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Free-Rider Problems in the Production of Collective Goods

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2008

Jean Hampton
University of Pittsburgh


There has been a persistent tendency to identify what is called “the freerider problem” in the production of collective (or public) goods with the prisoner's dilemma. However, in this article I want to challenge that identification by presenting an analysis of what are in fact a variety of collective action problems in the production of collective goods. My strategy is not to consult any intuitions about what the free-rider problem is; rather I will be looking at the problematic game-theoretic structures of various situations associated with the production of different types of collective goods, thereby showing what sorts of difficulties a community concerned with their voluntary production would face. I call all of these dilemmas free-rider problems because in all of them certain individuals find it rational to take advantage of others' willingness to contribute to the good in a way that threatens its production. Some readers may feel that the term ‘free-rider problem’ is so identified with the prisoner's dilemma that my extension of the term in this way “jars”; if so, I invite them to coin another word for the larger phenomenon. My aim is not to engage in linguistic analysis but to attempt at least a partial analysis of the complicated structure of collective good production.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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