Area 51 is a mysterious place.
Located deep in the Nevada desert, it is home to highly classified US military operations. Rumours abound that it harbours secrets about extraterrestrial life.
In June, a podcaster released an interview with someone who claims to have studied flying saucers in Area 51. The video spread like wildfire on the internet.
A proposal for an event took shape, labelled “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of US”. The idea was for large numbers to gather on 20 September in a couple of tiny Nevadan towns next to Area 51. The security defences would be overwhelmed. Citizens could then see for themselves the aliens being kept secret by the military-industrial complex.
Around two million individuals pledged on Facebook to attend. Estimates vary, but it seems that in reality only some 2,000 turned up in the nearby towns. Of these, a mere 200 or so actually arrived at the security fences which guard the area. No one tried to cut or climb over the barriers.
The event has subsequently attracted a great deal of ridicule in both the mainstream and social media. But it usefully illustrates two important principles in economic theory.
The first is the so-called free rider problem. It occurs when some individuals fail to contribute their fair share to the cost of a shared product or services.
An everyday example is that of a shared kitchen space in an office block. Provided enough people are willing to keep it clean, there is an incentive for others to free-ride and enjoy the clean kitchen without doing anything themselves.
The problem is that where free riders exist, the product or service in question tends to be under-produced. In the kitchen example, the supply of people willing to clean may drop off.
Exactly the same thing took place outside Area 51. Everyone wanted the razor wire fences to be cut, so they could consume the “product” of entering the site to see if it contained aliens. But not enough – in fact no one at all – was willing to cut the wire and incur the potential cost of being shot.
The event also illustrates the importance of revealed rather than stated preference.
Economists traditionally attach little weight to surveys in which people are asked hypothetical questions about what they might do or pay in different situations. These constitute stated preferences.
Instead, economists prefer to infer preferences from the actions people actually take. If you always buy Pepsi rather than Coke, you have revealed your preference between the two.
Pressing a button to say you “like” something merely states your preferences. The cost of doing this is virtually zero. Revealing preferences may involve substantial costs, such as travelling to the Nevada desert.
This fundamental point is being lost in many of the reactions of decision-makers to events on social media. Far too much importance is being attached to actions which are almost costless.
The UFO buffs of Area 51 have done a public service by providing a clear example of this principle, and of evidence that “likes” do not necessarily equal action.