On free ridership, and the State as superhero
Who needs a coercive state? People who are concerned about externalities and free riders, that's who! I create externalities when I make decisions and you have to bear the consequences. I become a free rider when you expend resources to create a benefit and I derive the benefit without contributing.
Both phenomena arise from the fact that the ideal of “private property” often fails to adequately describe our world: we affect each other more than we might like to admit. This market failure demonstrates the absurdity of thinking that people can live together without coercion.
Or does it? Still working on the externality issue. But evidence suggests that free ridership is not the deal-breaker I had thought. Pretty much all institutions operate in the face of them. I can’t really recall any endeavor in which I would honestly say that all participants received benefits in proportion to the burdens they bore.
Lo and behold, a new study focuses on the financing mechanisms of two forms of voluntary association: synagogues and churches. Synagogues typically charge an annual membership fee; churches typically request voluntary donations. As you might expect, there’s a larger disparity in levels of giving in churches than in synagogues. But as you might not expect, all else being equal, these two systems generate roughly equal amounts of revenue. In other words, begging is a perfectly viable business model, notwithstanding the fact that plenty of people will decline to contribute.
Honestly, I’m having a problem accepting this. Free riders PISS ME OFF. They offend my sense of justice. I want to believe that we need a state to coerce these people into paying their fair share because I WANT TO COERCE THESE PEOPLE INTO PAYING THEIR FAIR SHARE. It’s not about the outcomes; it’s about the fairness.
I'm gradually coming to the view that I just need to get over it. But it’s hard. And that’s given me a new insight.
If I place less reliance of the coercive power of the state, I will experience injustice without hope of remedy. If I place greater reliance on the coercive power of the state, I will still experience injustice. I may even experience greater injustice. But at least I am able to cling to the abstract notion that there exists a coercive power in the universe – God, Superman, the state – that could and might remedy injustice.
And perhaps it is this hope – even if delusional – that dooms libertarianism. In this sense libertarianism becomes akin to atheism and existentialism: Embracing this view requires letting go of some comforting delusions. It’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow. I appreciate anew how difficult it may be to persuade any large number of people to swallow it.