As I’ve said in recent posts, proving that something is part of human nature is not the same as proving that it’s good. The belief that all human nature is desirable and should therefore be deliberately emulated is known as the naturalistic fallacy.
Human nature is a collection of traits, behaviors, coping mechanisms, and instincts that at some point in history helped the human race psychically and physically survive and reproduce.This doesn’t mean that every one of these traits, behaviors, or instincts is still very useful to us in surviving and reproducing. Some of these are now maladaptive in modern society and cause us more harm than good. Also, in the developed modern world, surviving and reproducing are relatively easy thanks to available technology and resources and thanks to how society is structured to protect it’s less fortunate members. Since basic survival and reproduction no longer occupy a lion’s share of human concerns in the developed world as they did in past eras of human existence, we’re now able to evaluate our evolved behavior by other standards in addition to basic survival and reproduction value, such as whether it makes us personally feel happy, fulfilled, self-actualized, and content.
Free riders are opportunists who game the system in a way that allows them to benefit themselves as the expense of others. Free riders behave selfishly in their own favor in ways that hurt the greater, collective good of the group.
Since free riders have existed throughout recorded human history, and because one can see the ways in which being a free rider can benefit someone, it’s tempting to use the naturalistic fallacy with free riding and say that being selfish is human nature, and therefore always a desirable trait.
However, being a free rider only works when a minority of people are free riders. There is always a tipping point level where if enough people start behaving selfishly and free riding the whole game falls apart. In the game theory game Prisoner’s Dilemma, if everyone starts competing it’s a mess. Same for the game Tragedy of the Commons: if enough people start acting selfishly the system falls apart.
So collectively, when a certain amount of the population becomes free riders, free riding becomes detrimental to the population and therefore maladaptive. This is the collective free riding tipping point.
Also, on a personal level, free riding may work in my favor in the short term, but as time goes on, the people I keep acting selfishly with either start acting selfishly with me in return, or just avoid me altogether because they feel they can’t trust me. Also, my reputation begins to suffer among the group, and because of negative gossip I have trouble finding new victims to exploits, or even worse, I become a victim of retribution from the community, by being either imprisoned, exiled, ostracized, or even killed.
So the free riding may benefit me in the short run, and allow me increased opportunities to survive and reproduce at first, but in the long run I can reach a point where free riding works against me. This point where free riding goes from helping an individual gain evolutionary advantages to becoming an evolutionary disadvantage is the personal free riding tipping point.
Also, for discussion on competitors versus cooperators, which is relevant to this discussion because free riders can be considered competitors, I highly recommend this series of posts, found here, here, here, here, here, and here.
For books on free riders both on an individual level and an evolutionary level, I recommend the game theory for laypeople book Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life by Len Fisher and the evolutionary psychology for laypeople book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language by Robin Dunbar.