07 April 2008

The Free Rider Problem, and Aristotle the Whipping Boy

I think it's best to speak first of the "Free Rider Phenomenon" and then state a problem.

The Free Rider Phenomenon

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.
Now, 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?"

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.

(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.
The Free Rider Problem, then, takes the form of a paradox: practical rationality is both impractical (self-defeating) and irrational.
About the comments: I think Eric Brown has made the interesting suggestion that the problem 'should philosophers rule' (Plato, Rep.) or, more generally, 'should philosophers regard themselves as bound to contribute to civic life' (a Stoic problem) --is a Free Rider problem. -- Yes, I think so, but wouldn't the difficulty need to be generalized more for this to count as a discussion of that problem?

Papabear I think points in the right direction, but let's see if we can't get clearer about it.
To whet your whistle, consider the following passage from the SEP article on the Free Rider Problem. Once more poor Aristotle serves as a whipping boy and is maligned. The author seems to agree with Tuck that the problem wasn't recognized for centuries, and his explanation is that everyone was blinded by the fallacy of composition:

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.


Eric Brown said...

Michael, I think that the Plutarch passage cuts deeper than you allow.

You are right that when Plato and Aristotle avow that philosophers live the best possible human life and enjoy (at least some of) the benefits of political community without actually sacrificing to help procure those benefits, they are not recommending a course of action that just anyone can take, whereas modern discussions typically assume that just about anyone can enjoy the benefits of being a free-rider. (Both Plato and Aristotle certainly recognize that just about anyone can be an apolaustic free-rider, but they do not think that it is rational to prefer such a life to political engagement.)

But the Plutarch passage targets the Epicurean free-riders, and the Epicureans think that anyone--or at least any Greek speaker--can live the best possible life as a free-rider.

And, really, the Plutarch attack on the Epicureans is the tip of the iceberg. Doesn't the Platonic and Aristotelian concern to undercut the case for hedonistic free-riding suggest that there were people making the case for hedonistic free-riding as the rational thing to do? As soon as one poses this question and engages the literature of fifth- and fourth-century Athens, one sees evidence of concern about free riders. Consider Pericles' Funeral Oration, where Pericles so loudly pretends that the Athenians are exceptionally civic-minded that he betrays his concerns with the Athenians' widespread lack of engagement. Or consider Euripides' fragmentary Antiope, in which two brothers debate whether one should engage in political business. (Note that the latter looms large in the Gorgias' discussion of the same question.) L.B. Carter's book The Quiet Athenian brings together much of the evidence.