Any freshman economics major can attest that nobody gets through their introductory economics courses without learning the theory of public goods and the so-called free-rider problem. As espoused by Paul Samuelson in the 1950s, public goods are consumed collectively, therefore making them nonrivalrous and nonexcludable—or, putting aside economic jargon, consumers do not compete against each other for such goods and producers cannot regulate access to them. In consequence, “free riders” can enjoy public goods without contributing to the cost of production.
This doctrine is invoked to justify government provision of public goods, which flies in the face of another of the first lessons young economists are taught: that economic science should be value neutral. The theory of public goods asserts that without government provision or subsidization, public goods will be underproduced, which is a normative judgment resting on assumptions about how much of a good constitutes the “correct” amount in a given economy. But as this fallacy has already been detailed elsewhere, my goal is to consider the free rider problem in historical perspective.