A Free Rider is considered someone who consumes more than he should, or more than what is considered “fair”. In the more extreme case it is someone who contributes nothing but still receives the full benefits of society. In a more mild case, it might be the lazy person who manages to obscure the fact that he’s only working half the time.
Both of these cases are considered a problem because they present a prisoner’s dilemma to whatever they apply. If I work in a factory and can simply slack off half the time, this will bring me the benefit of living a happier, less tiring and stressful job. If this can pass unchallenged it will trigger others in the factory to act in the same way (defect) so as to get the same benefit. When a few people become free riders then it usually does not create an issue as others can cover for their loss without noticeable drawbacks. However when everyone, or a critical mass, defects then everyone suffers.
Free rider then must be somehow convinced or coerced to stop defecting from contributing what is expected of them, and societies have come up with various ways to work around this problem. In a modern nation for example, active coercion is used via the form of taxes to insure that everyone contributes their share. In a theoretical “Anarcho”-Capitalist society on the other hand, this problem is resolved through death1. The question occurs then, how would an Anarchist/Communist society deal with Free Riders.
The way I see it, there’s two necessary conditions that must exist to turn someone into a free rider. These are Incentive and Obfuscation. Incentive is the fact that in a prisoner’s dilemma the best result is when the other side cooperates as you defect. The greater the difference from the result of mutual cooperation compared to cooperation/defection, the greater the incentive to defect. Obfuscation on the other hand is the ability to hide your choice in the prisoner’s dilemma so as to avoid coercion or others defecting with you.
The greater the incentive and the easier the obfuscation, the more free riders you will get in your system until it collapses. A Capitalist system (wether a fascist, democratic or an stateless one) has such a a major issue with free riders because both conditions are high. It is easy to hide the fact that you’re lazy when your co-workers won’t care to give you away and the rewards for doing it are considerate (same pay for less work). I want to show how in a Socialist society both of these conditions are severely reduced.
Lets say we have a factory where our potential free rider is a worker. In a Capitalist run factory he would either be getting the minimum wage (the cost to survive) due to the commoditization of labour, or in the lucky case that the worker is living in a Bourgeois nation, he’ll be getting a decent one. Whatever happens then, the worker knows that he will be getting the same wage and it will also be unlikely that any extra effort will be rewarded.
But this is not the case in a socialist mode of production. Because the workers themselves reap all the fruits of their own labour any slacking at work will come directly out of one’s “paycheck” while any extra effort will increase their reward. Because of this, in our prisoner’s dilemma abstraction of the situation, the reward one receives from cooperating with others within Socialism are approaching the reward one receives via defection. The smaller this difference between rewards becomes, the smaller the incentive for one to defect
The second condition is how easy it is for a potential free rider to hide the fact that he is slacking about. Within a capitalist company, the limited management finds it very difficult to tell apart who is the slacker as opposed to who is simply slower than others (but still trying) or who is having a bad time. And since other workers generally don’t rat on their colleagues, especially when working conditions are bad, it becomes quite easy to hide the fact that you’re avoiding work, and this only gets easier in direct proportion to the size of the company.
However when you have a company where every worker’s reward is directly affected by every other contribution, suddenly people who take but do not give stand out much more. And because we’re talking about interactions between equals, workers will find it much easier to speak out and pressure the slacker socially to behave. Whereas it’s easy to hide from ( (or suckup to) the minority of the people who have the power to punish or fire you, it is not as easy to do the same when everyone you work with has a chance to notice, complain and eventually get rid of you.
Now you might have noticed that I’m mostly talking about workplaces as this is the main area where someone might try to free ride, but there’s also the case that one tries to escape working altogether. How can you tell then if your neighbour is contributing his part to the community for all the benefits he’s getting back? Like the workplace, in a small scale community2 it is very difficult to hide the fact that you never seem to be doing anything. Sooner or later neighbours and other member will start adding 2 and 2 together and come to the right conclusions.
We also should consider that it’s very unlikely that any person would prefer doing nothing for most of his life. I think it’s in our evolved psychology to want to feel productive to some degree. Certainly there are subcultures where it seems as if free riding (on social benefits) is promoted, but how much that is caused by other social conditions is a big argument (ie are people free riding because they can, or are they free riding because the alternative low-paying crappy non-fulfilling jobs are a far worse option?)
Dealing with Free Riders
So I’ve argued how the number of Free Riders within an Anarchist/Communist society would be much lower than what we’ve come to expect from experience, but it’s still conceivable that a number of them will still exist. While it will be easier to be discovered and the rewards of them defecting will be marginal, some may opt for this method. Perhaps they are just that lazy or don’t care what others think etc. How will we deal with them?
Humans are primarily social animals and don’t really want to live alone. When a free rider is discovered in work, his colleagues can easily make his life miserable by avoiding contact and/or being hostile, depending on how much he is slacking off. This type of pressure works even now to a significant degree and you very often see people quit from nice jobs because of office hostility. If this can work on people who can even be on the right (that is, not being lazy) then it will doubtly work on people who have to face their colleagues and their own conscience.
Outside work, the same thing can happen. Friends & Family will start urging you to do your part or abandon you if you don’t. Social contacts may become hostile and as the information spreads more and more, people around you will do the same. Imagine your grocery store clerk wordlessly giving you your necessities, imagine your postman “forgetting” to bring you the mail. You get the idea. I do not think there’s many who will want to be in this situation, especially if it’s their own fault for wanting to be lazy.
There is always a chance that a free rider will associate with other free riders in order to alleviate the effects of social pressure. As long as food and shelter are always provided, then one only needs to avoid social withdrawal in order to function in society and if they can find other like them, a subculture of free riders may be created that will be more resistant to social pressure.
Hopefully a future society will be a federation of communities whereas people cluster together with whoever they want to associate with. As such, each community will get to decide with whom they want to associate with and provide their communal resources. Were such a group of free riders to appear amidst the community, it would be relatively simple for the productive members of society to refuse to support them. Whereas this is impossible in a tax based welfare system, it would be fairly simple under Anarchism.
Leaving them be
It is very possible that even with the small incentive and low chance to hide, some people might still find a way to free ride in a Anarchist/Communist society and this is unavoidable in any kind of system really. For example in a taxation situation, you still have a lot of people who find a way to hide their true income or simply become invisible and only work through the black market. In the sense that these people keep using public services that the rest of us have paid for, they are free riding.
Well how about simply ignoring them? The number of such undiscovered free riders can never be large enough to be disruptive as this would mean that the method they achieve it would eventually leak to the rest of the community which would then take action. Trying to get rid of them through blanket measures is more likely to do more harm than good, as it may require authoritarian measures and the like.
So in the end you have a very small percentage of any community leeching off somehow in a way that does not incite others to do the same, we simply write it off as part of the waste. Among the people with special needs, the sick, the children and the elderly, a bunch of free riders will never make any difference.
A vulgar right-wing libertarian might here say that as long as there is any waste, as long as any person has the possibility to leech off his hard work, then the system is unacceptable. But the problem is that under Capitalism not only do the free riders abound but they also get to wield all the power. Who are they? Well, as per the initial definition, they are of course the ones who do not contribute anything by themselves and retain all the benefits of society. How do they do that? By simply turning their wealth to more wealth without having to lift a finger. They are the parasitic class who skim all the surplus value without having to break a sweat. They are the Capitalists.
Given the choice of a free rider in an Anarchist society – who can never have anything more than anyone else, nor exert any power over his comrades – and a free rider in a Capitalist society who not only gets to live the good life without even trying, but also get to be more powerful as time passes at the expense of everyone else…well I’d like to think that most can see which is the best choice.
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- Taxation and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (barefootbum.blogspot.com)
- To be fair, this is the position is espoused by this particular AnCap who seems to be a bit challenged in the empathy department. As such, it does not necessarily mean it’s the position espoused by all AnCaps, so a more accurate description instead of “death” would be “reliance on private charity, but possibly including death where charity is ineffectual”. H/t sblinn [↩]
- since I generally advocate those I will argue from that point. [↩]