The illogic of free riding

Free riding, benefiting from a collective good without having incurred the costs of participating in its production.

The problem of free riding was articulated analytically in The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965) by the American political economist Mancur Olson. Relying on an instrumental conception of rationality, according to which rational individuals make choices that they believe will bring about the outcomes they most prefer, Olson argued that there is little rational incentive for individuals to contribute to the production of a public (or common) good, given the costs they would incur, because they will benefit from the public good whether or not they contribute. 

https://www.britannica.com/topic/free-riding

Mancur Olson makes the case that collective action goes contrary to human impulses, as the desire to look after oneself will induce all parties to free ride. This collapses a system where everyone takes and no one gives. Natural impulses, Olson argues, reduce or dispel the desire for collective action.

Collective activity to advance the economic objectives of a group are abundant, so there is little need to debunk the idea that cooperation amongst all sorts of groups is natural and ongoing. In fact, when you think about it, the system is most efficient when free-riding occurs.

Take the example of our neighborhood fence. Like many suburban clusters, a wooden privacy fence was built along the busier road which abuts the perimeter homes. This both distinguishes the area and lends privacy to those properties. At the turn in off the main road there is a sign and little extra wooden feature. A small association fee is due every year for mowing along the fence, insurance and upkeep of the entrance.

At some point the fence was aging to the extent of needing repair and possible replacement. Of course the interior neighbors didn’t feel they should pay, or perhaps not pay as much, as the perimeter homes as they benefit the most. About the same time a hail storm came through, as they often do, and caused damage to roofs and siding nearby. The association manager was also an attorney and was able to make a claim through the insurance policy for a complete replacement of the fence.

It’s likely that there were several residents who would have thought to have the fence assessed. But the manager, who gave his time voluntarily, was the one who initiated the project and saw it through. The rest of the neighbors were free riding off his time, education and experience. But how would it be efficient if everyone in the neighborhood had the exact qualifications?

The neighborhood is better off if there is a variety of skills available to the group, not only the business paperwork type of skills. The neighborhood doesn’t need an attorney in every house, it is better off having a mix. It’s more advantageous have a handful of home people to see that school bus pick up and drop off goes smoothly (especially when temps are bottoming out at twenty below). Older people can be prone to watching houses to the point of being nosey– but that helps keep crime down. Then there are the lawn perfectionists who lend out turf advice and fertilizer spreaders. Others may have job contacts or buddies in media who promote the local Little League.

You see free riding is what we all do if you look at everything from the individual lens. But as a group, it is best if everyone steps up voluntarily with their own unique skill or service. That’s called weaving a tapestry of community to catch everyone and bring them along.

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