I think it's best to speak first of the "Free Rider Phenomenon" and then state a problem.
The Free Rider PhenomenonNow, we know what some ancient thinkers might have called such a person--unjust, pleonectic, shameless, and unconcerned about the nobility, propriety, or appropriateness of his actions. "So people act badly"--you might say-- "what's the special problem?"
Membership in a group is like an exchange: each person makes a sacrifice (S) (i.e. he gives up or does not take something he might otherwise have gotten) and in exchange gets a good(G) which is achievable only by the efforts of the group as a whole.
Suppose that he will still get G even if he does not sacrifice S. The group's provision of G does not hinge on his particular sacrifice of S. (This is what Tuck means in saying that "his contribution is negligible".) Then he might not sacrifice S and still get G. In that case he would get something for nothing; yet his continuing to get G will depend on others' making that sacrifice. Thus he's a "free rider" on the sacrifices of others.
The phenomenon becomes a 'problem', I think, when we presume that the reasoning, "I can get G without S, therefore I shouldn't sacrifice S" is regarded as both (i) rational and (ii) universal or natural, i.e. common to human rationality. Then:
(i) If it's common to universal human rationality, then if one person may justifiably reason in that way, then all persons may-- but then the reasoning would be self-defeating, because no one would sacrifice S, and thus the group would not provide G after all.The Free Rider Problem, then, takes the form of a paradox: practical rationality is both impractical (self-defeating) and irrational.
(ii) If it's rational, then attempts to persuade or coerce individuals to act otherwise are attempts to persuade or coerce them to do something which is (strictly) irrational--and yet their achieving G seems eminently rational.
Papabear I think points in the right direction, but let's see if we can't get clearer about it.
This fallacious move between individual and group motivations and interests pervades and vitiates much of social theory since at least Aristotle's opening sentence in the Politics. He says,We see that every city-state is a community of some sort, and that every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone performs every action for the sake of what he takes to be good). (Aristotle 1998, Politics, book 1, chap. 1, p. 1)
Even if we grant his parenthetical characterization of individual reasons for action, it does not follow that the collective creation of a city-state is grounded in the same motivations, or in any collective motivation at all. Most likely, any actual city-state is the product in large part of unintended consequences.
Argument from the fallacy of composition seems to be very appealing even though completely wrong. Systematically rejecting the fallacy of composition in social theory, perhaps especially in normative theory, has required several centuries, and invocation of the fallacy is still pervasive.