05 April 2008

Classical Thought and the Free Rider Problem

I have in mind a series of posts on "the free-rider problem" and classical philosophy.

My thoughts were turned to this by a remark of Richard Tuck. Tuck has claimed (in a recent podcast on the subject, and also in print) that the free-rider problem, commonly regarded as an important problem involving collective action, was never identified as a problem by classical thinkers, and has been discovered only within the last hundred years or so.

Tuck is not alone in thinking this of course, but with his interests in the history of political thought, he's given the point some emphasis. As he says in the podcast (go to Philosophy Bites and scroll down to 10 Feb 2008):

It is very recent. Although people have occasionally thought they found precursors of this idea in the writings of Hobbes or Hume or Rousseau, or even to some degree back to antiquity, if you look at them fairly closely it turns out not to be the case. This particular argument--that I shouldn't collaborate in cases where my actions or my contribution is negligible--is virtually never found until the middle of the 20th century. And it's certainly the case that it's now taken on an enormous life of its own, and it's a major theme in political science. That's an oddity. Why should it be that something that seems so obvious, allegedly, to people now, didn't seem obvious for two thousand years? That's kind of curious.
Thus, some questions.

First, (for those who aren't familiar with it) what is this problem?
Second, is it really true that the problem is not articulated by classical thinkers?
Third, if this is true, why was it not articulated by them?

The third question is important, as there are a variety of reasons why the problem might have been articulated only in modern times, besides the explanation that we're smarter (include under this: our science or formal methods are better), or that social conditions have changed ("man and mass society", and all that) so as to make the problem seem pressing. Such as? For instance:
  • the 'problem' arises only given untenable or false premises, so the ancients reasonably never stated it;
  • if the 'problem' had been raised, they would have regarded it (on reasonable grounds) as having an obvious 'solution'; thus it would not have seemed interesting to them;
  • they would have regarded the problem as uninteresting, since they would have assimilated it (again, on reasonable grounds) to a much broader class of concerns, which did interest them, but which had a very different structure and form.


Mike Almeida said...

That's an unusual view of the free rider problem, which is generally given the structure of a PD. The reason for defection is not that one's contributions are negligible, but that failing to cooperate dominates cooperating. In the traditional case the cooperative outcome in (0) is not in equilibrium, so B will move to (1). But then A will move to (2), and they wind up in total non-cooperation in outcome (2).

3|3 (0)
1|4 (1)
2|2 (2)

Same thing in the five person PD. The numbers of free riders or non-contributors increases as we move downward from (0). Gets really interesting whether the cooperators at, say, (1) will just tolerate the free rider, realizing that they are better off tolerating one non-contributor than they would be were even one more person to defect to non-cooperation.

5|5|5|5|5 (0)
4|4|4|4|6 (1)
3|3|3|5|5 (2)
2|2|4|4|4 (3)
0|3|3|3|3 (4)
1|1|1|1|1 (5)

Michael Pakaluk said...


I thought the same, and wondered whether the bit about negligible contribution was shorthand for something. So I went back and found that that is how Tuck describes the problem in the first place also. Here's his language: "There are a number of extremely important cases in social life where the scale of collaboration is so great that an individual contribution is, strictly speaking, negligible, that we make no difference to the outcome, and that therefore although we may well very much want the outcome, we can’t see any rational grounds for contributing to it ourselves." He treats the Free Rider as a sorites type problem.


Mike Almeida said...

Hi Mike,

These sorts of cases will also have a PD structure. But it just muddies the taxonomy to call them free rider problems. Very often, the defectors in such cases are trying to do what is morally best, not trying to ride free. Parfit notes several of these. It makes no moral difference, for instance, whether or not I contribute to charity. The contributions are not earmarked, since it is incredibly inefficent to do so, so my contributon is not going in some lump sum to anyone. But then it is not morally better that I contribute than that I don't. At least I benefit a little if I don't, and I count morally too. Since the same reasoning holds for everyone--no matter how many have contributed--no one contributes and we are in the second to worst outcome. Here the irony is that those seeking to do what is morally best do not find themselves in the cooperative outcome of the PD, but in the second to worst outcome (in the bottom-right cell). But free riding is not the reason why.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what Tuck would say about Plut. Adv. Col. 1127a.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Eric, Philosopher as professional free-riders, I suppose! That's why they never thought there was a 'problem' in it! M

papabear said...

Doesn't the problem linked to the use of some sort of utilitarian calculus in order to determine action? As opposed to the classical question of whether one should act justly or just have the appearance of being just?

Anonymous said...

Aren't ancient thinkers worried by situations where agents are not so much trying to do what is morally best, but are, rather, actively trying to defect and have that defection go unseen by others: so that the being/seeming distinction is a problem of secret free-riding (of some sort)? You could find problems of this sort, perhaps, in Protagoras' great speech: he seems to sometimes favour prudence, sometimes virtue, and makes some consequentialist-sounding comments. Michael Nill has an interesting discussion of the contrast of prudence and virtue in Protagoras' speech, in his Morality and Self-Interest in Protagoras, Antiphon, and Democritus (Leiden, 1985).