On Lawnmowers and Collective Action Problems

Atrios at Eschaton* asks, Why Does Everybody Have Their Own Lawnmower?

I know there is a fairly obvious answer to this question. There’s a cost of organizing and coordination. But, yet, in the aggregate an immense amount of money is likely wasted because of this coordination failure. Surely there could be just one lawnmower for every 10 households (I just made that number up of course), there could be a modest hourly rental fee, with a weekend premium, and an online reservation system.

But, okay, yes, there is a genuine cost to organizing such a system, and maybe lawnmowers don’t cost all that much. Still in my time in the burbs I don’t remember anyone ever simply suggesting sharing a lawnmower between two neighboring households, a rather simple arrangement.

It’s a good question. His only error is in downplaying the cost of organization and coordination that he recognizes up front so that he can conclude that it is “a rather simple arrangement.” Because as it turns out, it’s not quite such a simple arrangement after all. Sharing a lawnmower is a classic collective action problem, and as the prisoner’s dilemma demonstrates, collective action problems can be difficult to resolve even among only two people. Self-interest gives each co-owner of the lawnmower an incentive to free ride (aka, defect) on the other’s efforts, causing a breakdown in cooperation.

Of course lawnmower sharing is not a single-shot game, but an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, which changes the incentives. Cooperation can be rational now, so the lawnmower prisoner’s dilemma is solvable, and cooperation may thrive. But the rationality of cooperation is conditional, if your partner defects it’s as easy to get locked into a cycle of mutual defection as into one of mutual cooperation.

Let’s look more closely at all the little details of coordination that have to be resolved in order to make just a simple two-person lawnmower cooperative function.

  • Selection of lawnmower: First the two would-be partners have to agree on what type of lawnmower to buy. Their preferences here may differ widely. One may want a top-of-the-line self-powered lawnmower while another wants an inexpensive one and is willing to supply his own muscle power in pushing it.
  • Where is it kept? The lawnmower is probably going to be kept at one or the other person’s place, giving that person an advantage in use claims. But unless the lawnmower is going to be kept in an unlocked shed or garage (unlikely, I think, in most places where houses are close enough together to encourage sharing), the keeper is going to have to give the partner a key to the toolshed or garage, which requires a sufficient amount of trust. The potential sharing goes beyond the agreed upon sharing, creating another chance for defection. Either that or the one party will have to bang on the other’s door and demand he open up the shed/garage at the first party’s convenience, and it won’t always be convenient, nor will the keeper always be home at the right time.
  • Who uses it when? Most people mow their lawns on Saturday. Many prefer Saturday morning so they can have it done and over with and have the rest of the weekend. If the two parties to the lawnmower coop prefer the same time slot for mowing, conflict can arise. If they have small yards that don’t take much time, this will be less of a problem than if they have big, time-consuming yards. And perhaps they have different work schedules, so the Monday-Friday 9-5 person mows on the weekend, while the swing-shift and weekend working person mows on weekdays. If not, this conflict is resolvable by a system of taking turns getting the prime time slot, but it does add another issue that requires resolution.
  • Maintenance: Who pays? Who determines when it needs maintenance? Who takes it into the shop? Again, these are resolvable problems, but they are nonetheless problems.

I actually was a part of a two-party lawnmower coop in graduate school. My wife and I live in a university owned house with a nice yard and joined with two friends who shared a university owned house two doors down. It worked pretty well. Being poor grad students and not caring too greatly about yards we didn’t own we easily agreed upon a very inexpensive lawnmower. It being an inexpensive machine, and the whole deal being known to both parties to be rather temporary, we didn’t value the mower that much so we just let it sit outside in our backyards instead of locking it away–whoever used it last just let it site, and the other party was free to come into the yard to get it. We bought a gas can that we also left out and available and each party filled it up as need arose (that can be tricky–it’s a part of the maintenance issue, and free riding would be fairly easy, but monitoring was simple enough and the arrangement was long-term enough–and without a definite endpoint–so that there was little incentive to shirk).

The only real problem we ran into was when one of the other party loaned it out to the new neighbor in-between our houses, in exchange for the use of a weed whacker. That wasn’t a bad idea in itself, and could have been a nice expansion of the coop, but the new neighbor didn’t clean up his yard before mowing it. My wife and I were sitting in our backyard laughing incredulously as this guy repeatedly ran over rocks and sticks, amazed that he would do so much damage to his lawnmower blade, not realizing that it was our mower he was destroying. The partner who’d loaned it to him refused to pay for a new blade on the grounds that she hadn’t wrecked it, and said we would have to get the new neighbor to pay for it. I ended up paying for it, but irreparable damage had been done to the trust necessary for our coop. Fortunately, by the next summer she and her roommate had both moved to other locations and willingly abandoned their share of the mower. It’s a nice case study in the fragility of cooperative arrangements. Her roommate was, like me, a rational choice theorist, and we both had a good understanding of the little details necessary to success in a collective action problem. She, however, was a moralist, and could only see right and wrong in crisp black and white, and her sense of rightness overrode her sense of the value of cooperation.

Today I own my own lawnmower. What I don’t own is a snowblower. But my neighbor two doors down does, and many snowy mornings he does my walk for me. Our houses are close together, so it doesn’t take him long to do his, the intervening sidewalk, and mine. But it’s a very generous thing. We could, potentially, share the snowblower in a coop. But I think a better solution, in this case, is to buy him a couple of six-packs and thank him heartily for his generosity; i.e., “pay,” or reward him for clearing my sidewalk. It’s simpler than managing a coop.

*Hattip to Fred Clark.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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8 Responses to On Lawnmowers and Collective Action Problems

  1. AMW says:

    But I think a better solution, in this case, is to buy him a couple of six-packs and thank him heartily for his generosity; i.e., “pay,” or reward him for clearing my sidewalk. It’s simpler than managing a coop.

    That’s the first thing that crossed my mind. Everyone who pays for a yard service is in a de facto coop that cuts out a lot of the waste Atrios is talking about.

  2. BSK says:

    My friend used to hate mowing his lawn, partly because it wasn’t really “his” (it was his mom’s house), partly because he had a crappy electric mower, and partly because he’s lazy. He used to offer me a few beans to drive over with my stepdad’s gas-powered motor and I’d knock it out. I actually enjoyed getting out for a bit of manual labor (as a teacher, I don’t get to exert my manhood nearly as often as I’d like), I made a few beans, and he didn’t have to do something we loathed. A very different arrangement, obviously, and we were a good match because of our respective positions on the matter, but it seems like there are more options than A) own your own, B) pay a pro or semi-pro, and C) share.

  3. James Hanley says:

    I suppose paying you in beans would be appropriate since you had a gas-powered mower.

  4. Grainger says:

    The first thing: why, if your roommate expected to need the mower again in the future, she didn’t ask the neighbor to fix it?

    The second: Like the man said, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”.

  5. James Hanley says:

    Grainger, she wasn’t my roommate. But I suspect the answer to your question is that it was her roommate who normally mowed the lawn. Also, she was something of an ass.

    As the second, humans are social species. Plus, it’s often cost-effective to borrow. When my wife and I moved from California to Oregon, everyone was fleeing Cali, and a moving truck that would have cost $100 to rent for a move for OR to CA was over $1,000 going the other way–a simple supply and demand issue that didn’t favor our demands. So we borrowed a neighbor’s pickup truck. He was happy to loan it, and we were happy to borrow it. Adopting a pithy slogan as our philosophy wouldn’t have benefited my wife and me at all.

  6. BSK says:


    Are you somehow implying that gas powered mowers are inferior?

  7. James Hanley says:

    No, I’m implying that beans cause gas.

    (At least that’s been my experience.)

  8. BSK says:


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