The Right Coast

March 16, 2004
Rational Free Riding by the Spanish
By Mike Rappaport

In his column criticizing the Spanish, David Brooks writes:
    If a terrorist group attacked the U.S. three days before an election, does anyone doubt that the American electorate would rally behind the president or at least the most aggressively antiterror party? Does anyone doubt that Americans and Europeans have different moral and political cultures? Yesterday the chief of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, told Italy's La Stampa, "It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists." Does he really think capitulation or negotiation works better? Can you imagine John Kerry or George Bush saying that?
I think Brooks is right, but there is an economic / rational choice point that is being ignored here. The Spanish are not simply being appeasers. They are acting as free riders. They know, or at least plausibly believe, that their withdrawal will not have much effect on the fight against Al Qaeda. By contrast, the United States is the indispensable nation in that fight. So Americans, or at least many Americans, know that their appeasement would be disastrous for the nation and for the world. This gives them an incentive to stand firm. Spain's withdrawal is far less consequential.

Of course, this economic logic also explains why the United States should not allow other nations to control its foreign policy -- a point made by Eugene Volokh the other day.