Image from Investopedia.com. Article by Jim Chappelow.
I’m kicking my shenanigan-laden intro to the curb for a more direct blog post. You’re welcome.
One of my more memorable classes in college was environmental economics. We covered a lot of material, and I wish it were a required class for any economics student at the University of Virginia (or really any university). That was the class where I learned about the free-rider problem and the Tragedy of the Commons.
In brief and very economics-y terms, these are references to a market failure whereby a limited number of shared resources are overly depleted by collective consumption. In less economics-y terms, consider a public lake with trout happily swimming along inside it. If people were allowed to go snag their dinners from the lake, the obvious risk is that it would be overfished until all of the trout were gone. Maybe one sustainably minded fisherperson might say, “Hey, wait a second! Shouldn’t we limit our fishing to sustainable levels? I’m not going fishing today.” Unfortunately, another fisherperson might respond, “Sweet! One less fisherperson to compete with!”
That latter person is the free-rider. Whenever consumption/use/extraction needs to be limited to avoid depletion, the concern is that some people will break that limit and selfishly take whatever they want at the expense of the collective. Fear of free-riders often causes the masses to then engage in the overconsumption. Rationale tends to go something like this – “If others are going to cheat, then I might as well get mine!” That rationale is what is tragic about the Tragedy of the Commons.
Many resource types and ecosystem services fall victim to free-riders, but at the top of the list is our stable climate. Basically, the lake in my hypothetical is our atmosphere and the fish are our carbon budget. We need to stop our collective carbon-loading of the atmosphere, but that need is often met by objections like “my emissions are small so they’re okay” or “what about China and India?” Classic free-rider justification.
So what is to be done? Well, lots of things (and you can read about them in the links above), but I want to champion one solution to the free-rider problem. We can choose, each and every one of us, to never be free-riders. Altruistic of me? You betcha, but true all the same. And in the words of my grandfather, “By God; what if everybody did it?”