Freeriding and the PTA

For purposes of writing a book chapter about vaccination ethics, I've been thinking about freeriding.  Never mind vaccination for the moment.  Let's talk about flowers.

A long time ago the PTA at my kids' elementary school did a lovely job of planting bushes and flowers in front of the school.  We paid our PTA dues, but that's it.  By the usual definition of "freerider" I seem to be one--I received the benefit of the planting, but didn't fully pay for it, since I did none of the labor.  My reasons for not helping seem to acquit me, though, which goes to show that "freerider" isn't automatically pejorative.  A "freerider" is not necessarily a freeloader, a moocher, a cheat.  There are innocent freeriders and guilty freeriders.

So, my reasons.  I benefited from the flowers, but really just by accident.  I couldn't help but pass by them when taking my kids to school.  I can't say that I wanted to see them planted, beyond a casual "that's nice."  I wasn't doing so little to help because others were doing so much.  Had they done less, so there would have been no flowers,  I would have done just as little.    To be a bad freerider, I have to (a) benefit from a public good without fully paying but I also have to (b) endorse the good--care about it, want it, as opposed to merely receiving it.    There are some things we all must be presumed to care about -- clean air, good health, etc. -- but flowers aren't among those things. I can't be accused of self-deception if I say I didn't care (much) about the flowers.

Suppose I had really cared about the flowers but lots of people wanted to plant them.  In that case, my contribution would have been gratuitious or worse. I would have been in the way, or might have crowded out another eager worker.  To be a bad freerider, I'd have to meet conditions (a) and (b) but also something like (c):  I could contribute without excluding those for whom helping is a privilege (assuming for me it's not).

Then we need a condition having to do with self-harm.  A bad freerider meets conditions (a), (b), (c) and also (d):  I could contribute without causing excessive harm to myself or others.  Of course, I might have a slightly aching back afterwards, and my child might be slightly less happy during my absence.  But I'm excused if helping is going to mean having a heart attack or abandoning my sick child, or what have you.

Again, never mind vaccination.  I'm pondering, for the moment, whether this is a good enough definition of "bad freerider" for purposes of deciding when you have to participate in PTA activities and when you don't. 

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