The Free Rider Problem for Human Equality
The Free Rider Problem is generally brought up in political philosophy as a problem for making public goods (which often include governments). A public good is simply something that everyone can benefit from. Clean air, for example, is a public good-everyone benefits from having clean air to breathe. One particular feature of public goods, that causes the problem, is that everyone will benefit from them regardless of their contribution. Meaning, a public good can only exist if it is beneficial to everyone-you cannot make it not beneficial to everyone without getting rid of the public good.
Here’s some numbers to illustrate this:
Imagine a town of people considering whether or not to contribute to the public good of a public park. Each individual person is capable of contributing to the park, but it costs them 10 units of utility in order to contribute. For every contribution, the benefit of the public good increases by 5 units of utility. Each unit of utility the public park has is available to everyone. So, if the public park has 20 units of utility, everyone gains 20 units of utility.
It would be best, in an aggregate sense, if everyone contributed. If there are 100 people in the town and each contribute their 10 units of utility, then the public good would reach 500 units of utility. Each person sacrifices 10 units of utility, and gains 500 units of utility. Each individual gains +490 units of utility.
The free rider problem: for each individual, it is best for their own self interest to not contribute, but have everyone else contribute. If they don’t sacrifice their 10 units to contribute, they only lose 5 units from the public good. So 99 people sacrifice 10 units of utility, 1 person doesn’t. Each person gets 495 units of utility from the public good, where the 99 who contribute get a net of +485, the 1 who did not contribute gets a net of +505.
The individual who gains the benefit of the public good, but does not contribute, is a free rider. This is obviously a problem, because each individual could reason in this way, to the point that no one will contribute.
In simplistic terms, the free rider problem is: I want others to contribute to something that everyone benefits from, but I don’t want to contribute myself.
(Side note: there are a lot of attempts in political philosophy to solve the free rider problem, like the Principle of Fairness. However, I have yet to be convinced by any of them, and would argue that none of them can get around this problem)
So how does this relate to human equality? To be analogous, I am thinking of “everyone is treated with equal respect” and “no discrimination” as public goods-everyone benefits when there is no discrimination and everyone is truly equal. Our contribution to this public good is to treat everyone equally, and not discriminate ourselves.
A free rider, with these analogies, would be someone who does not treat everyone equally but expects everyone else to. The free rider expects everyone to contribute to the public good of true equality, but does not contribute themselves.
The problem, as in the public park case, is that when people don’t make their own individual contributions, the group as a whole doesn’t get the benefit. The extent of this problem is correlated with the extent to which people don’t make their own individual contributions.
On the surface, it would seem that most people do contribute to the public good of equality (at least in the U.S.). Not many people discriminate against other people with their actions (at least I would hope).
But the problem I want to focus on is the way we view other people, especially those different than us. On the most basic level, we’ve come to realize and try to fix this problem in ourselves. Most intelligent people aren’t racist, and don’t think less of people of different races. This was once a huge problem (and it still is a big problem), but I am optimistic that it isn’t as bad as it used to be.
However, the intense focus on not being racist hasn’t been carried over into other areas of similarly arbitrary ways of discrimination. A lot of conservatives, especially recently, look down on the poor. If you are poor, on welfare, etc., you are seen as less of a person than a rich, successful businessperson. This is true of a lot of people-whether actively or on a more subtle level, a lack of financial success is seen as something that makes the person, in one way or another, less than a person who is financially successful.
Liberals have this problem too, though often in different areas. What I see a lot from liberals (which I have to admit includes myself), is looking down on people who aren’t as intelligent. A person who is less intelligent than another person is seen, in one way or another, as less than a person who is more intelligent.
These are just two examples, but the list could go on: social standing, physical ability, physical fitness, interpersonal skills, etc. Each of these traits is an arbitrary reason to value another person less than other people. They are all comparable to race, in that none of them are justifiable grounds for thinking of another human being as somehow inferior.
In conclusion, the public good of human equality is threatened by individual people being free riders. Individual people can be free riders, in this case, if they expect others to treat people equally but find ways on their own to consider some people as inferior to others.
I would hope that the free rider problem doesn’t apply to many people. However, I am extremely doubtful that it doesn’t. From what I’ve noticed, it seems each person has traits that they look for in other people, and value them differently based on that trait. A racist who values white people more than other races, a Mormon presidential candidate who values rich people more than poor people, a liberal blogger who values liberals more than conservatives-all are cases of being a free rider when it comes to equality. If people don’t genuinely think of people on equal terms, then the free rider problem for human equality will continue to make it so (as I believe is actually the case) that the system will favor those who more people like, rather than achieve genuine equality.