Our elementary-school parent-teacher association (PTA) planted flowers and shrubs in front of the school one year. Another year, the PTA raised money to build an environmental center—essentially a stone gazebo where students could enjoy outdoor classes. The person who leaves the talent show early, benefiting from the large audience but not "paying” for it by staying, is a free rider, like the fare evader. But what about the PTA evader—the person who doesn’t participate in PTA projects?

There is a difference here that’s noteworthy. The fare evader voluntarily got on the train. The talent show attender voluntarily entered her child into the talent show (assuming participation wasn’t mandatory). But the PTA’s endeavors come unbidden, if you are not an active member. A small group of intensely involved parents decides on the projects. Do the rest of us deserve to be castigated as free riders if we don’t actively support what they do?

It would be strange to think that any and every beneficial project devised by a very vigorous PTA has the power to generate an obligation to contribute for every parent. It can’t be that my time and labor is so easily someone else’s rather than mine. The philosopher Robert Nozick once made the same point with an amusing example. This is about a neighborhood association, not a PTA, but the issues are much the same.

Suppose the neighborhood association came up with the idea of enlisting the 365 homeowners in the neighborhood in a project to broadcast a radio program from speakers attached to the telephone poles every day of the year. I have already enjoyed this benefit for one hundred days when my turn arrives, but I don’t want to spend my day this way. Can I really be a blameworthy free rider if I don’t pay for the radio service by making my own contribution? That assessment seems to empower the community too much, putting me at the mercy of their ambitious collective projects. Along similar lines, the philosopher Garrett Cullity tells this brief story about some enterprising elves:

On the first day in my newly carpeted house, I leave my shoes outside. In the morning I am delighted to find they have been extraordinarily well repaired. I am less delighted when I receive the bill.

Nozick’s and Cullity’s examples certainly suggest that we are not always obligated to pay for benefits we receive.

But now imagine the elf story continues this way: as a result of the elves’ work, I no longer take my shoes to my cobbler for repairs, as I used to do. Granted, I didn’t request the elves’ services, but since I clearly want my shoes to be repaired and now I am deliberately depending on the elves instead of the cobbler, I’m an active supporter of what the elves are doing for me. Because I meet this “pro” condition, I am a free rider, and surely it doesn’t matter that I didn’t explicitly request the elves’ services.

The “pro” condition forces us to consider one more issue. We are “pro” on some projects as a matter of taste, but on others because rationally we should be. Some do care about the PTA gardening project, but all should care about the sensible new security system. This makes a difference. Suppose the elves serve as security guards one night, fending off a giant who tries to invade my house and kill me. In the morning they leave a bill. Whether I feel “pro” or not, the elves provided me with something I objectively did need, and ethically (at least) I ought to pay for it.

So—taking into account everything discussed so far—let’s define blameworthy free riding like this. You’re a blameworthy free rider if and only if

  • 1. You receive a benefit;
  • 2. You don’t pay for it;
  • 3. You’re “pro” in one or both of two senses: (a) you do support the production of the benefit or (b) rationally you should support it.

Are those conditions jointly sufficient? What if (unlike me) some people relish participating in a PTA project—they enjoy gardening, chaperoning the school dance, or whatever it might be—and my doing so would merely deprive them of that pleasure? We’d better add another condition:

4. You could pay or contribute without gratuitously taking any joy of paying or contributing from other beneficiaries.

And then there’s the person with special circumstances—someone who would love to garden but has terrible allergies, for example. We need one more condition, before we can say we have a set of conditions sufficient for being a blameworthy free rider:

5. You can’t claim special reasons for not paying, beyond what anyone else would have.

Phew! We’ve worked this hard on defining "blameworthy free riding” not because the PTA conundrum is so pressing but because we’ll need a good definition to contend with a much more important matter.

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