Scriptum Graphema ꞮV
In my last post, I wrote about the Tragedy of the Commons. This post will examine free-riders (those who benefit from collective actions without contributing to them1).
Imagine the lake and fishers from earlier. If an agency has the power and will to regulate the fishing, solutions can be enabled. However, there is another way to regulate. If government or private organizations don’t end up regulating a situation2, stakeholders can voluntarily agree on regulative practices. In this case, fishers can decide to restrict their catch rates in order to create sustainable fish populations. This can benefit all stakeholders! However, imagine one of the fishers pretends to comply with the regulation, yet continues to overfish the water. This lying fisher will reap the rewards of a likely sustainable3 fish population, and is free to catch as many fish as they want, gaining a massive competitive advantage over the other fishers and making more profit.
Like tragedies of the commons, free-riding occurs all over. A litterer benefits from public cleanup volunteering, while they actively harm the project of a clean living environment. A rich person evading taxes will continue to benefit (directly and indirectly4) from government infrastructure, without paying for its creation and upkeep. The tragedy of the commons occurs here when too many people litter, or evade taxes, etc. In the examples, the result would be dirty streets and failing government infrastructure respectively.
Free-riding can be rather local in its effects, as the example with lake fishing shows. However, it is also a massive contributor to the largest planet-wide human-made disasters. Foremost in relevance is climate catastrophe. Primarily due to industrial carbon dioxide and methane output, climate catastrophe involves rises in global average temperature (as more solar heat is trapped by the new atmospheric gas composition). It also involves global weirding, which includes largescale, odd, and unseasonable weather phenomena.
With climate catastrophe, there are many layers of impact, from the macro to the micro scale. Depending on the scale examined, one can implicate individuals, corporations, continents, and even international organizations. The general point remains the same. People and institutions benefit from climate catastrophe prevention initiatives, even if they don’t support such projects. Science denying politicians and fossil fuel executives still need air to breath and food to eat, and they tend to have family and friends who would benefit from a more sustainable planet. Allowing one’s children to inherit a burning planet is a horrific act.
I write this piece in the hopes that it allows readers to call out free-riding, and to use ideas from here to inform their own behavior and decision-making. We all benefit from a cleaner, safer, and more mutualistic world. Zero-sum game behavior is a race to the bottom, and ends up exploiting and destroying resources for short-term gain. Everyone benefits from clean air, sustainable food production, and livable climate.
There are more technical analyses of free-riding, such as this one. Here I choose to sacrifice some level of technicality in exchange for benefits to comprehensibility. If one is curious, there is a vast swath of economics and game theory literature regarding incentives to free-ride, and potential ways to mitigate the issues therein.
Stakeholders can also voluntarily regulate beyond the regulations imposed by organizations, though if there is an issue in need of solution then there likely isn’t enough self regulation overall.
While their fishing may alter the environment in a way that makes fishing populations unsustainable, it is likely that other fishers will notice, figure they made an error, and alter their self-regulation to compensate.
Even if their business doesn’t directly involve government spending, they rely on government to maintain the roads that their goods are shipped on. They rely on health inspectors to make sure their food is safe to consume. In short, nearly every aspect of their lives is enabled by what government provides.