This article presents a moral philosophical account of free riding, specifying the conditions under which failing to pay for nonrival goods is unfair. These conditions do not include the voluntary acceptance of the goods: this controversial claim is supported on the strength of a characterization of the kind of unfairness displayed in paradigm cases of free riding. Thus a “Principle of Fairness” can potentially serve as a foundation for political obligations. The paper also discusses the relation between its moral philosophical account of free riding, and a game theoretic or economic account.
To what extent can we as a community legitimately require individuals to contribute to producing public goods? Most of us think that, at least sometimes, refusing to pay for a public good that you have enjoyed can involve a kind of ‘free riding’ that makes it wrong. But what is less clear is under exactly which circumstances this is wrong. To work out the answer to that, we need to know why it is wrong. I argue that when free riding is wrong, the reason is that it is unfair. That is not itself a very controversial claim. But spelling out why it is unfair allows us to see just which forms of free riding are wrong. Moreover, it supplies a basis from which some more controversial conclusions can be defended. Even if a public good is one that you have been given without asking for it or seeking it out, it can still be wrong not to be prepared to pay for it. It can be wrong not to be prepared to pay for public goods even when you do not receive them at all. And furthermore, it can be right to force you to do so.
This encylopedia article distinguishes three main problems concerning public goods, together with the different conceptions of public goods relevant to them.
In my view, norms of cooperation feature among the foundations of morality, alongside norms of concern and respect. I describe these foundational norms in Chapter 3 of this book.
“Russell Hardin, One for All: The Logic of Collective Action”, Ethics 107 (1997), pp. 361-363.