A free rider, in the broad sense of the term, is anyone who enjoys a benefit provided, probably unwittingly, by others. In the narrow sense, a free rider is someone who receives the benefits of a cooperative venture without contributing to the provision of those benefits. A person who does not participate in a cooperative effort to reduce air pollution by driving less, for instance, will still breathe cleaner air—and thus be a free rider—if the effort succeeds.
In this sense, free riders are a major concern of the theory of collective action. As developed by economists and social theorists, this theory rests on a distinction between private and public (or collective) goods. A public good differs from a private good because it is indivisible and nonrival. A public good, such as clean air or national defense, is indivisible because it cannot be divided among people the way food or money can. It is nonrival because one person's enjoyment of the good does not diminish anyone else's enjoyment of it. Smith and Jones may be rivals in their desire to win a prize, but they cannot be rivals in their desire to breathe clean air, for Smith's breathing clean air will not deprive Jones of an equal chance to do the same.
Problems arise when a public good requires the cooperation of many people, as in a campaign to reduce pollution or conserve resources. In such cases, individuals have little reason to cooperate, especially when cooperation is burdensome. After all, one person's contribution—using less gasoline or electricity, for example—will make no real difference to the success or failure of the campaign, but it will be a hardship for that person. So the rational course of action is to try to be a free rider who enjoys the benefits of the cooperative effort without bearing its burdens. If everybody tries to be a free rider, however, no one will cooperate and the public good will not be provided. If people are to prevent this from happening, some way of providing selective or individual incentives must be found, either by rewarding people for cooperating or punishing them for failing to cooperate.
The free rider problem posed by public goods helps to illuminate many social and political difficulties, not the least of which are environmental concerns. It may explain why voluntary campaigns to reduce driving and to cut energy use so often fail, for example. As formulated in Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons , moreover, collective action theory accounts for the tendency to use common resources—grazing land, fishing banks, perhaps the earth itself—beyond their carrying capacity . The solution, as Hardin puts it, is "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" to prevent the overuse and destruction of vital resources. Without such action, the desire to ride free may lead to irreparable ecological damage.
[Richard K. Dagger ]
Hardin, R. Collective Action. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Olson, M. The Logic of Collective Action. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.
Hardin, G. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162 (December 13, 1968): 1243–48.