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Barges and Whips - did this happen?


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There is a passage in the Armchair Economist on regulation and restriction of markets, and how sometimes it's in a company's interests to submit to regulation if it can be sure other companies do the same. It's illustrated with the following tale.

In early twentieth-century China, goods were transported by barges pulled by teams of six men who were rewarded heavily if they arrived at their destination on time. Because each man calculated that success depended largely on the efforts of the other five, teams were plagued by chronic shirking. If everyone else is pulling hard, the team will make it anyway, so why pull hard? If nobody else is pulling hard, the team won't make it anyway, so why pull hard? Everyone makes the same rational calculation, everyone shirks, the goods arrive late, and nobody gets paid.

Barge teams quickly evolved a mechanism for averting such unfortunate outcomes. The six team members collectively hired a seventh man to whip them.

I've asked a couple of people about this, but nobody has heard it before. "Smells apocryphal" was one response and I'm inclined to agree - I doubt barge-owners would leave it up to the pullers to decide if they should be whipped or not, for a start.

I'm still curious about the story though - has anyone heard it before? Any ideas as to its authenticity or otherwise?

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Take a look -> http://expert.ce.cn/bbs/economist/thread.jsp?forum=227&thread=69285&postsord=1&thstart=0


PS - I found it by googling "鞭打 縴夫"

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Seems to have gone from "这个挥鞭的人可能是由被鞭打的纤夫聘请的" to Landsberg's more definite "The six team members collectively hired a seventh man to whip them." over time, but I didn't expect to see how clearly the story became an example in English economics books. Skylee, you're a star.

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I read/heard exactly the same story about the workers who constructed the pyramids...

Economists love stories like this because they 'demonstrate' the relevance of economic principles in completely different cultural settings - conveniently forgetting that cultural/religious factors were the sole reason for the pyramids the slaves were building.

And anyway, even if it occurred at the pyramids and barge pulling - what about stonehenge, easter island, the great barrow mounds 等等??? There's no evidence that in other historically/culturally different situations the solution predicted by rational agent theory arose - rational agent theory is omitting factors important enough to banjax its conclusions, even in the arena of economist's apocryphal tales...

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