higher order complex property rights such as shops and personal property cannot enter effectively into consideration. If property rights of the individuals on the ground are not protected, it demands a question: How can they ever hope to have a society that respects the abstract property rights of things and places?

That is an excellent point, thank you for your time today Doctor Thomas.


Tom Thrasher, Contributing Editor
Tom Thrasher is an editor and commentator for Free Liberal.