Posted by: aboutalbion | March 26, 2013

Free riders (1)

Several years ago now, someone said to me that the two chief reasons that explain the collapse of organizations are (first) incompetence by its officers or (second) grumbling on the part of the members.

Widespread grumbling is associated with the problem of free riders, because fee-paying members of an organization believe it to be unfair when free riders are able to receive the benefits of an organization without themselves becoming fee-paying members.  Free riders are seen to be getting ‘something for nothing’.

This train of thought was evidenced yesterday when the UK Prime Minister announced further measures to deal with what are sometimes called ‘benefit tourists’ to Britain.  He said that those visitors to the UK seeking access to health benefits and to social housing will have extra hurdles put in their way.  People with a talent to contribute were welcome to come to Britain, but free riders after ‘something for nothing’ were not welcome.  It is widely thought that there is a deep current of grumbling at the extent of immigration from overseas into the UK.

But this train of thought is also the next building block in Rodney Stark’s sociological foundation for his explanation for the rise of Christianity.  If the issue of free riders is a vulnerability for all organizations, then it would have posed a challenge to the officers of Christianity in its formative years.

Stark draws on rational choice theory, and favours the approach of Michael Hechter [(1987) Principles of Group Solidarity.  University of California Press, p27.].  “Truly rational actors will not join a group to pursue common ends when, without participating, they can reap the benefit of other people’s activity in obtaining them.  If every member of the relevant group can share in the benefits …then the rational thing is to free ride … rather than to help attain the corporate interest.”

Stark goes on to state this issue as a sociological proposition:

[Organized r]eligion involves collective action, and all collective action is potentially subject to exploitation by free riders.” (p175)

In a series of posts, I will survey Stark’s account of how the free rider problem might well have been handled in the early church.

[Stark, Rodney (1997) The Rise of Christianity. New York: HarperOne.]


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