June 1929, on a beach in the Eastern United States. A yellow plane was about to take off for France. On board, three airmen wanted to try the first French crossing of the Atlantic, without a stopover, from West to East.

But the plane could not really take off. It seemed heavier than expected… And for a good reason: there were not three people on board, but four!

Arthur Schreiber, a young American, joined the three men without being invited to participate in the trip. To lighten the plane, the crew was forced to throw in the water the bottles of champagne they had planned to drink upon arrival!

Arthur dreamed of flying but could not become a pilot. Then he acted as a “free rider”, inviting himself in a flight where he was not supposed to. 

In economics, a free rider is a member of a group that benefits from a service or a public good without contributing. To simplify it, it is for example the friend who comes with you on vacation and eats a lot, but never helps to cook.

According to the economist Mancur Olson, free riders are not bad people. They make a rational calculation to benefit from public resources or services of a communal nature without paying for them or paying less.

In economics, this means that in order to achieve a common objective, we cannot trust only the individuals. A collective or central authority (State, Police…) is needed to ensure that no one abuses.

For example, when it comes to the environment, it may be easy to say that others will make all the efforts (selective sorting, responsible consumption, etc.) and we sit back waiting for things to improve. Therefore, we do it by law, or others’ opinions!

What about you? Have you ever been a free rider?