When I was teaching ethics and public policy, we often distilled the Kantian categorical imperative to the simple question, “What if everybody did it?” If you choose lie, cheat, steal, or do bodily harm to another person, would you be willing to let everybody do it? What kind of havoc would that wreak on our social structure? What if everybody threw litter out their car windows, or drove drink, or beat their children? That’s why we pass laws that limit our ability to do those harmful things.
But what about the other side? What if nobody did it? What if nobody got vaccinated, wore a mask, voted in elections, paid their taxes, fed the hungry, or contributed to charity? It’s much easier to pass laws to prevent or limit bad deeds than it is to foster or require those positive actions that benefit others (as well as, often, the self). Those are more difficult to mandate, to use a term that has suddenly been on everyone’s lips recently. We do have laws about paying taxes, and non-COVID vaccine requirements to attend school. Some states, workplaces, and private organizations have mask and vaccine requirements (with limited exceptions) for customers and/or employees. Through government, we use tax money to feed the hungry and offer a tax deduction for charitable donations. Until recently, we as a nation also actively encouraged voting, but now a fair number of states are trying to discourage it instead with voter suppression laws. (Under a newly enacted Georgia law, it is illegal to provide water to persons standing in long lines to vote.)
Ultimately, doing the right thing depends on good will, a sense of responsibility and concern for others. Economists have borrowed an old labor union term for a “let the other guy do it” attitude. Free rider. A free rider was a worker who refused to join the union but got the benefits of its negotiations on behalf of all the workers.
We are becoming a society of free riders. While 2020 showed an exceptional high turnout (67 percent) of voters going to the polls, the last time before 2020 with a turnout that topped 60 percent was 1968. In between, in presidential elections, voter turnout ranged from 49 percent to 57 percent. COVID vaccinations? At this writing, 48 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, and 56 percent have had at least one shot. Charitable donations? In 2020, 73 percent of adults contributed to charity, lower than the previous low of 79 percent during the great recession. Since 2000, most other years have been in the 82-87 percent range. What about volunteering? The percentage of adults volunteering their time was 58 percent in 2020, down from a high of 65 percent in 2013. (The adage among religious organizations is that 20 percent of the members do 80 percent of the volunteer work.)
The key word in free rider is free. In the name of personal freedom, people endanger their own health and that of others by refusing to wear a mask or be vaccinated. They limit the ability of government to help those in need by avoiding taxes and encouraging or demanding tax cuts, but don’t pick up the slack by using their time and/or money to support homeless shelters, soup kitchens, free clinics, and other services to those in need. The freedom to refuse to co-operate is apparently at the top of the list!
If nobody did it, democracy would cease to exist. The nation could degenerate into anarchy or more likely slide into authoritarianism. Economist Gene Steuerle has a blog called The Government We Deserve. If we as citizens want to deserve a good government and a healthy society, we must earn it. The opposite of free rider is all hands on deck. What are you doing to deserve a good government and a healthy community?