Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 15, No. 2, February 2019
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The Free Rider Problem

Carmine Gorga

February 2019


How I wish I had been trained as a rabbi, a priest, a minister, an imam, or a monk. I would now be able to offer you such an impassioned plea about the "Free Rider Problem" that would keep you at the edge of your seat, only to spring up into action at my last peroration, which is this:

Forget the "free rider problem"! It is a small problem. Besides, since it is deep inside our psyche, to resolve it you are liable to create much bigger problems.

To resolve the free rider problem within the fisheries, we all become complicit, some knowingly and some unknowingly, in the destruction of the family fishing fleet.

Who does not want to receive something for nothing? Don’t we all deserve a better life than we are experiencing? Should not the community show appreciation for my gracing her with the presence of my pretty face?

Especially since Thomas Hobbes, we have made a huge deal out of this basic attitude. We have even created a specialized name. We call it the ‘’free rider problem.’’ We have assumed that people behave like wolves toward people. We have assumed that most people will go to any length to get something for nothing in life. Not simply to get something out of the community for nothing, but even to damage the community to an extent greater than the value of their personal benefit.

On these assumptions, naturally, many feel entitled to go to any extreme to curb the free rider problem.

It is this conception that yields the ultimate explanation for the current plight of the family fishing fleet. It is only by casting the behavior of government bureaucrats, environmentalists, and economists within this cultural framework that one can understand their concerted decision to put a stop to overfishing, an activity that has been assumed to be the cause of depleting stocks of fish and eventually replacing them with jellyfish.

Never mind that there is no scientific base for this fear; never mind that the family fishing fleet does not do the overfishing. Ideology always trumps reality. There are many proofs to establish the simple fact that overfishing, when it does occur, is done by the large corporate, generally subsidized, enterprises of the world and by the moveable feast of the natural predators of fish.

No. Scientific, statistical, biological, and historical evidence counts for nothing. The damage done to the individual fishermen and their families counts for nothing: They MIGHT be the culprits after all. The damage done to the livelihood of communities that depend on the wealth generated by the fishermen counts for nothing.

If one sees the free rider problem in such an apocalyptic context as the struggle of good v. evil, moderation and reason cannot stand in the way of the final solution to the free rider problem. Overfishing must be stopped, and it must be stopped now. It is a moral imperative.

Overfishing must be stopped now, through the enclosure of the last commons – the oceans – and the creation of the Catch Shares program because, as it has been openly acknowledged during the last few years, this approach will turn to the benefit of the few remaining trustworthy fishermen who promise not to overfish and are assumed to be privileged enough to survive the current onslaught of governmental rules and regulations.

Did not someone talk of the "survival of the fittest’’ after all? There. There can one find final evidence of the aptness of this nefarious mode of thinking.

Never mind that competition will not determine the value of those shares. No, it is by government fiat that the value of those shares will be determined, because the government – without rhyme or reason – is arrogating to itself the right to determine how much fish can be caught.

Such a blatant disjunction between intentions (reduce overfishing) and results (destruction of the family fishing fleet) would not be possible if we were not all complicit in the final outcome. To make these complicated relationships clear, I have some explaining to do. Once I am done, I hope you will clearly see that we are indeed all complicit.

In the meantime, trust Congressman Barney Frank. He saw it all very clearly. He saw very clearly that NGOs are running a "moral" crusade, because they are fighting the "free rider." Congressman Frank was also right in seeing that the end result of the current mismanagement of the fisheries is "to dispossess the fishing people and replace their small scale and archaic methods with investor powered global corporations."

But does the rest of the American people understand it?

The Free Rider Problem and the Social Sciences

The discovery of the problem of the free rider did not originate with the enforcers of the preferred solutions of privatizing the commons and the proposal of the Catch Shares program. The discovery properly belongs to the subtle reasoning of a group of people who stand behind the scenes and ultimately control the mind of bureaucrats, environmentalists, and economists. These people identify themselves as social scientists.

They come in many stripes: They are statisticians, mathematicians, game theorists, philosophers, political scientists, and outright social scientists.

This mutual admiration society is unified by the goal of dealing with the free rider problem once and for all.

How do social scientists want to resolve the problem of the free rider? Well, the answer is obvious. They want to impose the most stringent rules of behavior on all members of society, even to the point of building a Leviathan, a monster government, which will punish the free rider with the gulag.

That is the preferred solution of governments tending toward communism as well as governments tending toward fascism: They do not mind starving the transgressor to death.

The more sufferance inflicted, the more blood spilled, the more exciting the intellectual game. The more thrilling the chase. The higher the odds of success.

Clearly the free rider problem would be solved, if all members of society were indeed to behave as social scientists suggest they ought to behave, Social scientists make their wishes known in a forceful way. They rely mainly on the fear engendered by the menace of life-threatening penalties, penalties imposed with overwhelming force. They further assume that no cheating would in the end occur, because any cheating is inconceivable among few trustworthy survivors.

This is indeed an intellectual reduction to the absurd. The non-cooperating reality offers a different answer: The free rider is going to exist no matter how stringent the government rules, and no matter how few the survivors. Recent examples exist to prove the validity of this observation.

What, then, is the solution? (Wait until the next section).

For the time being, I hope I have made it clear that, explicitly or not, much of the academic establishment is supporting the proposed rules and regulations that are killing the family fishing fleet.

That is the reason why we do not hear a pip against the plight of the family fishing fleet. That is the reason why government bureaucrats have – with impunity – been treating fishermen as if they were criminals. That is the reason why the national press is absent when 5000 fishermen show up on the steps of the Capitol to ask politely for the preservation of their right to fish.

That is the reason why so few people even notice the disjunction between branches of the federal government spending billions of dollars to create new jobs and the plight of the fishermen who are restrained by a different branch of the federal government in their right to fish, whereby the fishermen create jobs on the oceans and on land, at no taxpayer’s expense.

That is the reason why the majority of the public is witnessing the plight of the family fishing fleet and still takes no sides: Too many people claim to be confused by the complexity of the issues. Still confused? Clearly, no amount of evidence will convince people who have negatively prejudged the fishermen.

To complete this cultural/sociological picture, we need to add one more notion to the panorama: the unresolved conflict between "small is beautiful" of Jeffersonian memory and "big is efficient" of Hamiltonian memory. Hence, down with the small independent fisherman; hurray for the strong and efficient sectors, the proposed enforcers of the Catch Shares program. This is a conflict that divides the American house.

We all know that a house divided against itself does not stand. The fisheries, caught in this maelstrom of conflicting ideas, are collapsing. It is always the weakest member that suffers most.

The Free Rider Problem and Morality

As I said, I wish I had trained as a rabbi, a priest, a minister, an imam, or a monk. I would then work on the source of the problem. The source of the problem is this.

Unawares, social scientists have separated the issue of trust from its source: morality.

They have placed trust in the context of the positive sciences – pure sciences that are measurable and experimental. Hence, they have made trust depend on reciprocity.

In addition, since pure sciences abhor abstract unmeasurable entities such as morality, they have expunged morality from their system of thought.

In brief, social scientists believe that morality either is powerless or does not exist, and they have made the problem of the free rider insoluble.

It is only the re-entry of morality in the social sciences that can solve the problem of the free rider. How? By this maxim of morality: You do good for its own sake; you act morally, not when you act in self-interest – i.e., expecting some positive result in return, namely reciprocity; you act morally when you act selflessly. You act morally when you do not expect anything in return.

And you know that, when you act morally, society – and, ultimately, God – will give you everything in return. Society and God will give you above all self-esteem.

The problem of the free rider, then, is not for social scientists to resolve, but for the community of people who have been shut out of any serious social conversation during the last four to five hundred years: Rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, and monks. Did I forget to mention the shaman? Should I not add the literati?

It is this group of people alone who, dealing with cultural and spiritual issues and working on the deepest levels of our psyche, have the power to tussle with the problem of the free rider.

And if this community of people is unable or unwilling to deal with the problem, let us not fret over it. The problem of the free rider is a small problem. Let us absorb the small damage it creates and move on with our lives.

Any damage done by the family fishing fleet is, by definition, a problem of miniscule size. Overfishing is not done by the family fishing fleet; overfishing is done by the large, generally subsidized, corporate enterprises; overfishing is done by the natural predators of fish.

If government bureaucrats, environmentalists, and economists really want to attack the problem of overfishing at its source they should unite and instruct the public and the politicians to wage a fight against horrible practices of large corporate enterprises and to truly manage the fisheries by working with the laws of nature. They should purposefully reduce the population of the natural predators of fish.

The relation between predator and prey, as modern science is pointing out and specific studies have confirmed, is a moveable feast. Predators today become prey tomorrow. Hence, while the policy of taking predators out of the water ought to remain constant, what will vary is the specific type of fish that ought to be taken out of the water. This is the fish that is the predator of the moment.

To remain within the field of major commercial interest, it has been established that there is a predator/prey relationship between bottom fish and pelagics, the fish that live in the middle of the water column. Hence, at times the type of fish that ought to be purposefully taken out of the water is composed of pelagics; at other times, it is composed of bottom fish. It is keeping as much a balance as possible between these two major groups of fish that counts.

That is true fisheries management.

The Free Rider Problem and Community

Not stringent government rules and regulations, but appeal to self-esteem will solve the free rider problem. Needless to say, this solution presupposes the existence of a strong and viable community to validate the self-esteem of its members.

Many social scientists will tell you that there is no such thing as a strong and viable community today. They ought to know, because many of them, mostly unawares, have performed the function of storm troopers who, not independently wealthy themselves but mercenaries paid by the domineering few, have destroyed one community after another.

They have attacked the family farmer and the independent retailer by falsely accusing them of overcharging and being too expensive. Falsely, because in their calculations social scientists, mostly unawares, omit many costs incurred by the consumer of products sold by the large corporations: externalities such as the cost of disposal of waste and the cost of a car together with insurance and fuel needed to reach the large, but distant, box-store.

While family farmers and independent retailers have been accused of overcharging, fishermen are being accused of overfishing. Cheaters all three of them; free riders all three of them.

You can get on a high horse, even the high horse of morality, and take upon yourself the task of resolving the problem of the free rider. You can get on a high horse and conclude that you really need to – and you will, if you have your druthers – change human nature. Out of non-cheaters, you will create the "new man."

Or you can acquire a more realistic view of morality. Human nature is perfect as it is. You need only carefully change some of the institutions in which human beings operate.

One can agree that the institutions within which the family fishing fleet operates today need to be changed. But solutions will have to be designed from the bottom up, and they have to be imposed from within the community of fishermen.

One can also agree that this movement forward will not come by itself. The cultural and spiritual community of rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, and monks will have to help. As it is written in the Good Book, if you want to be fishers of men… well, you have to help fishermen now in their hour of need.

Members of the cultural and spiritual community do not need to learn how to mend nets to help the fishermen. They need only counteract the classical approach of conquerors: Isolate those whom you want to subjugate, cut them off their community, and it is so much easier to scare them and to force them into submission.

To counteract these maneuvers, the cultural and spiritual community will have to call the affected people together, to hold each member in trust to each other, and to keep the invaders out.

No matter how good their intentions, the invaders are fishing in troubled waters, not for the benefit of the community, but for their very own self-interest.

We have had proof after proof of this dynamic: When members of the community no longer trust each other, some of them call in the experts from the outside. And the experts benefit only themselves, their friends, and their relatives.

The shadow of the community is left there to mourn the present. A murder is occurring before our very eyes. Who can remain neutral while watching the community of fishermen being economically annihilated?

The list of issues that lie at the bottom of all this mayhem might be long, but each one of them is not that complicated after all. It is up to all of us to ascertain the truth behind these maneuvers and to reveal the truth.

The truth alone shall make us free.

The Free Rider Problem and History

History proves that any central government, operating from the top down, does not solve the problem of the free rider. But it offers only solutions that are worse than the problem it wants to solve. The government offers measures of social engineering and social planning that are destined to fail miserably.

The proposed Catch Shares program, as presently designed, is failing miserably. The family fishing fleet is disappearing from coastal communities, and imports of seafood have grown to over 90% of domestic consumption. The international balance of trade lists in one direction.

The first reason the central government has traditionally failed in its experiments at social engineering and most certainly will fail in the future is that it does not accept the doctrine of subsidiarity: Problems have to be solved WHERE they arise. A higher level of social organization has to have patience and faith that the problem will be solved where it arises.

There are other fundamental reasons why the currently proposed solutions of the free rider problem in the fisheries will cause only havoc. These solutions have been designed from the top down. And they are imposed from outside of the community of fishermen.

To solve the problem of overfishing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an arm of the federal government, is enclosing the last commons, the oceans that belong not to the government but to the community as a whole, and enclosing them by instituting a system of Catch Shares, small monopolies, that are beyond the financial means of small independent fishermen and thus basically exclude them from fishing. Catch Shares will admittedly concentrate the ownership of those shares into a few hands – even absentee, "Wall Street," hands.

Thus, the wealth created by the fishermen will no longer be distributed among the members of the local community, but will be shipped to other communities. Profits will definitely go wherever the owners of the shares reside. And, when absentee owners extract a larger share of the profits than customary, the local community will automatically have that much less. But even in the best of all worlds, the fewer fishermen left will definitely catch less fish (otherwise the proposed system of Catch Shares will have no justification at all). Hence, the local community will be impoverished by that amount.

A complementary reason why we have wasted 300 years of thought and action trying to solve the problem of the free rider is that we have lost track of a most fundamental truth. Contrary to the common wisdom of believers in the problem of the free rider, the community is not defenseless against the free rider.

The community has a set of measured defenses that spring into action as soon as the problem of the free rider is definitely identified.

Much time might elapse before the community identifies the problem. But that time is well spent, because the target is unmistakably identified. No energy is wasted thereafter. No shot is scattered.

The defenses of the community, typically, are shame, isolation, and ostracism.

What seems to be even less well understood by social scientists today is that the community, rather than being defenseless, evolves rules for the PREVENTION of the problem of the free rider.

Those are community rules that are developed from the bottom up.


Carmine Gorga is a former Fulbright scholar and the recipient of a Council of Europe Scholarship for his dissertation on "The Political Thought of Louis D. Brandeis." With a book titled The Economic Process and a series of papers, Dr. Gorga has transformed the linear world of economics into a relational discipline in which everything is related to everything else, This characteristic of Concordian economics has been recognized by JEL in December 2017 (p. 1642). Gorga was assisted for 27 years by Professor Franco Modigliani, a Nobel laureate in economics at MIT. For a full understanding of Concordian economics, Gorga has gradually realized that we need to go beyond Individualism and Collectivism, toward Somism (men and women in the social context)—see—and then we need to pass from Rationalism to Relationalism: see See also Wikipedia and Google Scholar.

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"But he who dares not grasp the thorn,
should never crave for the rose."

Anne Brontë (1820-1849)


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