Free riding

Why should I vote when it is most likely that my vote will not make any difference to the outcome?  Why should I pay my taxes when they are an insignificant droplet in the national budget?  Why should I switch off my lights when doing so will have a negligible impact on climate change?  In other words, why should I not ‘free ride’ on the decent actions of others?

These wide-ranging questions have direct relevance to the dynamics of school board meetings through the concept of ‘free riding’.  Before we can understand the relationship between school boards and free riding, we should first explore the concept of free riding more deeply.

The Free Rider problem arises because there are some issues and situations where the scale of collaboration is so large that the contribution of any individual is negligible.  In such situations, although an individual may very much want a particular outcome, the reality is that one person’s input has almost zero impact.  Therefore, from the individual’s point of view, it seems entirely rational to Free Ride.  

Public transport bus / truck on the RN12 highway nerar Koury, Mali

Global warming is a great example of free riding.  At a planetary scale, we understand if everyone collaborated to reduce harmful emissions, if we stopped cattle raising (which generates more global warming greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation, as measured in CO2 equivalent) and stopped cultivating rice (which also produces enormous quantities of greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide), we could achieve some extremely desirable outcomes.

And yet, at the scale of the individual, it makes no practical difference whatsoever to global warming whether I, for example, leave my light turned on or not, or whether I choose to eat rice for dinner.  The same arguments could be made about paying taxes, contributing to trade unions, or voting.  It seems to be a genuine philosophical paradox.  People collectively want a certain outcome, but at the individual level, it is actually more rational to enjoy the benefits of the sacrifices others make without sacrificing personally to achieve the desired outcome.

Does this mean that Free Riding might be morally offensive?  If 100 people walk across a lawn in a single track, it will probably kill the grass.  But if one person walks across a lawn, there will be no discernible impact.  Therefore, which pedestrian committed the offensive act that tipped the balance and started to kill the grass?  This is similar to the age-old philosophical question of ‘how many grains of sand are needed before we have a pile of sand?’.  There is clearly a cut-off point, but in reality it is impossible to define, or even know.  It seems absurd, for example, to define a pile of sand as comprising, say, 500 grains of sand or more, and then try to justify convincingly why a collection of 499 grains could not be a pile - this is the problem of vagueness.

In the situation of global warming, a similar situation can be said to exist.  It is most unlikely that the emissions from one coal-based power station make any significant difference between the earth warming or not.  There is a threshold of impact beyond which changes will occur, but it is a vague band, and our collective fear seems to be that perhaps we may be approaching that threshold, if we are not already there.  And yet, anyone can reasonably say that their light bulb, or their power station, or even all the power stations in their own country, are unlikely to make much difference, given the enormous scale of the issue.

Does it therefore follow that people are free to act in a way that is environmentally unfriendly?  In Kantian ethics, which supports ‘the Golden Rule’, the solution seems easy - I should act in a way that I want all others to act.  Since I don’t want others to leave their light bulbs on, then neither should I.  Or, to express it a little more formally, Kant would argue that in deciding whether a certain action is ethical or not, we need to ask ourselves “what would be the consequences if everyone did it?”, and the answer to the question should govern our behaviour.  If the answer to the question is something inherently bad, such as chaos, anarchy, extinction or disaster, then quite simply, we shouldn’t do it!  In reality, of course, it is never as easy as this.

In a book published in June 2008, Richard Tuck claimed that when considering free riding, we should probably differentiate between those cases where the threshold of making a difference is genuinely vague (such as building a pile of sand or global warming) and those situations where there is a clear point at which a difference or a change occurs, even though any individual’s actions might be miniscule, such as voting.  When I vote, and if I have supported the winning candidate, then mathematically it is actually quite likely that my vote was part of the bundle of votes that helped to determine the outcome.  I know personally that this was so in a recent election where I was registered to vote in the country’s most marginal electorate, and the final result came down to just 143 votes.  In that case, all but the last 143 votes helped to get the candidate elected, so to say that these votes were inconsequential would be absurd.  My vote may not have been necessary to affect the outcome, but in conjunction with the votes of others, it would have been sufficient to affect the result.

It is sometimes argued from a moral or religious perspective that we do have a duty to act in a certain way even if others are not acting similarly or towards the same goal.  If we were to ignore the religious or cultural element of this argument, then the sense of duty of the individual would become much more questionable.  If everyone else is not acting in a way that will achieve a certain goal through collaboration, but without collaboration the goal will not be achieved, then pragmatically it becomes irrational or even preposterous for an individual NOT to go with the majority and Free Ride.  This suggests that the argument of Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins that morality is not rooted in religious beliefs may be simplistic at best, and downright wrong at worst.  In practical terms, though, the apparent rationality of Free Riding certainly highlights the importance of collaborating and networking with others if genuine results are to be achieved, rather than claiming for example, that having changed our light bulbs, then we have “done our bit” to address global warming!

I have been thinking about the Free Rider problem following some of my recent work with several school boards where I have been focussing on the dynamics of their board meetings and other interactions, especially as they relate to self-interest versus the common good.

I have written previously that although there is no universally ideal size for a school board, there is a ‘sweet range’ that is neither too small nor too big.  When a board has too few members, there is a risk of burnout due to excessive pressures upon the small number present.  Furthermore, the range of perspectives available during discussions on small boards is artificially blinkered.  On large boards, arriving at a consensus position can become frustratingly difficult and protracted, and board members may feel they don’t need to contribute or even attend board meetings because there are others who will rise to the need.

This is where free riding can become a problem for a board.

A board’s authority is collective.  The board only has power when it meets and makes collective decisions (whether by consensus or majority).  When the board is not meeting, no individual board member (with the possible exception of the Board Chair through delegated powers) has any official authority whatsoever over the school.  

In this sense, school boards are counter-cultural in that societies around the world are increasingly valuing self-interest over collective responsibility.  This is not a new trend (it was discussed at length by Machiavelli in the early 1500s), but it is accelerating.

However, there is no place for self-interest on school boards.  Members have a duty to place the school’s interest at the centre of their decision-making, even if (and especially if) it conflicts with self-interest, or the interests of friends, family, associated organisations, and so on.  That is why it is essential that schools have robust policies on conflicts of interest and related parties transactions.

On a larger board, a dissenting board member can employ the free rider principle to make a ‘protest vote’ against a popular proposal with the clear expectation that their one vote will not affect the outcome.  Free riding is far more difficult on a smaller board.  Irrespective of the size of the board, however, once a vote has been taken and a decision is made collectively by the board, a dissenting board member MUST adhere to that decision.  Indeed, every board member has a duty to support board decisions in public, the only alternative being to resign from the board if the decision represents an irredeemable conflict of principle or conscience.

The free rider principle reminds us that when one member disagrees with a majority position while it is being considered by the board, voting against the proposal usually doesn’t change the outcome of a vote.  Therefore, no harm is done in expressing a contrary viewpoint, especially if it creates a worthwhile discussion despite its ultimately fruitless outcome – provided the dissenter does not subsequently undermine that decision outside the board meeting.  This is one reason that it is normally inadvisable to record the names of dissenters in board minutes, or to record any names against the individual arguments made during a discussion at a board meeting.

So to return to the ‘free rider’ problem – the dilemma I now have in my own mind is why should I write a long article if it is unlikely that my words will make any difference to any outcome?

The answer, I hope, is that this article will serve to improve the dynamics of board meetings among more than just a few of my readers. 

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We help boards by offering advice on board meeting dynamics.  This advice can be based on a report prepared in response to observations and/or a stimulating workshop such as OSG-S1 Board Operations.  

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