It’s common for politicians to promise to crack down on perceived shirkers or freeloaders – people accused of consuming too much of the benefits that society produces, while contributing too little to the production of these benefits. The accused are usually of low social status. Ronald Reagan famously denounced ‘welfare queens’, and David Cameron has recently been targeting ‘shirkers’ who prefer welfare to work. This focus on low status shirkers is not just a habit of the right; witness the harsh policies that Stalin employed to discourage shirking by peasants on collective farms.
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not surprising that leaders can often please their followers by combatting freeloaders. Behavioral scientists refer to such low contributors as ‘free riders’, and recognize them as the central problem of group cooperation. When group-produced resources benefit all members equally (public goods), lower contributors have higher benefit-to-contribution ratios and thus reap higher net benefits. So free riders are advantaged over high contributors, and unless high contributors can solve this problem, they’ll be exploited to extinction. One solution—as my own research suggests [1,2]—is for high contributors to experience punitive sentiment towards free riders. This sentiment may lead you to punish free riders yourself – perhaps in some low-cost manner like discrete ostracization, or maybe in a more confrontational way. Alternatively, this sentiment may lead you to support a leader who promises to do the dirty work of punishment for you.
Note that nothing in the above definition of ‘free rider’—a member with a relatively high benefit-to-contribution ratio—implies that the free rider must be low-status. In fact, high-status members are often especially well-positioned to obtain high benefit-to-contribution ratios, because they tend to reap the largest shares of group resources. Some political efforts have attempted to paint high-status recipients of government favor as freeloaders, for example accusations of ‘corporate welfare’ made consistently by the American left over the past several decades. But the public tends to get more fired up by attacks that target low-status ‘welfare queens’ rather than freeloading fat cats. For managerial free riding to elicit widespread outrage, it has to be really bad – bad enough to render a decidedly negative benefit-to-contribution ratio. That is, when Sir Fred Goodwin received a £16 million pension upon leaving RBS, people were angry not because his contribution to the firm had been modest, but because it had been massively negative (he’d overseen the greatest annual corporate loss in UK history). When you’re that high-status, what tends to upset people isn’t large reward for small success, but rather large reward for catastrophic failure.
Read more at Psychology Today.