How did pre-agricultural societies deal with the problem of free riding?

Answer by Inder Sethi:

NOTE: Not all charity or generosity is evidence of free-riding. I define free-riding as "slacking", when you could have done more, but chose not to and chose to mooch from the collective. However, people always have different capabilities, and in a tribe, the stronger members are expected to share with the weaker members (who are still expected to do as much as they can).

I'm basing my answer primarily on two books: "Governing the Commons", by Nobel Prize for Economics winner Elinor Ostrom (who won the Nobel Prize for her work on successful commons-management organizations), and sociologist Mancur Olson's classic "The Logic of Collective Action".

First, free riding has always existed, even in the absence of private ownership. Elinor Ostrom, in her book, talks about free riding while managing common lands in Japan three centuries ago (in the Tokugawa period:1600-1867), Spanish irrigation institutions dating back 600 years, as well as commons management in Swiss villages that has been in effect for many generations (more details further below).

"In Japan, extensive common lands have existed and have been regulated by local village institutions for centuries. In an important study of traditional common lands in Japan, Margaret A. McKean estimates that about 12 million hectares of forests and uncultivated mountain meadows were held and managed in common by thousands of rural villages during the Tokugawa period (1600-1867)…" 

Second, the nature of free-riding (and mechanisms to protect against it), depend primarily on the size of the organization. Small groups need different mechanisms than large groups (according to Mancur Olson), and I posit that pre-agricultural societies would have the same types of mechanisms as the types of primitive agricultural societies that Elinor Ostrom describes in her book (because the group size in each case is small).

How was free-riding prevented? One key across almost every example that Ostrom provides in that book is gradual, escalating sanctions leading up to complete ostracism and ultimately, banishment. In fact, Ostrom mentions "graduated sanctions" as one of the important principles for successful management of the community. According to her, it is important that first offenses carry minimal fines, and only repeat offenders be subject to severe punishment.

In total she mentions seven principles for preventing free-riding; refer to her book for details (I can add those details here if needed):

  1. Clearly defined boundaries/responsibilities/rights
  2. Rules that match local conditions (i.e., rules governing the community should not be imposed by external authorities)
  3. Members should be free to modify above rules
  4. People who monitor conformance to rules, must be answerable to members of the community
  5. Graduated sanctions
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms (members must have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts)
  7. The rights of members to devise their own rules must not be challenged by external governmental authorities.

I see no reason why a variation on the same principles would not work for pre-agricultural societies.

From Ostrom's book, her depiction of the Japanese commons management mechanisms:

"Accounts were kept about who contributed what to make sure that no household evaded its responsibilities unnoticed. Only illness, family tragedy, or the absence of able-bodies adults whose labor could be spared from routine chores were recognized as excuses for getting out of collective labor…"

"An occasional infraction would be handled by the detective in a quiet and simple manner. It was considered perfectly appropriate for the detective to demand cash and sake from violators…"

"Fines were graduated from very low levels to extremely high levels to reflect the seriousness of the offense and the willingness of the culprit to make adequate and rapid amends. The most serious sanctions that could be, and occasionally were imposed, involved complete ostracism and banishment from the village."

How did pre-agricultural societies deal with the problem of free riding?


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