Definition of the Free Rider Problem
- This occurs when people can benefit from a good/service without paying anything towards it.
- It also occurs, if people can get away with making only a token contribution (Something less than their overall benefit)
- If enough people can enjoy a good without paying for the cost – then there is a danger that, in a free market, the good will be under-provided or not provided at all.
- The free-rider problem is common with public goods – goods with non-excludable benefits, e.g. if you reduce pollution, everyone in society will benefit. Once pollution is reduced – everyone has to benefit.
- Another way to explain the free-rider problem is a slogan like “Let George do it” – where George stands for the rest of the world.
Examples of free-rider problem
- It is good to reduce our production of landfill rubbish. However, if one person in a city of five million produces less rubbish, it makes little difference. There is an incentive to free-ride on efforts of other people to recycle and make less effort yourself. In other words, we free ride on the efforts of others to recycle.
- If someone builds a lighthouse, all sailors will benefit from its illumination – even if they don’t pay towards its upkeep.
- Cleaning a common kitchen area. It would be good if we all contributed to cleaning the kitchen but there is a temptation to leave for someone else – who will do it all for us.
Public Good and the Free Rider Problem
A public good has a classic free-rider problem because public goods have two characteristics:
- Non-excludability – you can’t stop anyone from consuming good
- Non-rivalry – benefiting from good or service does not reduce the amount available to others.
Therefore, public goods like national defence, street lighting, beautiful gardens may not be provided in a free market.
A free-rider problem is also said to occur when there is overconsumption of shared resources. – This is also known as The Tragedy of the Commons. For example, a fisherman may take a high catch and free ride on other fishermen who are more concerned to preserve sustainable fish stocks.
Solutions to the Free Rider Problem
1. Tax and government provision
One solution is to treat the many beneficiaries as one consumer and then divide the cost equally. For example, UK national defence costs £31bn. This results in higher taxes for UK taxpayers. Therefore the cost of national defence is paid indirectly by UK taxpayers. This ensures everyone who benefits from the service pays towards the cost. Some may dislike this approach e.g. some anti-war protesters have tried to withhold a certain % of their tax arguing they don’t want to make contributions to illegal wars. But, most people accept paying taxes.
Austrian economists may criticise this approach arguing there is no guarantee the government knows consumer preferences and coercive action to make everyone pay and provide the good could lead to goods society doesn’t really need.
2. Appealing to people’s altruism
For some goods like visiting a garden, the garden may be able to raise funds by asking for donations if you enjoy your visit. There will probably be many ‘free riders’ who don’t make a donation. But, enough people may be willing to make a donation to fund the cost of the garden/museum. This solution is only effective for services which have a relatively low cost. People don’t mind paying £4 if other’s free ride. But, if there was a voluntary donation of £1,000 for national defence, would anyone pay it?
3. Make a public good private
A beautiful garden could be seen as a public good. However, if you erect a high barrier and limit entrance to those willing to pay, it loses its feature as a public good and becomes a private good.
To deal with the free-rider problem associated with overconsumption of common resources. The government have tried various options such as:
- Quotas – difficult to implement and difficult to monitor
- Legislation – on size of net size, number of fishing vessels
- Compensation to move away from fishing.
Free-rider problem economic theory
- Welfare Economics and the Theory of the State (1952) William Baumol – makes case for government provision of public goods in areas where there is a free-rider problem
- The logic of Collective Action (1965) Mancur Olson. Olson noted the mismatch between individual incentives and the collective interest of society.
- Theory of public goods (1954) Paul Samuelson. Samuelson noted how once public goods were provided they can be consumed at zero marginal cost.
- An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957) Anthony Downs
“Provision of national defense is a boon to every citizen; even if one citizen paid for it solely out of his own pocket, all the others would gain from it. Where citizens are numerous, each man finds it advantageous to refuse to pay for such indivisible benefits. Instead he assumes that other men will bear the cost and he will benefit… This situation means that voluntary action cannont produce a Paerian optimum in a large society when collective goods exit. (p.170) Anthony Downs
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