A row of empty logging trucks driving along a well forested highway

The Quadra Project: The Law of Concentrated Benefit Over Diffuse Injury

Some ideas are so elegantly simple and they explain so much, so efficiently, that their ingenuity creates an “Aha” moment of insight and satisfaction. The Peter Principle is one of these ideas—people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Another is The Law of Concentrated Benefit Over Diffuse Injury, articulated in 1993 by John Grofman and Egan O’Connor.

Because this law explains how things can turn out so badly when most people are so well-intentioned, its authors call it “humanity’s most harmful law”. If we all want peace, fair democracy, honest markets, healthy food, plentiful resources, abundant wildlife and a clean environment, why do things turn out otherwise?

Grofman and O’Connor think they have the answer. This is their brief description of The Law of Concentrated Benefit Over Diffuse Injury: “A small, determined group, working energetically for its own narrow interests, can almost always impose an injustice upon a vastly larger group, provided that the larger group believes that the injury is ‘hypothetical’ or distant-in-the-future, or real-but-small relative to the real-and-large cost of preventing it.”

No one should be surprised “that narrow, special interests are always at work for their own benefit at the expense of others.” Neither should anyone be surprised that the victims, in order to prevent the perceived damage, “select what appears to be the strategy of least cost to themselves.” The combination of these two factors comes very close to creating twin inevitabilities. First, each “special interest” group working for a “concentrated benefit” has a better chance of succeeding than failing because the public must expend vast amounts of energy to stop such an endeavour. And second, the aggregate result of innumerable enterprises of narrow self-interest eventually creates an insurmountable burden for both an overwhelmed public and a finite environment.

Citizens have inherently limited resources to resist special interest projects, and a constant barrage of them undermines the public’s ability to thwart most of them. To effectively oppose such projects, a significant number of citizens from the community must learn about the project and become sufficiently informed to be alarmed by the implications. To mount a credible opposition, they must expend extensive amounts of time and effort learning about terminology, due process, and avenues of appropriate communication. They also have to organize. Then they have to wrestle with the moral dilemma of confronting and opposing acquaintances in public hearings.

man standing near the edge of a cliff, part of which has dropped into the ocean
Erosion near a collapsed block of ice-rich permafrost along Alaska’s Arctic coast – Photo by Christopher Arp, US Geological Survey (public domain)

If this seems familiar, it’s because on our little island in the wholeness of things, we have had to deal with three such dilemmas in the last few months. The tasks are not pleasant. Each one has the potential to pit neighbour against neighbour, to sow dissension where there was none, and to divert valuable consciousness from larger issues with far more serious implications. For example, when we live on a planet that is cascading toward “climate hell”, the effort taken to address a local by-law issue feels like wasted energy—like the cliché of rearranging the deckchairs of the Titanic when we should be watching for icebergs.

Every by-law change may be well-intentioned, but most are usually too narrowly considered. Is it for the benefit of a specific individual or group, or for the general good of the community? Does it improve the quality of life for most people, or does it compromise it? What is the weight of advantages against disadvantages? Is it legally appropriate but ethically dubious? What is the balance of selfishness and altruism? Does it fit or conflict with the general disposition of the community? Does it conform to the community’s vision or oppose it?

As Grofman and O’Connor point out in their enunciation of The Law of Concentrated Benefits Over Diffuse Injury, undertakings of narrow, self-interest can occur in three basic ways. First is by overt force, such as logging healthy forests that are sequestering huge amount of carbon. Second is by deceit, such as arguing that increased traffic to the island is not going to contribute to ferry congestion. And third is by enticement, such as convincing local government officials to work on behalf of the proponent because, perhaps, of the benefits of increased taxation.

Sometimes, of course, community effort is able to thwart an unwelcome project, or the exercise of opposition identifies a collective need that becomes a new cause worthy of support. And sometimes, of course, projects of “concentrated benefit” are approved because they are recognized as generally beneficial.

The collision between individual initiative and collective good is a complicated dynamic. But generally, as anthropologists have noted, sharing and cooperative societies have been more successful than selfish and competitive ones. This explains why we have hospitals, schools, highways, bridges, ferries, electric grids and all the social systems that constitute a civilization. We do things better when we do them together.

It is this “together” factor that should be considered by anyone who wants to do anything that affects anything or anyone other than themselves. Does the “concentrated benefit” concur with the “collective benefit”? Sadly, as we are now learning from the beleaguered state of our ravaged planet, we have been making the wrong choices.

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra

Top photo credit: Empty logging trucks proceeding to their pick up site – Photo by Old White Truck via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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