All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1991

Rethinking the Free Rider Problem

James L. Payne is a political scientist who lives in Sandpoint, Idaho. This article is adapted from his column “The Volunteer Beat,” which appears in the Bonner County Daily Bee.

On the Bottle Bay Road, in North Idah’s Bonner County, they’ve confounded the professors. In the academic world, voluntarism is generally considered a hopeless way of approaching public problems. The reason is “free riders”: in a voluntary system of donating to a worthy project, people can get the benefit of the project without having to pay for it. Therefore—the theory goes—everyone will be selfish and wait for others to give, and nothing will get done. No, say the academics, the only way to accomplish public projects is to use government and its tax system to force everyone to contribute.

Fortunately, Maria Wentnet, Bill Bowman, and their neighbors on the Bottle Bay Road didn’t believe this theory. The 5.2-mile stretch of road by their property was unpaved, and likely to remain so for many years. Its washboards were a safety hazard, and its dust polluted the air and nearby Lake Pend Oreille. “We finally just got fed up,” said Bill.

Maria and Bill formed a committee to raise money on a voluntary basis to pay for paving this stretch. From county records, Maria hunted up the names of 408 property owners affected by the road. Through extensive telephoning and mailings (they sent out over 1,000 pieces of mail), the committee persuaded some 120 property owners to contribute. The basic contribution was set at $300. Some people were willing to give more. Some could afford only $50. The small contributors impressed Mafia: “You knew they were doing their best.” After months of campaigning, the committee reached its goal of $50,000, the amount the gravel/chip seal coat will cost (the county will handle preparation of the road bed):

Who were the noncontributors? Some were opposed in principle to paving the road, because that would lead to more traffic and development. In other cases, people really couldn’t afford anything. And then there were absentee owners who couldn’t be reached. But there were free riders too, and that did bother the volunteers. “It’s a little disturbing when there are people who want the paving, and can pay, but don’t,” said Maria. “But you just have to get past that.”

So the theory is wrong. Yes, there are free riders in a voluntary situation, but what the academics overlook is that there are also public-spirited people, and their generosity can more than make up for the selfishness of free riders. That’s why voluntarism can work. And, of course, it does work on this basis, all around the nation. Tens of thousands of voluntary groups, from churches to Boy Scouts, operate in circumstances where free-riding can take place, but this doesn’t prevent them from operating successfully.

Encouraging Voluntary Action

The Bottle Bay project illustrates another point: voluntary problem-solving is stronger when government is weaker. The Bottle Bay group first went to the county government, but were told there were no funds available for their road. At first glance, a tax-weak county government may seem unfortunate, but look at the benefit: it encourages voluntary action.

Voluntary assistance with roads is not uncommon in Bonner County. The Bottle Bay project has involved the largest number of property owners, but similar deals have been worked out for a number of other roads. The county’s lack of cash has impelled people to come forth with voluntary self-help arrangements. What is true for roads applies to everything else, from soup kitchens to youth organizations: if you want voluntarism, starve government.

It’s time academia recognized that there are two systems for handling our public problems. One is government, which relies on the coercion of the tax system. The other is voluntarism, the method that renounces force and relies on persuasion and generosity. Instead of inventing misleading theories for why voluntarism can’t work and why we must turn to government, scholars should be figuring out how to make voluntarism, which obviously does work, work better.