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What is the cost of a free ride?


I am currently locked in a long war of bureaucratic attrition with a well-known university. I am regularly asked to fill out and submit a variety of different forms asking for pretty much the same information in a slightly different way. I have started to refuse to submit the forms. Administrators have acknowledged that the forms are an inefficient way to collect information and, in my case, largely pointless. However, I was asked this question in response to my refusals: "What if everybody refused to fill out the forms?" Now, to my mind that would be ideal but to the administrator's mind I have become a "Free Rider": if everyone complies in filling out a form then everyone benefits as the information collected will sustain the group by helping the university; if just one person refuses then that person has a large gain (hours of their life back to use as they please) and a very small loss in terms of membership of the put-upon group. Gradually, in an nightmare scenario, each form-filler might become a refusenik like me until the group loses the benefit of...well, I'm not sure of what, but then perhaps I'm not the best judge!

In this month's text the American social scientist Mancur Olson (1932 – 1998) uses the problem of the Free Rider in order to challenge the notion that groups can act collectively distinct from the interest of individuals. Instead he theorises a logic of collective action in which individual interests are central to the creation and dissolution of groups.

Preliminary Reading

Olson, Mancur, The Logic of Collective Action, Introduction and Chapter 1 ('A Theory of Groups and Organisations')

Somewhat ironically, given the discussion of free riders, here is a link to the book online:

Buying the book would be public-spirited in that it will help sustain a healthy publishing industry for all of us:,mancur-olson-9780674537514

As ever, you're strongly encouraged to have a look at the reading in advance so that you can make a full contribution to the discussion.

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  • A former member
    A former member

    Will not be able to prepare for meetup, so will give it a miss.

    April 15, 2013

  • Mirko

    Let's give it a go. Seems interesting.

    April 15, 2013

  • BrianM

    This looks like a really interesting topic. I'm sorry I can't attend - I'll be out of town on a training course. I've downloaded the free text anyway. Thanks for introducing me to this writer.

    March 27, 2013

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