REVISITING THE MESSY ROOMMATE THEORY OF NATO. I posted here in 2008 about the Messy Roommate Theory of NATO, which was set forth in the sixties in a paper by Richard Zeckhauser and Mancur Olson. In brief, assume a messy husband would clean the house once a month whether it was needed or not, and that his neat wife can’t stand to let the house go more than a week without a cleaning. The wife would do all the cleaning or at the least be at a disadvantage in negotiations about household chores. Analogously, it was not surprising in the sixties that the United States bore a disproportionate share of the burdens of NATO. The European countries would therefore be “free riding” to an extent on the United States, just as the messy husband would be “free riding” on the efforts of the neat wife.
Some fifty years later, the negotiations on NATO expenditures are in the same posture. Only five members of NATO are meeting NATO commitments and three of them—Greece, Poland and Estonia—face perceived military threats. Instapundit links to an essay by Megan McArdle on Bloomberg which explains that “military spending is the ur-example of what economists call a ‘public good.’ These provide a benefit to everyone, and once the benefit has been created, it cannot be taken away from anyone.” She concludes that the United States does not have a strong enough negotiating position to get other NATO countries to stop free riding because following through on a threat would hurt us as well as them. She also concludes that she will grit her teeth and accept the situation.