Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The "Free Rider Problem" goes way beyond vaccines (and 60s movies)

We’ve heard the term “free rider” in public debate in the last few weeks, particularly with respect to vaccines. It’s a concept that seemed much more central to moral thinking when I was growing up than it does now.  “Easy Rider”, like the 60s movie, might have changed things.  Other derogatory words, like “mooch”, used to be more common. It was particularly difficult for those less able to compete according to gender norms, in a time when there was less value for diversity, less that could be done for people with medicine, and more sensitivity about family reputations.  The concept is important because there are many other areas in which the idea becomes meaningful, and I have had to deal with them personally.
The term “free rider” usually refers to someone who belongs to a community from which he or she benefits, and where the welfare of the community depends on the willingness of every member to perform certain duties which aren’t compensated in the normal economic sense, and involve some cost or risk to the individual, which cannot be completely eliminated or predicted. 
Libertarianism, and the hyper-individualism associated with it, would tend to disavow the concept, and believe that the market should handle everything.  So let’s look again at vaccines.  Based on modern medicine, a libertarian would probably say, don’t depend on herd immunity, but take care of yourself.  Get vaccinated.  In rare cases, there could be a medical reason for someone not to be vaccinated or hot to vaccine his children.  No, religious reasons don’t count.  The idea really matters more with diseases other than measles and influenza.  For example, college students should get both vaccines for meningitis. Parents should encourage them to.  Yes, herd immunity will exist if a college insists on it for dormitory living. But the emerging adult ought to protect himself from the unnecessary risk of bizarre infection and amputations.  The overwhelming evidence is that self-interest says, get vaccinated.
The idea that a vaccine “refusinik” is a free rider (an idea suggested by many, such as Vox Media) depends on a few assumptions.  One is that, in the usual context, the issue usually refers to parents getting vaccines to young children.  That assumes the parent is socialized enough to want and have a family – a big assumption these days. It also assumes that there is some real risk or cost in the vaccine.  Medicine insists that modern vaccines are safe and don’t cause autism.  (Older vaccines may be another matter.) Personally, I buy that.  But I’ll respect the fact that a parent may believe there is a very small risk, but catastrophic for the victim. There may be a cost, nominal monetarily and in time and effort.  So in that sense, a parent who refuses vaccination for his child is a “free rider” if the parent depends on the rest of the community (or “herd”) to take on the job and “risk” or remaining uninfected.
I think you could develop the idea in other areas of public health.  If most adults (gay and straight) use condoms when they don’t intend to have babies, then there would be few STD’s (HIV or anything else, especially anything new or “alien”, like in my novel).  So condoms, if used consistently, could approach producing a “herd protection”.  But, again, the libertarian idea of taking care of self first applies.  Use the condom.
A more challenging example could come from the gun debate and the Second Amendment.  If, in a neighborhood, everyone owns a gun and is able to use it responsibly and criminals know it, the neighborhood might be safer from home invasions and burglaries.  Some horrific tragedies (like that in Connecticut in 2007) might not have happened.  But the gun issue, as a policy matter, is very tricky in practice, to say the least.  On paper, the right wing has insisted that the theater in Colorado would have been safer if the patrons had been armed.  Hardly anyone in the mainstream believes that is workable.  The practical responsibilities of gun ownership (as when kids are around) are significant.  But countries ranging from Switzerland to the U.K. and Australia have their own solutions. 
The gun issue leads back to another problem familiar in my own history, the military draft of the Vietnam era and before.  The student deferment system for many years allowed the educated to reduce the personal risk of combat, at the expense of the less well off.  I certainly took advantage of this, and that comes across  in Chapter 7 of my DADT-III book, with the disturbing tone of my interactions with other soldiers in Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, SC in 1968, with my being better educated and older but less physically combative.  Part of the debate would track back to the Domino Theory and the “necessity” of the ground war in Vietnam.  I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand, given this was less than six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of ground deterrence could make another nuclear showdown less likely.  Communism was a serious threat, and still is.  Of course, the "fairness" of the volunteer Army today (with the "stop-loss" policies) extends into the debate over national service, and the capacity to work in humanitarian missions in conflict areas or in areas with dangerous disease (like Ebola), a great personal risk.  We ride on people who do.   
But that leads to a broader concern, that is common with radical Left Wing rhetoric (like in the Peoples Party in the 1970s, as I have reported before), that the “well off” live as parasites off the labor of workers, which often involves regimented or high-risk physical work.  It used to be connected to gender roles (and even is today in Communist countries and in post-Communist Russia), and the whole idea that the “sissy” is a burden on the group. Maybe the endpoint was Maoism and the "Cultural Revolution" in Red China in the 1960s.  But I got a taste of this with some of the job interviews I had after my main “IT” career ended in 2001.  I saw a taste of how others really live.  Could I have really dealt with the rigor of a job as a TSA screener, with the odd hours, uniforms, precision, and ability exert authority?  I had indeed grown up with the elitist idea that I would be in a better “class” than that.  That’s what “good clothes” at work meant. But resistance to this "exploitation" drives a lot of radicalism. 
Of course, that leads next to my self-publishing and self-distribution of my “free speech”, which pivots around the “gays in the military” debate and refers back to the “draft and deferment” controversy.  I don’t need to make a living from my writing, and that generates tension with certain interests who pressure me to become more proactive in “selling” (whether ads or retail copies).  I guess I am the “mooch” off their business model, although I have paid for the publication services for their own sake.  But it has become harder for a lot of people to make a living in “sales” in a number of contexts, for a variety of reasons that combine:  people do more for themselves on the Internet and don’t want to be disrupted or approached, and are concerned about security problems.   This is not good culture for a lot of people who are more wired to be “interdependent” with others.   And, as a whole, society needs “interdependence” for its own sustainability. 
Another aspect of my speech is the stance of “objectivity” and not joining any one side too much.  No, I’m past the point where I can be “recruited” for someone else’s goals.  I am like the alien observer at a distance, who, according to Einstein, can affect what he observes by staring at it and then recording and broadcasting what he sees.  I can see how to some people this isn’t “fair”.  So no wonder, ever since I became self-published, I have been repeatedly approached to get involved in personal situations which in the past would not have been my business.  There is an idea that everyone should have a “stake” in others – and in future generations – before being heard.   The whole permissive environment for user-generated content could have gone another way. I have also been approached, sometimes without solicitation, that I should give up "journalism" and learn hucksterism like all other real people with real responsibilities, so it's fair for them.  Why should I ride on an estate and Social Security when I could really could do this if I had to? At least, that was the tone of some unwelcome phone calls a few years back.  
This brings me to the whole question of socialization.  I know the model.  You’re supposed to learn to take care of your own first, and extend “your own” by forming your own family, and then your suppoed to learn to care about “others” beyond family in concentric circles.  “Homophobia” became a surrogate or proxy to pressure those who resist socialization and follow their own expressive ends too much, whether others listen to them or not.  For me, going solo is preferable to "inferiority" in someone else's social order, but then that implies I see things a certain way that exclude people.  That gets into another area, quite disturbing, but beyond the scope of "easy riding".  Yet, getting someone like me to "join" and then "welcome others" might indeed seem stabilizing. 
In the Introduction to my 1997 DADT-I book, I wrote that what I had perceived growing up as that “people like me” aka “gays” (or “sissy boys” as understood a half-century ago) were perceived as “freeloaders”, as avoiding the demands of structured love required by family life, including responsibility for procreation.  If this was a moral problem, it was one more of omission than commission.  I was not someone who would get a girl pregnant or ever act like a jealous husband (or perform domestic abuse).   I was the opposite.  An only child, I would let my parents’ legacy die.  That was even more to be dreaded.
And then as I found with eldercare, family responsibility isn’t something that only happens when you have heterosexual intercourse.  In fact, my willingness to use mother’s money to hire low-wage caregivers could be seen as another kind of “freeloading” or “free riding” or worker “exploitation”.
The whole premise of the old Vatican model for sexual morality is hidden in plain sight.  If everyone is required to withhold experience of sexuality (even masturbation) until (straight) marriage where there is openness to procreation and new life, then everyone will participate in raising the next generation.  That seems to be how the agnostic Vladimir Putin thinks now about mother Russia! The other forms of inequality, essentially unavoidable, will be tolerated, even embraced, if every individual “knows his place” in the most sensitive areas of family social hierarchy.  That’s what gives marriage its meaning and makes sexual satisfaction over decades of marriage (with kids), through physical adversities, worth it for people.  In western countries, people don’t believe that today.  But the less well-off feel cheated and lash out.  It doesn’t take too much to see how radical Islam exploits this idea.
Of course, such an idea confronts people of different temperaments with different problems and demands varying personal sacrifices, which religious moral leadership says is inevitable.  I might give up emotional satisfaction, but others make sacrifices on the battlefield that I am shelter from, or maybe even as volunteer firemen.  Somehow, that’s supposed to be “fair” and solve the freeloading.
All this presumes that adults are likely not to want the “responsibility” and “cost” of having children, if they don’t have to.  They could still get stuck caring for their parents or siblings’ children.  But even back in 2000, Elinor Burkett, in her book “The Baby Boon” (Books blog, March 28, 2006) admitted that some see the childless as “cheating the system.”  Now it’s evident that many women want to be mothers.  With men, it’s more ambiguous, based on what straight men told me during college and young adult years.  Future (in a space-time sense) parenthood was already part of an identity that seemed to make current sexual attraction possible and even revelatory.  But I did not experience that.  Later, as a working adult, there was a real concern from some others with kids that I would lowball them out of their jobs, since I could work for less and still live well with less debt.
All of this concern about procreation and population demographics, and social cohesion becomes a lot more critical is smaller, poorer, tribal (often religious) cultures that have to deal with real enemies.  Rich cultures worry about these things less until coercion from the outside world forces them to.  Then there’s a mentality of “watching your back.”
David Boaz has a totally different take on “The Parasite Economy” in this piece about his book “The Libertarian Mind”, here.  And I'll throw in a Vox article on "stay at home" moms, by Lisa Endlich Hefferdan here; remember how authoritarian cultures (and our own in the past) were rigged so that men would find supporting women for life sexually interesting (and that says something about indecency laws even in a modern democracy).  That was a map of the moral world for me:  "upward affiliation" makes me tick, and I don't find personal contact with need or dependency rewarding.  

There is a mirror image to this whole free rider problem (and getting beyond the “income tax evasion” model).  Sometimes things people do in combination really do matter, to the larger group, and to future generations.  Use of fossil fuel energy (especially when alone) and climate change obviously come up.  So would public health.  For example, agricultural practices in southeast Asia, where people live close to livestock, increases the likelihood of global pandemics of “bird flu” (particularly in a jet-age world).  Overuse of antibiotics for minor infections (or mistakenly for viruses) leads to the development of superbugs that resist all antibiotics.   In the 1980s, the religious right (particularly in Texas, where was living then) claimed that the “chain letter” property of gay male sex amplified disease (AIDS) in such a way that it would endanger everyone else if it mutated.  That, for reasons too subtle to get into right here, fortunately did not turn out to be even close to correct.  But an increase in STD's in general can lead to overuse of antibiotics and eventually compound the superbug problem, from a public health perspective. 
The whole "free rider problem" probably motivates all the New Testament parables, with all their little moral paradoxes.  

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