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Free Riders and "Herd Immunity"

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.
Roy Christman's book of his essays from over a decade of articles for this magazine is now available. The price is $22 including postage. E-mail Roy at: hiramc@ptd.net.

Here's the scenario. You and 99 other workers are toiling in the lettuce fields in Salinas. Your pay is poor, and you aren't getting any breaks. You decide to form a union, present a united front, and demand higher pay and better working conditions. To kick things off, you ask your co-workers to contribute ten dollars in case you need to hire an attorney.

Ninety-five people think this is a good idea and agree to join. Five hold out to see what happens. Your organizing efforts pay off. You get a raise and a ten minute break every hour.

What about the five crew members who did not contribute? Do they get the raise and the breaks? Of course they do. Those five are known as "free riders."

You can see the problem. If some workers are dues-paying union members but a few workers who don't pay the dues receive the same benefits, why be a sucker and join the union? The number of free riders grows and the union falls apart. This same scenario also applies to volunteer groups and community improvement efforts.

Free riders can be dissuaded by three methods. First, if members of the group show solidarity and mutual respect, they will contribute and support each other.

A second method is to give members benefits that non-members don't receive. For example, if the Sierra Club is successful in reducing pollution, everyone benefits, including non-members. The non-members, however, will not receive a laminated membership card, a magazine, discounts on camping equipment, and that feeling of satisfaction.

The third method is to make group membership mandatory. There are no free riders if everyone is required to join the effort. It must be noted that mandatory membership in the group is often met with resistance by would-be free riders.


Now we turn to the Covid vaccine debate.

If you are over 65, you were vaccinated against smallpox. You had to be vaccinated before you were allowed to attend school. I have the scar on my right arm above the elbow to prove it.

As more and more people were vaccinated, smallpox died out. In 1972 the CDC decided that vaccinations for smallpox were no longer needed. A global effort eliminated smallpox completely in 1980.

Most contagious diseases can be brought under control without one-hundred percent immunity. While the number varies according to the disease, if between 80 to 90 percent of the population is immunized, the rest of the population is usually safe. This is called "herd immunity."

Of the three methods to dissuade free riders, "solidarity" among Americans is the least likely to work. Not only are we at each other's throats on hot button issues like abortion and guns, but we can't even agree that an attack on the nation's Capitol was wrong. The simple act of wearing a mask became politicized.

Could we give vaccinated people benefits that others don't receive? California leads the nation in utilizing this method, giving away over 100 million dollars to encourage residents to get the vaccine. Ohio has set up a full ride scholarship lottery for students who get vaccinated; the catch is that you must attend a college in Ohio. These programs are seeing some success.

Finally, we could force people to be vaccinated. For example, you can't attend school unless you have been vaccinated. While this might work in some countries, many people in the U.S. would see this as government overreach, or a conspiracy by Bill Gates, or a Q-Anon plot.

The good news is that if you have been vaccinated, you aren't going to die from Covid. A tiny minority may get sick, but their symptoms will be mild. You will live, but the unvaccinated free riders may die. It is positively Darwinian.

~ Roy Christman





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