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.