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Free-Rider Problems in the Production of Collective Goods

  • Jean Hampton (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 December 2008

There has been a persistent tendency to identify what is called “the freerider problem” in the production of collective (or public) goods with the prisoner's dilemma. However, in this article I want to challenge that identification by presenting an analysis of what are in fact a variety of collective action problems in the production of collective goods. My strategy is not to consult any intuitions about what the free-rider problem is; rather I will be looking at the problematic game-theoretic structures of various situations associated with the production of different types of collective goods, thereby showing what sorts of difficulties a community concerned with their voluntary production would face. I call all of these dilemmas free-rider problems because in all of them certain individuals find it rational to take advantage of others' willingness to contribute to the good in a way that threatens its production. Some readers may feel that the term ‘free-rider problem’ is so identified with the prisoner's dilemma that my extension of the term in this way “jars”; if so, I invite them to coin another word for the larger phenomenon. My aim is not to engage in linguistic analysis but to attempt at least a partial analysis of the complicated structure of collective good production.

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Norman Frohlich , Thomas Hunt , Joe Oppenheimer , and R. Harrison Wagner , 1975. “Individual Contributions for Collective Goods: Alternative Models.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 19:310–29.

Russell Hardin . 1971. “Collective Action as an Agreeable n-Prisoner's Dilemma.” Behavioural Science 16: 472–79. Reprinted in Rational Man and Irrational Society? edited by Brian Barry and Russell Hardin. Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage, 1982.

Jack Hirshleifer . 1983. “From Weakest Link to Best-Shot: The Voluntary Provision of Public Goods.” Public Choice 41: 371–86.

Philip Pettit . 1986. “Free Riders and Foul Dealers.” Journal of Philosophy 83: 361–79.

Amartya Sen . 1967. “Isolation, Assurance, and the Social Rate of Discount.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 81:112–24.

Amartya Sen . 1973. On Economic Inequality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thomas Schelling . 1973. “Hockey Helmets, Concealed Weapons, and Daylight Savings.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 17: 381428.

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Economics & Philosophy
  • ISSN: 0266-2671
  • EISSN: 1474-0028
  • URL: /core/journals/economics-and-philosophy
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