Take a Free-Ride

Economists have long recognized that Public goods can suffer from a Free-Rider problem. Public goods are non-rival and non-excludable, like a lighthouse or national defense.
Individuals would like to enjoy the benefits without having to contribute.
The Supreme Court just deadlocked on case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, that hinged on compelling non-Union members to pay a portion of the fees to reimburse the costs of negotiating contracts, which everyone benefits from. As Catherine Fisk wrote: “agency fee provisions are necessary because public sector labor law imposes significant responsibilities on unions and thus the law itself would create a severe free rider problem if employers and unions could not require employees to pay for the services that the union is required by law to provide.”

I saw it firsthand: When people don’t need to pay to get union benefits, they don’t pay. And then the union loses its power to win those benefits….On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a split 4-4 ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association that, by default, affirms a lower court ruling that public-sector unions have the right to collect dues from all employees they represent. Were Justice Scalia alive and well, that right would surely have died.

In America’s 26 right-to-work states, unions, once able to collect dues from all workers for whom they negotiate, collect dues only from members who agree to pay them—meaning there’s no price at all to enjoying the benefits of a union contract. Freeloaders, hop on! Benefits become giveaways arranged by an Oprah-like union—You get affordable health insurance! And you get yearly raises! And you get holiday bonuses!—all available without contributing a penny to the organization responsible for negotiating to win them and fighting to protect them.

In game theory, this can be modeled with the “Snowdrift game.”
Public goods are not limited to human societies. They can also occur in nature, and large number of them can be categorized as “threat mitigation, ” like the system you studied in which algae secrete toxins to kill competitors. Maybe removing a threat is a better examples of a public good than something positive (like building a park etc) because there is no possible way to exclude other members from enjoying threat-free environment.
At least one political commentator said that the other GOP candidates didn’t attack Donald Trump because of a “collective action problem” – everyone wants to take down Trump, but would rather have someone else do it. There is also the fable called “The Bell and the Cat” in which the mice decide it would be a good idea to put a bell on the cat so they can hear it coming – although no one wants to do it himself.
Belling the Cat is a fable also known under the titles The Bell and the Cat and The Mice in Council. Although often attributed to Aesop, it was not recorded before …

Some other examples:

  • Digging a path in a snowdrift
  • Picking up litter
  • National Defense
  • Lighthouse
  • Beta-lactamase Enzyme for degrading antibiotics
  • Monkey predator alarm calls
  • Firefighters
  • Police
  • Health Inspector
  • Immunization (Herd Immunity)
All of these involve removing or mitigating a threat instead of providing an affirmative public good. In human societies – people are considered (mythic) heroes if they fight crime – or fires or Supervillans or predators or invading armies.
Enforcing fair cooperation, which we now do collectively via a complex system of laws, lawyers, and courts. But to get societies going, it may be need to outsource these roles to a higher power:
“Today’s most successful religions have one thing in common: moralizing gods that care about how people treat one another and will punish those who are selfish and cruel. But for most of human history, these “big gods” were the exception. If today’s hunter-gatherers are any guide, for thousands of years our ancestors conceived of deities as utterly indifferent to the human realm, and to whether we behaved well or badly… once big gods and big societies existed, their moralizing deities helped religions as dissimilar as Islam and Mormonism to spread by making groups of the faithful more cooperative and therefore more successful.”