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.

Public Good

Economists define a public good using complicated words for simple ideas. The two big words are "non-rivalrous" and "non-excludability". The easiest way to explain these words is to describe their opposites.

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 the 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 service uneconomic.

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 not 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 5:41).

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 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 different paradigm.

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.