The U.S. Supreme Court, in ruling in favor of Mark Janus’ free speech rights to withhold a $45 monthly payment to the union at his Illinois government workplace, struck a blow for free labor markets.

In doing so, it also advanced the cause of free riders.

“Free riders” is an economists’ term for a particular kind of market failure. In economic terms, free riders take advantage of a public good but refuse to contribute to it.

People who game the property tax system and don’t pay their fair share are free riders. So are people who picnic in a public park but don’t clean up after themselves, knowing city workers will do so. The economists have a dramatic term for such behavior: “the tragedy of the commons.”

Economists see “free rider” as a neutral description of rational, self-interested market behavior, but it’s usually taken as an insult. No one wants to be called a free rider. That’s because the rest of the people — those who contribute money, time or effort to the public good — tend to resent the ones who refuse to pitch in.

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David Greising

David Greising is the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, joining the BGA in 2018. For nearly a century, the BGA has fought for honest and effective government through investigative...