The ‘Free Rider’ Problem

Whenever the topic comes up of the need to help the less fortunate and disadvantaged, invariably someone will bring up the ‘free rider’ problem: that there will be people taking advantage of such assistance and get undeserved benefits from it, at the cost of those providing it. I don’t deny that such people exist and that they throw an unfortunate blemish on the genuine desire to help people that really need assistance. But is that a reason to stop such assistance? Even more important is to stop for a moment and wonder if people taking advantage of help offered by people that are better off are the only ‘free riders’ in the equation, or the ones we should worry about most.

I believe most people want to be good and do good. And most people want to help people in need. There is plenty of evidence that helping others is more than a cultural imperative – a learned behaviour – but a much deeper, instinctive behaviour, genetically programmed into us because it has proven beneficial to our survival as a species. Yet when we look around we see plenty of people in need, plenty of people not getting help, and plenty of well-to-do people not really sharing their wealth freely with others. Why?

One reason often given is that freely helping people is a sure-fire way to end up being taken advantage of. Whether the help is given by an individual or a collective (such as the state), so runs the argument, people will abuse anything that is too easily given to them, and profit unfairly from it, at the expense of the donors. This is often referred to as the ‘free rider problem’, and brought up as the reason we cannot simply go and help people in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves.

Free riders are everywhere and unavoidable, it is claimed, and would profit from the hard-earned wealth of other people, without having done anything to deserve this, and without giving anything back. It is because of those free riders that we cannot expect hard-working people to share their wealth with just anyone: that would not be fair. Instead we need to be really careful with any help we may want to give, and make sure that the recipients are made to feel that they are in no way entitled to that help, should feel guilty for needing it, and are actively discouraged from seeking it.

The sad thing is that such reasoning doesn’t distinguish between people that just need some help; that have fallen onto hard times through no fault of their own; that simply drew the short straw in the big lottery of Fate; versus the – in my observations minority – who rather take advantage of other people’s naive good nature than make even half an effort to fend for themselves. So help is withheld on the basis of a generalization that does grave injustice to a large number of people.

But there is another assumption underneath the free rider problem and the way it is used to stop or hinder assistance to those in need. And that is that it is always the weak that profit from the strong, the poor from the wealthy, the sick from the healthy. After all, the weak are in need of what the powerful have in abundance, so they are the only ones that can take advantage of that fundamental inequality.

That is a dangerous assumption, and deeply flawed. Dangerous because it ascribes to the needy not just weakness but envy as well. They are not just needy, they are also greedy – greedy for things they did not earn. Deeply flawed, because in reality the direction of advantage runs as easily from the needy to the wealthy, as the other way round. It is probably easier for the rich to take from the poor than the reverse; easier for the healthy to profit from the sickness of others; and easier for the powerful to suppress and disempower the powerless.

There are at least as many, if not more – because it is easier – free riders amongst the people that are well-off than amongst those that are in need. People that have taken advantage of other people’s misfortune; slaveholders getting rich from the suffering of people that lacked the power to defend their freedom; industrialists coercing masses of workers to spend dismal, long hours in dangerous and dark factories, because those people had no other means of income; pharmaceutical corporations raking in massive profits from people desperate for medication; banks taking advantage of people caught out by natural disasters or economic downturns; … the list goes on. And don’t think I am just talking about some small group of evil-minded people we could single out and blame for their greed and avarice. If we take an honest look at ourselves, our Western society, our own wealth and relative power, how much of what we at present consider our birthright and product of our ancestors’ hard work and diligence was in reality stolen, under threat of violence or worse, from people that had no way to defend themselves?

So, here are my three reasons to reject the free riders problem as a reason to limit or stop help to those in need:

  1. Psychologically, once you can master your fear of scarcity and lack of control, giving is more likely to make you happy than receiving or hoarding. By clinging to your wealth you are denying yourself a chance to feel that happiness;
  2. Amongst those seeking your help there are more genuinely needy people than free riders. Most people don’t actually like asking for help, and will hesitate to do so, unless they feel they have no other choice. By pre-judging anyone asking for your help as a free rider you are probably doing them a grave injustice, not just not helping them, but contributing to their psychological suffering of feeling helpless and unwanted;
  3. If you are amongst the wealthy people in your society, you are probably a free rider yourself, taking unfair advantage of many people all over the world, that are exploited and suppressed to provide you with the many luxuries you surround yourself with. You may not do so on purpose, and oppose these practices in principle, but since our society is built on these practices and you are part of these systems, you are profiting from it, and thereby complicit. So the least you can do is to share more of those profits with those in need, and help, if not to abolish this unfair advantage completely (which may be beyond any individual’s power anyway) at least to somewhat alleviate the pain and suffering caused by them.
Sharing can be messy, but it's much more fun.
Sharing can be messy, but it’s much more fun.


And that, my dear readers, is my parting thought for this year: dare to care more and share more. It will make the world a better place.

  1. (Image by Kathy on Flickr – published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

On Success

Whether deserved or not, success is not an objectively measurable state. It is a construct of the human mind, experienced only by comparing a person’s actual circumstances against a mental model of what success looks like. One way to achieve success is by attempting to match or succeed that model. Another way would be to change the model to match the reality of one’s life.

I received a number of comments on my previous blog about luck. Some supported my main thesis that success is more luck than merit; others pointed out that opportunity alone is not enough: without preparation, skills, and hard work opportunities are easily missed or wasted. And there was also the notion that a person creates their own luck: that luck is somehow influenced by the individual’s actions, not simply the random workings of a mechanical, uncaring Universe.

I don’t disagree with the notion that opportunities alone are no guarantee for success. An opportunity is a potential, nothing more, until you put in the hard work and dedication to bring it to fruition. In other words: there is merit in having made the most of an opportunity that presented itself – that part of success can be said to be deserved. But do you really make your own luck? Does Lady Fortune really favour the bold and prepared? Or is that the narrative we tell ourselves to uphold the feeling we must have some power over our fate?

Of course it feels good to be told you deserve your success. It’s a nice compliment to get and I know the people that say it really mean it. But there is a flip side to this compliment, an unspoken implication, I think we need to be aware of and very careful with, because it seems to be a source of suffering for many. I am referring to the notion that if success is deserved, then so must be the lack of it. Which means that millions of people that fail to achieve success (by whatever measure – but I will get back to that later) have only themselves to blame.

That doesn’t feel right to me, and I don’t actually believe this to be the case. It also easily leads to a sense of entitlement in the successful people that can stand in the way of their empathy and compassion with those less fortunate. It is this ‘entitlement effect’, I think, that can turn an inspirational concept like the American Dream into a dismal nightmare for those missing out through no fault of their own.

So my first point to make here is to urge all successful people to stop themselves from time to time and reflect on the incredible good fortune that brought them to where they are now; to tone down their sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction; and realize there is not all that much that separates them from those that failed. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” I think is the more appropriate way to look at it.

But what about all those people that are not successful? That feel they have failed. That get stuck with the lousy hand that Fate has dealt them? Telling themselves that the success they see in others is not deserved is not likely to make them feel much better about themselves. The opposite, in fact, is more likely: on top of being disappointed with themselves, they may easily slip into bitterness and resentment towards the successful people around them.

For all those people that feel they are not successful, consider this: by which definition of success do you fall short? Success is not an absolute state, with clear and unchanging criteria; what constitutes success depends on what you define it to be, and is different for different people.

Success is subjective and easily influenced by the people around us. We have a tendency to compare our situation with that of others and then wish to ‘get’ what they ‘have’.

And that is where we unwittingly cause ourselves much unnecessary suffering.

To begin with: what other people have may not be the best model to define our own success by. We may be aiming for something that is simply not suitable for us, because of our circumstances or abilities. We may be aiming for something that – should we get it – doesn’t make us happy or feel fulfilled. We may easily misinterpret other people’s success, and model something that doesn’t actually exist. When we then commit our time, energy and passion to accomplish what we mistakenly define as success, we are almost certain to be sorely disappointed.

The other downside of looking at other people for our definition of success is that we tend to use as role models people that appear to be better off than we are. We raise the bar on what we call success, then measure ourselves by that bar, only to discover we are falling short. And then feel unhappy about our perceived shortcomings.

Success by any definition
Success by any definition

I have personally found that a regular critical examination of my own definitions of success has been a great help in leading a more balanced, more fulfilling, and somewhat ironically, more successful life. Once I realized that success is something I specify myself, I could begin modifying my definitions to my own standards, not those of other people. I also found that instead of only looking up to people, it really paid to take stock of people less fortunate than me, and realize that many people would consider most of the things I take for granted as the pinnacle of success.

To name a few things: I am (reasonably) healthy, have food on the table, a house to live in, and friends and loved ones around me. And I live in a country that is not at war, is prosperous, democratic and free. Each of these is something many people would envy me for. Each of this things is bound to be someone’s definition of success.

So, whenever you feel you are not successful (enough), first of all do not fall into the trap of believing you don’t deserve success. Success is fickle and erratic, sometimes it comes, sometime it doesn’t. And then look at how you define your success, what model you use to compare and align yourself to. If that model is causing you pain and disappointment, why not adjust it a bit? Make it match more closely with the plusses of your current situation. There are always things to be grateful for. And the more you can make those the standard for your success, the more successful you will feel.