There's this thing I like to refer to using the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses", although I mean something special by it. Perhaps there's already a great term for this concept, but I can't think of one.
The concept I'm referring to is a common syndrome in our society, wherein not only do people do something because everyone else does it, but the end result is not a net gain for individuals or society as a whole.
The simplest example? The nuclear arms race, and especially the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Why does some country X have nuclear weapons? Often, because country Y had them. As long as there was a disparity, country X was at a disadvantage, and had to act to correct the disparity.
And why did country Y have them? In an attempt to gain an upper hand in their relationship with country X, most likely.
Patterns in "Keeping Up with the Joneses"
Several common elements run through all of these sorts of "Keeping Up with the Joneses". There is a competitive situation, and the "agents" in the situation are encouraged to optimize or to show creativity. The "improvement" undertaken improves that agent's competitive situation; however, all other agents are free to make the same "improvement". And the part that makes this a rant--the part that does not apply in every case--is that the end result is worse than it would be if nobody had ever made this "improvement" in the first place. It's MAD!
Capitalism underlies the competition for most of the items on my list, but I'm not blaming capitalism. Capitalism can also take the credit for lots of improvements to products, improvements that everyone was forced to copy if they wanted to compete--for example, the drip-collecting collar on laundry detergent bottles.
No, I blame people. I'd say "stupid people", but it's not that stupid, just morally questionable. Let me act out a scenario from the point of view of these people.
Walter: I've got a great idea. If we floob the fromitz, we'll be able to sell twice as many units as our competitors. Floobing will cost an extra dollar a unit, but the extra sales will make up for it.
Albert: Well, until our competitors start floobing their fromitzes. Then we'll be back on equal terms.
Walter: But we'll have profited during the interim period.
Albert: Yes, but then, even after the interim period, we'll still have to keep floobing our fromitzes, because everyone else is doing it. So it'll end up costing us an extra dollar a unit forever, in the long run.
Walter: Hmm, good point. Maybe it's not such a good idea.
Albert: Then again, one of our competitors might come up with the idea themselves.
Walter: In which case we'll still end up having to floob the fromitzes. And we won't even make extra money from it.
Albert: Ok. Let's floob the fromitz.
Perhaps I should just call these sorts of things Capitalist Prisoner's Dilemmas.