Free Riders vs. Freeloaders

April 10, 1995
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzWe've been hearing a lot more these days about free riders. The notion of a free rider is used in economics to describe someone who does not contribute to payments for services that have been provided, even if he or she benefits from those services. According to economists, they pose a dilemma to those who favor the free market as well as to Marxists.

There are endless examples where we should oppose free riders; for instance, people who slack off at work expect to have much of their work done by fellow workers, even though they will receive the same salary; those who sneak across subway turnstiles avoid paying the fare, although someone else will have to; some do not pay for dams to be constructed, although they will benefit from them by getting flood protection, and so on.

Today, it seems that all organizations are moving in the direction of the pay-as-you-go concept. Pay you must, if you are to be provided a service. Yet not everyone has the ability to pay, although they have a need for that service ... for food, for energy, for a place to live. What then? What happens to these people?

My question is this: What's wrong with free riders? If I can pay for a service from which I receive benefits and if the service is fully supported, why not allow free riders also to have that service? The challenge is to separate the free riders from the freeloaders.

There are people in our society (not just the poor, the elderly, or the unemployed) who may not have the ability to pay. With little impact on others who pay, some free-riding can be permitted. A Buddhist saying goes as follows: "One candle can light many others without diminishing itself." In the same way, free riders can be allowed. The problem is how to decide how many free riders can be allowed without degrading or bankrupting the service. Another problem relates to deciding who is to be an accepted free rider.

What I think concerns most people, however, is the notion of freeloading; that is, setting out to be a free rider to "beat the system." This has nothing to do with the ability of the freeloader to pay.

There is a big difference in reality, if not in economics theory, between free riders and freeloaders. Let's look at the global warming issue as an example.

It seems that the industrialized countries want all countries in the world, rich and poor alike, to make sacrifices in order to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In fact, Australian representatives at the Berlin Climate Change Conference, meeting now, called on developing countries to make sacrifices to reduce their emissions of such gases. Reductions in these emissions will reduce the rate at which human activities may heat up the earth's atmosphere.

Free Riders vs. FreeloadersCombining the fact that industrialized countries have to date produced the lion's share of greenhouses gases with the fact that they have the scientific, technological, and financial capabilities to attack the global warming problem, shouldn't they be the ones to take the first and biggest steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Instead, they want other countries to carry their "fair" share of the burden of greenhouse gas reduction. Although poor countries may be free riders, they are not freeloaders.

Should we expect Rwanda, for example, or Bosnia, or Bangladesh, to lower their present-day quality of life in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Should African countries, on their own initiative, using their own scarce resources, try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the expense of trying to provide their citizens with, at the least, a subsistence-level ability to feed, house, and clothe themselves?

As an industrialized society, we ought to be more concerned about freeloaders than about free riders. In the long run, free riders can enrich the humanitarian aspects of our society.

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