Economists hate free riders. Christians love them. Before explaining
why, I need to define the term. A free rider is a person who receives
the benefit of a so-called public good without paying for it.
Economists define a public good using complicated words for simple
ideas. The two big words are “nonrivalrous” and “nonexcludability”.
The easiest way to explain these words is to describe their opposites.
- rivalrous means that consuming a good prevents other people from
consuming it. A loaf of bread is a rivalrous good. If eat the bread, you
cannot eat it too. Unlike bread, a non-rivalrous good can be consumed by
many people without preventing others from consuming it. A concert by an
orchestra is a non-rivalrous good, because my listening does not prevent
other people from listening at the same time. Additional people can
listen with no increase in cost.
- excludability means that people can be prevented from consuming a
good once it has been produced. A concert in a theatre is excludable,
because people who are unwilling to pay can be shut out of the theatre.
An outdoor concert is non excludable, if anyone can walk up and listen.
A fire fighting service is a public good. If some people in a town
decide buy a fire engine put out fires that threaten their property,
they can provide protection to additional people at no extra cost. The
service is excludable in theory, because they owners could refuse to
fight fires for anyone who will not pay. In practice, the owners cannot
refuse to put out a fire due to the risk of the fire spreading to affect
their properties. Someone who has not paid for the service will have
their fire put out to prevent it blazing out of control and spreading.
The person who refuses to pay for the fire fighting service is called
a free rider. They get the benefit of the service without paying for it.
The classic example of a public good is defence. If some people
decide to employ soldiers to protect their town from invaders, people
who have not paid for the service will also benefit. Defending the town
protects everyone in the town, regardless of whether they have paid for
the service or not. Free riders will have their lives and property
protected without contributing to the cost.
Economists hate free riders, because they fear that free riding will
prevent necessary services from being provided. If paying for defence or
fire fighting is voluntary, too may people might free ride making the
Freedom or Coercion
The popular solution to free riding is coercion and taxation. To
prevent the free rider problem, payments for public goods are made
compulsory. This usually takes the form of a tax or compulsory levy. A
government is elected. They decide what defence or fire fighting
services are required and then impose taxes to cover the cost. Free
riding is eliminated, because everyone is forced to pay taxes.
The two options are freedom with free riding and coercion with no
free riding. We have a choice between voluntary payments for services
with a risk that some people will free ride and public provision with
compulsory taxation. Economists choose public provision and compulsory
taxation, because they hate free riders more than they love freedom.
Christians love free riders, because we are all free riders. We are
free riders on Jesus. Christians received salvation through Jesus work
on the cross. We pay nothing towards the cost, as Jesus paid the full
price for everyone. Every Christian is a free rider.
(Salvation is not a true public good. Salvation is non-rivalrous
because more and more people can enjoy its benefits without additional
cost. Salvation is excludable, because those who refuse to repent and
believe are shut out of its benefits. Salvation is a non-rivalrous,
excludable good, so it does no meet both criteria for a public good.)
Love and Generosity
Christians are all free riders on Jesus, so we cannot hate free
riders. We should love freedom, more than we dislike free riders. When
it comes to a choice between freedom with a few free riders tagging
along and taxation with coercion, we should choose freedom. God made us
free, so we will not give up freedom, just to deal with a few free
riders. The gain is not worth the cost.
Christians should like being around free riders, because it gives
them an opportunity to show love.
If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles (Matt
The soldier who forces you to carry his pack for a mile is a free
rider. He wants a service without paying for it. The Christian should
not resist or hate the free rider, but should show love him by carrying
the load an extra mile.
And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have
your cloak as well (Matt 5:41).
The person who wants your tunic without paying for it is a free
rider. He wants to consume a good without paying. The Christian response
is to love the free rider by giving more than him more than he expects.
God made humans free. Since he values our freedom, he does not coerce
people into doing the right thing. That perspective should shape our
approach to taxation. The Christian solution to free riding is not
compulsory taxation, but love and generosity.
The Voluntary Way
If a group of people come together and put purchase a fire fighting
service to protect their properties, they should ask for voluntary
contributions from those who will benefit. Most people support the
initiative and choose to make a contribution. Christians should lead the
way in paying for every service from which they gain a benefit.
Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe a contribution, pay a
contribution; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if
honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing
debt to love one another (Rom 13:7-8).
Paying what we owe for services received is bound up with Jesus
commandment to we love one another. Paying for free riders is a good way
to love those who do not love us.
If some people in a town or street decide to hire security guards to
protect their town or street from crime or attack, contributions to the
cost should be voluntary. Good people will willingly contribute to the
cost, but some may not be able to afford it. Others who can afford it
will deliberately decide to free ride. This is not a serious problem. It
provides an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate practical love and
generosity. Some Christians will contribute extra to cover those who
cannot afford to pay. Others will pay extra to make up for the free
riders. Compulsory taxation will be unnecessary.
Politicians love the free loader problem because it provides
justification for political power. They argue that compulsory taxation
is needed to pay for public goods and eliminate the free riders. Their
argument makes sense to the people of the world, because they hate being
ripped off. It does not wash with Christians because they know that
being ripped off is normal for those who free ride on Jesus.
Bless those who free ride on you, as you have been blessed by free
riding on Jesus.
For politicians, the end always justifies the means. Coercion is
justified, if free riders can be forced to pay. Christians function in a
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).
We understand that using the wrong means to achieve a good end will
eventually fail. The only way to overcome evil is by doing good.
Compulsory riding is not the solution to free riding.