Monday, June 16, 2014

What Is Up With People And Free Riders?

Hey you, people who get really upset about poor people as free riders -- are you out there? I got a question for you. WTF is up with getting so mad about poor people as free riders?

For those of you playing along at home, free riders are people who benefit from some scheme but don't do their part to make it work. Like if you jump the turnstyle, you're a free rider on the subway.

There's something about the idea that somebody, somewhere, might be getting away with something -- a little leisure time at work, a cake paid for with food stamps, whatever -- that for a certain kind of person is like waving a red flag. You can watch the indignation suffuse their faces as they sputter about Hard Work, Fairness, and Personal Responsibility.

Obviously, I get the abstract issue of the free rider problem. I get how if there are too many free riders things fall apart, and that's a problem. So in certain circumstances you have to act. If no one pays for books there won't be any, and that'll suck. I get it.

But for some perverse reason I do not get, the emotional intensity of the response always seems to me not only inversely proportional to the danger posed but also angriest at the people who might, after all, have a reason to free ride: people who are relatively worse off.

People inclined to laugh it off if a middle-class person is stealing from the cable company are somehow enraged by the possibility that a poorer person might be getting benefits without looking for work, or chit-chatting at their retail job when there are no customers instead of cleaning out the storage bins.

What is up with this? I mean, what difference does it make? You really feel the extra dollar a year or whatever you might get if everyone buckled down is something so sacred it outweighs the good of a shitty life being possibly slightly less shitty?

The one attempt I know to explain why there are strong emotions associated with the free ride problem has its roots in evolution: creatures who live in social groups are likely to live in successful groups, and thus reproduce, if they punish free riders. Many animals have some form of scorn or shunning of those who fail to reciprocate acts like picking parasites.

Though I'm sure there are other complex cultural factors at play, I see no reason to reject the evolutionary explanation as a partial one. But what's interesting to me is that while it might help explain the existence of the indignation against free riders, it doesn't really explain the intensity levels -- I mean, it doesn't really fit with the way the indignation reaches a fever pitch over issues like cake-bought-with-food stamps.

Those are the most impartial examples, in the sense that there isn't even any direct failure of reciprocity. And often they're virtually no threat to anyone's long term well-being. So why the outrage?

I don't know. The only thing I could come up with is that some people just hate poor people -- I mean, they have visceral feelings of irrational hatred for the less-well-off, and since there aren't a wide range of socially acceptable ways to express that hatred, they express it using the concept of the free rider -- which at least uses an argumentative frame that people understand to pose a problem.

Needless to say, many of the examples people get upset about aren't even "free rider" examples at all -- they're just people doing what they need to do to get along, just like everyone else. But even when there's genuine free riding, it's hard for me to get upset about a handful of free riders as long as the system overall is working reasonably well.

Who cares? It's tough to get a system with a lot of people to work reasonably well. You got a few people free riding on it, people who are otherwise struggling? Small fucking price to pay, dude.


Daniel said...


I have a feeling that the ire towards the "free rider" is actually misdirected anger at what some people take to be a bad system (whatever it might be - food stamps, taxes &c, and for whatever reason - unfair, corrupt, whatever).


Daniel said...

Also, I've noticed (and sometimes felt it myself) a sentiment from people who felt like they had to do something themselves - struggled in some way - to feel resentful of what they would call "free riders." I'm not sure if this is your experience, but it is rarely educated, middle class people who make the accusation.

Christopher Grisdale said...

I've seen exactly the attitude to which you refer. Maybe I'm an outlier, but I'm often more indignant when a person who can pay, doesn't. The person that can't, but needs, less so.

The people who feel the reverse are callous. I've heard middle class people talk about their free riding as clever exploitation of a loophole in the structure -- with stupid *f-ing* grins on their faces. The worst!

Adam Riggio said...

I think it's pretty safe to say that the contempt for free riders, especially when they're poor or otherwise disadvantaged, is ideological. Welfare recipients and middle class people whose investments, equity, and savings were annihilated in the 2007-8 mortgage collapse in the US are the largest demonized groups I can think of from the top of my head.

I particularly remember the Rick Santelli rant on CNBC that took off among the Tea Party: people who lost their homes in the mortgage crisis were freeloaders and losers who deserved to suffer. It was a single mass media moment that inspired the Tea Party's contempt for any government attempt to help actual suffering people, and let Tim Geithner off the hook for his plans to remunerate his patrons in the Wall Street banking industry until today, well after the damage was done.

Contempt for the economically unsuccessful as deserving of their misfortune due to their intellectual or moral character is inherently ideological, a matter of social beliefs.

Daniel said...

The free-rider question is still sticking with me. I just saw this piece that talks about similar issues, but not exactly the same



Daniel said...

Oops, my hypothesis about class and who gets upset about free-riding was wrong. Justice Kagan's dissent to the recent union fees decision focuses in on her concern with free-riding:

Kate Zen said...

Business class "free riders" and millionaire tax loopholes aren't discussed in this post, but there's an increasing sense of outrage against wealthy free riders expressed in popular media since Occupy. So I think the disgust with "free riders" is actually across class lines, and present in any general critique on fairness. In fact, complaints against wealthy "free riders" informs the core values of any social justice work against economic inequality.

Corporations are people, but they are not poor people, and for some, that means corporate entitlements are whitewashed in the language of the public good - that's ideology for ya. But Fox news aside, there are also plenty of people who are aware of how much more significant the amount of "free riding" money given to the wealthy is, as compared to the poor: AKA "corporate welfare" - Wall Street bailouts far surpassing Main Street food stamps.

Or maybe I tend to hang out in leftist circles, so I hear more about this kind of complaint against "free riders" than the Welfare Queen kind you've mentioned.

I also think the moral qualms against "free riders" is rooted in a kind of all-American Protestant work ethic, the kind of goal-oriented guilt which you've written about. The notion that work is our salvation in some way, and we should all be devoted to our work beyond material necessity as a spiritual calling / sign of transcendent worth - and anyone who seeks otherwise, who tries to do the least work possible to survive and make disproportionate use of public resources, whether by necessity or convenience, is lazy and hedonistic, and beyond that: somehow contradicting that holy Capitalist spirit... This notion of Capitalist ethics may also underlie a Conservative disgust against working class "free riders" rather than business class "frequent fliers."