The default assumption of evolution is that each individual animal follows only its own interests, and so cooperation in more than small groups is impossible because free riders take advantage of the others to enjoy the benefits without contributing anything, or as much, to the joint venture. Yet, human beings do cooperate, and field studies show that many communities are able to manage their commons—woodland, pasture, fishing. They manage to do it by combining a degree of cooperation with monitoring free riders to deter them.
Researchers, Professor Michael Kosfeld, Devesh Rustagi and Professor Stefanie Engel, studied a forest commons management program of pastoralists in Ethiopia. They recorded the degree of conditional cooperation in a group—the proportion of members willing to cooperate provided that others cooperate too. They found that groups differ widely in their share of conditional cooperators, from 0 percent to 88 percent. When conditional cooperators were a small proportion, not surprisingly, many were free riders. Presumably, this amounted practically to free exploitation of the resources.
Statistical analysis showed that the groups with more conditional cooperators were more successful in managing their forests, as measured by the number of immature trees there were per hectare. Looking into this further, the researchers investigated what the groups actually did to guard against free riding. They measured the time spent in monitoring the forest.
Groups with more conditional cooperators not only cooperated more but also monitored more by patrolling the forest to detect and deter free riders. With 60 percent conditional cooperators, a group spent on average 14 hours more per month monitoring than a group without any conditional cooperators. It shows that conditional cooperators spend time not just helping each other but also trying to stop free riders. Professor Kosfeld said:
Our findings fill a long standing gap between field and laboratory studies on human cooperation.
A positive correlation between conditional cooperation and costly monitoring sheds light on the evolution of human cooperation. The theory of gene culture evolution predicts greater cooperation in groups which enforce cooperation by deterring or punishing free riders. Rustagi explained:
The results yield important policy implications for the governance of human collective action. Because humans differ in their motivation to cooperate, an effective solution to commons problems should not be based on incentives for purely self regarding individuals alone but needs to explicitly take into account the complex interplay of heterogeneous motivations and behavioral norms to cooperate voluntarily.
This circumlocution must mean that free riders ought to be deterred from having the benefits of the cooperation of others or somehow punished for it. What can that mean in our modern societies, however? Are the so called benefit scroungers to have their benefits withheld, as the UK Con-Dem government are threatening, so that they have to starve, beg or turn to thieving to live? Or do the cooperators accept that people who are willing or are only able to live at a sustenance level nevertheless have the right to life without being starved to death. Earlier human societies always let the poor, aged, and disabled use common heath land, and a commandment in the Jewish scriptures (the Old Testament of the Christians) was to leave a portion of a field to be picked by the poor. No decent society has ever let people starve in the midst of surplus.
Does it mean then that the very rich, who pay others to do their work and are able to do so by taking much more than their fair share of society’s output, should be punished for being greedy and selfish while others have to work for their share? These wealthy people surely are the latter day free riders of our society. Mostly, they have done nothing themselves to advance society. They are where they are because some relative, a father, grandfather or perhaps uncle, who did something useful and successful, have left them with money and possessions that they have never earned themselves, but yet that they insist is rightfully their own, or nowadays by voting themselves huge compensation packages and bonuses. They are the free riders of today, and they are the ones who should be rightfully punished by society.
By far the easiest way to punish them, and to allow the ones in society who do the work to benefit, is to tax the rich at a suitably punitive level, and to distribute the money in social wages, that is to say, better social services like health and education, services that everyone in a decent society should expect to get free when they need it. Everyone will be freely educated when they are young, will be freely treated when they are ill or injured, and will be freely cared for as old people.
That is a society in which cooperation works, in which the real scroungers, the free loading rich are benignly punished by removing some of their unearned wealth and giving it to the poor who at present cannot afford many of the basic things in life. It has the benefit for the wealthy too, the people who still own the factories and banks, of letting people consume, for it is out of consumption that the free riders take their surpluses. A proper civil society is called civilization, and harks back to the sort of societies we used to have albeit on a smaller scale. It is human and humane. Let’s do it.