Empathy vs. the Free Rider problem

After having finished my friend Michelle Vines’s memoir, Asperger’s on the Inside, which I then reviewed on Amazon.com and Goodreads, and after listening to Mike Aus’s community moment talk on cultivating empathy this morning, I’ve been motivated to gather my thoughts together and write down a few coherent paragraphs on what I see as the tension between social group enforcement of punishing and excluding perceived “free riders” and how the quick and overzealous enforcement of this social more runs counter to basic empathy and assumes a base equality among members that may be more convenient fiction than measurable reality.

This is a somewhat controversial point and I’ve found myself disagreeing even with my own family members on this topic.  The “Free Rider problem” is a real problem in the world of economics and much government policy is formulated as a way to manage if not completely solve it.  I won’t go into a detailed explanation of it, but there exists a more lay understanding of the Free Rider problem that I will outline in brief.  In any voluntary social group of even quite modest size, it is assumed by default to be a society of equals, for the sake of simplicity, and as such, everyone is expected to “pull their own weight”, metaphorically speaking.  When one or more members fail to “pull their own weight”, and are perceived to accrue more benefits from group participation whilst not contributing equal work & responsibility to maintaining the group and its primary function, this is where the “Free Rider problem” begins to emerge as a potential threat to the long term sustainability of the group, at least in theory.  It is often feared, and not without some justification, that a domino effect will result, with other members feeling empowered to pull back their contributions as well, while accruing the same level of benefits.  Why work hard to sustain the group when others will put in the hard work and I can reap the benefit without having to contribute my fair share of the work?  In most social groups of the smallest size, “Free Riders” tend to be punished immediately and excluded, with the other members feeling quite justified in “circling the wagons” and kicking out the offender who is often castigated as being “lazy” and must be made an example of to deter other would-be “Free Riders”.

This all works out in theory, and could even be considered a just outcome most regard as intuitively correct, in an ideal world.  But the truth is, we don’t live in ideal world, we live in the real world, and in the real world, a society of equals is merely a theoretical construct for the sake of convenience and may not be a wholly justified assumption when actual facts about the world are brought to bear on the question.  Some members may have more significant socio-economic or neurological challenges than others and as such are victims of subtle, unspoken inequalities, and as such may simply be incapable of contributing equally to a group endeavor as much as other members do and think the “offender” should.  Thus sometimes the most needy members who would benefit the most from a social group’s common endeavors get excluded because they’re perceived as not being “team players” and “not contributing their fair share” to the group’s mission and get judged as being merely “lazy”, without regard to any actual consideration of the individual’s actual capacity to participate, without consideration of real, existing inequalities between voluntary members.  Such policing of group norms tends to be reflexive, harsh, and immediate, and the enforcers of this rigid “equality”of participation often feel quite self-righteously justified in their exclusion and “otherization” of the “offender” for their failure to “carry their own weight”.  To use a crude but direct analogy, it would be as if a team of body builders, who can easily bench press 200 LBS would punish a 90 LBS *person* who is only able to bench press 50 LBS safely for not being able to bench press the 200 LBS normal average managed by the other members.  Never mind that the 90 LBS weakling still benefits greatly from the opportunity to participate and enjoys a greater quality of life from participation, because they can’t “pull their own weight”, metaphorically speaking in general, or literally in this example, they find themselves excluded.  On a competitive team where the objective is winning weightlifting competitions, such exclusion could yet be justified.  But if the group objective is simply to promote body health generally, then the exclusion seems arbitrary and absurd and is exposed as more than a little cruel as well.  Whilst the example above is absurd on the face of it because of being so literal, it is not so far removed from real world situations where equal participation in the workload is considered the price of admission, so to speak.

In larger, more formal organizations, such as State and National Library Associations, which I have held memberships in my past, “ability to pay” was given consideration in terms of allocating membership dues.  There were differing tiers of membership created to take “ability to pay” into consideration.  Rather than charging a flat annual fee to all members, organizations like the Texas Library Association and American Library Association have variable membership dues.  Full time students are given the lowest annual fee to encourage participation by the up and coming generation of newest librarians.  Unemployed librarians and part-time library employees are also given much reduced rates to again encourage participation and remaining in touch with their fellow colleagues in the profession and perhaps through participation help with future job prospects as well.  There are also different tiers for membership based on full time employment, with due consideration given to a member’s annual salary.  A new librarian earning only $36,000 per year will be charged less for annual membership than a more experienced librarian earning $50,000 or more per year.

But when “ability to pay” is removed from the easily quantifiable realm of salary and adjustable fees and re-centered on more qualitative and subjective assessments like “level of participation”, or “work contributed to the overall effort”, people dislike dealing with such “squishy”, subjective measures and tend to default to a rigid “society of equals” assumption and impose a kind of cruel “flat tax” on participation that refuses any empathetic evaluation of true “ability to pay”…even by individuals who might otherwise understand and even endorse the basic justice of the variable tiers of membership dues in professional organizations based on income (or lack thereof).

I feel as though my friend Michelle Vines has fallen victim on multiple occasions to this kind of “flat tax” of equal participation and not been given any empathetic consideration of her reduced “ability to pay” given her different neurology and the challenges of being a mother of an autistic child herself.  Michelle simply does not have the same number of “energy tokens” to contribute to collective endeavors owing to her executive functioning challenges and other demands on her time, energy and sanity.  Thus she is regularly excluded from participation in social organizations that have otherwise dramatically improved her quality of life because she is unjustly, harshly and quickly judged as being someone who wants to get “something for nothing”, purely out of laziness rather than being a victim of inequality who lacks the ability to pay the “going rate” like other members with neurotypical brain function and a fuller command of effective executive functioning.  Reading Michelle’s own words, my heart ached for the injustices she’s suffered and indeed continues to suffer even to the present day in very specific instances of which I’m personally aware.

This failure to consider “ability to pay” for group participation in a voluntary association of free individuals is also on some level a failure of basic empathy.  A failure to realize that a truly empathic organization must expect and even tolerate a modicum of “Free riders” in any given endeavor, and that truly empathic members should be willing to carry those whose legs are broken or tired but who contribute to the group in other ways and make the organization better by their presence, even if their shared “workload” is perceived to be less than the average member.  This is easier to identify in the case of individuals with obvious physical disabilities such as being confined to a wheelchair, or the blind or the deaf.  But there exist cognitive disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorders that are so called “invisible” disabilities insofar as one cannot tell simply by outward appearance that the individual in question has a disabling condition.  Accounting for these kinds of physical and mental inequalities among individuals and giving them due consideration falls in line with the kind of “nurturing parent” model common to political progressives, as theorized by linguist George Lakoff.

It is contrasted with the “strict father” morality model, also postulated by George Lakoff, found at the heart of modern political conservatism, the highly individualistic, pull-yourself-up by your own bootstraps mentality that is dubious of the efficacy or even the desirability of collective action.  These kinds of “rugged individual(ism)” types are the first to impose and rigidly enforce the “flat tax” of participation cost on actually unequal members.  For these kinds of “strict father morality” guided individuals, the only legitimate social model for collective action (if such a thing exists at all) is a voluntary association of a society of equals, where everyone pulls their own weight and slackers are marginalized and excluded without mercy.  The “Free rider problem” is thus regarded as an anathema to be policed against rigorously and harshly, rather than accepted as simply a cost of doing business to produce the greatest good for the greatest number and where “ability to pay” is given its actual due weight rather than simply assumed to be a priori equal.

Empathy can be cultivated through mental exercise, such as reading fiction or watching fictional narratives on television or in the cinema.  We first learn to empathize with fictional characters and this mental exercise begins to cultivate our empathic responses to flesh and blood individuals as well.  We learn (slowly) to be less judgemental and more understanding.  We tend to become more willing to deal with individuals as they are, where they are rather than as we might wish them to be or feel they ought to be.  In a society of such stark inequalities as our own, consideration of “ability to pay” is an ethical imperative.  It is no less an imperative when such cost considerations are shifted from quantitative measures to more subjective and qualitative ones.  It is a failure of imagination and empathy to mentally disconnect these two forms of “ability to pay” from ethical consideration, and a genuine flaw for any organization purporting to found itself on humanistic principles.





One thought on “Empathy vs. the Free Rider problem

Now you may speak.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s