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In economics, collective bargaining, psychology, and political science, "free riders" are those who consume more than their fair share of a public resource, or shoulder less than a fair share of the costs of its production. Free riding is usually considered to be an economic "problem" only when it leads to the non-production or under-production of a public good (and thus to Pareto inefficiency), or when it leads to the excessive use of a common property resource. The free rider problem is the question of how to limit free riding (or its negative effects) in these situations.

The name "free rider" comes from a common textbook example: someone using public transportation without paying the fare. If too many people do this, the system will not have enough money to operate.

Free riding is also a term used by brokerages when a client purchases shares beyond his or her means. Free riders are those who purchase shares and then do not pay for them. (See margin.)


A common example of a free rider problem is defense spending: no one person can be excluded from being defended by a state's military forces, and thus free riders may refuse or avoid paying for being defended, even though they are still as well guarded as those who contribute to the state's efforts. Therefore, it is usual for governments to avoid relying on volunteer donations, using taxes and, in some countries, conscription instead.

Government is indeed the primary mechanism by which societies address free rider problems. In addition to fiscal measures noted above, regulation is another form of collective action taken by governments to resolve free riders problems such as environmental degradation or excessive resource use.

The free rider problem is also one justification for the existence of governments which provide public goods. Some ideologies, such as libertarian capitalism, are often rebuked, because in such a system all property in a society would be privately owned, away from any state involvement or regulation. Libertarians such as Lysander Spooner suggest that competition between mutual insurance companies, voluntarily patronized by property owners, could provide a practical alternative to government monopoly on protection over a particular territory.[1]


The free rider problem has deep roots in more general bargaining, and issues to do with incentive compatibility. That is to say that, when involved in bargaining problems, players may often bid less than they are prepared to pay in the hope of improving their own position. This creates problems because it is impossible to discover the players' true demand payoff curves, and therefore inefficient allocation of resources is likely to result.

In the context of labor unions, free rider means an employee who pays no union dues or agency shop fees, but nonetheless receives the same benefits of union representation as dues-payers. Under U.S. law, unions owe a duty of fair representation to all workers that they represent, regardless of whether they pay dues. Free riding has been a point of legal and political contention for decades.[2]


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Suppose there is a street, on which 25 small businesses are run, and which suffers from a serious litter problem that detracts customers. It costs $100 annually for each business to keep the front of their store clean. If a store owner decides to keep the front of their store clean, all businesses on the street will have improved sales. Suppose every business on the street will have a $10 increase in annual sales for each business that decides to keep the front of their store clean. If more than ten businesses clean their storefronts, then all of the businesses will make more money, including the businesses that clean. If some businesses clean but fewer than ten do so, then the businesses that clean will lose money, while the businesses that do not clean will gain money.

If everyone were to keep the front of their store clean, every business would benefit: a $250 increase in sales with a cost of $100 yields a $150 gain. However, an individual business could save $100 by not doing the cleaning, yet suffer only $10 for their defection, yielding a $240 gain, which is greater than they would have if they cooperated. Despite the fact they may be prepared to contribute $100, they can avoid doing so in hope that others in the street will clean anyway, and they receive the benefit for no personal expense.

Thus, under these assumptions, at any given point, any businesses will benefit more by not keeping the front of their stores clean. As a result, it may happen that no business will clean the street in front of their store. Such a situation would be the Nash equilibrium. This is despite the fact that allocative efficiency would be improved if they had cooperated.


One common solution to the problem is to contractually bind the 25 businesses to make them behave like a single entity. A vote could be taken so that if the answer is yes, everyone will be forced to pay regardless of their individual support. Contractual obligation in this problem provides the same function as a government in providing public services like military defense.


The solution suggested above is not without its problems. In most real-life scenarios, the utility for the 25 businesses varies from one to another, each benefiting incongruently. In some cases, such a good may even be considered by some to have negative utility. Further contributing to the payoff asymmetry, cultural norms of social reciprocity may influence one's willingness to cooperate or defect in a public goods game. In other words, one may value the actual act of cooperating with their neighboring businesses to a greater extent than they value the additional money they would get for defecting.

See also


  2. Gurley, Fred (May 1954). Unalienable Rights versus Union Shop. Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 26 (1): 58–70.
  • Cornes, Richard; Sandler, Todd (1986). The Theory of Externalities, Public Goods and Club Goods, New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Venugopal, Joshi (2005). Drug imports: the free-rider paradox. Express Pharma Pulse 11 (9): 8. This article refers to the free-rider problem in global pharmaceutical research.
  • Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion in Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, 500 U.S. 507 (1991).

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