Political Science Now

Why Do We Need Government? The Role of Civic Education in the Face of the Free-Rider Problem

Chapter 1: Why Do We Need Government? The Role of Civic Education in the Face of the Free-Rider Problem

Jane MansbridgeHarvard Kennedy School

We face a future of growing interdependence, as well as one in which previously plentiful goods like clean air and water once available to all must now be provided by human effort.  As a consequence, human beings will now have to produce for one another many more “free-use goods” – goods that, once brought into being, can be used by anyone without paying.   (Examples range from toll-free roads to a stable climate.)  Free-use goods create a “free-rider problem,” because people expect to use the good without paying and thus do not contribute to producing it.  Along with the core motivations of duty and solidarity that often lead people to contribute, societies usually need to impose on themselves some external coercion, in the sense of a threat of sanction or force, to generate the taxes or the compliance to produce the required free-use goods.  In large, relatively anonymous societies, that coercion usually must be state coercion.  As we become more and more interdependent, and use up more and more of the free-use goods that ‘nature’ previously provided, we will need more and more state coercion to produce the free-use goods that we will increasingly need.  Democracy is our way of legitimating that state coercion.  Engaged citizens can help design the required coercion so that it is minimal, does not crowd out the intrinsic motivations of solidarity and duty, and is sensitive to local needs and culture.  Even more importantly, they must help monitor that needed state coercion and resist its overreach.

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About the Author

Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of Beyond Adversary Democracy and Why We Lost the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], and editor/coeditor of the volumes Beyond Self-Interest, Feminism (with Susan Moller Okin),  Oppositional Consciousness (with Aldon Morris), Deliberative Systems (with John Parkinson), and Political Negotiation (with Cathie Jo Martin). She was president of the American Political Science Association 2012–2013.  

Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines / Copyright ©2017 by the American Political Science Association / pp: 11-20