Following the publication of The Logic of Collective Action by Mancur Olson in 1965, the notion of free riding gained wide currency in economics. The idea of enjoying the benefits of collective action without incurring the corresponding costs seemed to shed light on a number of major issues in American society at a time when social ills of various kinds prompted policy makers to reconsider the conditions of social cohesion. Gradually, free riding became to be regarded as the standard behavior of people placed in certain circumstances rather than the exception confirming the rule that people pay for what they get.
In this article, after reviewing the various meanings associated with the term free riding (and free rider), I follow the notion from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. I show that though it was used to tackle problems in fields as diverse as finance and labor—the study of which betrays the usual tensions between the free market and government intervention—from the mid-1960s, the notion increasingly conveyed a message about society as a whole. That an economic notion could serve such a purpose is another indication of the permeation of society by economic reasoning.