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.