What is the phrase used to describe the problem where a solution does not work unless all stakeholders volunteer to participate in the solution and individual stakeholders are de-incentivized to participate because they can still reap the benefits of the solution without participating? For example, recycling is difficult to incentivize because people who don't recycle still benefit when others recycle, but recycling as a whole doesn't really work unless everyone recycles. This phrase is commonly used in study of politics or social sciences.

  • Recycling certainly works even if all members of society are not participating. The return value of recycling is linear -- for every person that recycles, the environment is "helped" by the same amount. (Assuming each person recycles the same amount.) There is no incentive for people to not recycle (other than laziness). Oct 6, 2014 at 23:45

3 Answers 3


It sounds like you're describing the "tragedy of the commons" concept.

The tragedy of the commons is an economics theory, according to which individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group's long-term best interests by depleting some common resource.

  • This would be a better answer if the form of the phrase "tragedy of the commons" were explained in a little detail. Oct 6, 2014 at 18:46
  • Thanks for that, Joe. The concept has a lot in common with what I am talking about but is specific to resource consumption. I guess you could probably say that the "tragedy of the commons" is a specific instance of the more generalized problem I'm trying to think of.
    – T Nguyen
    Oct 6, 2014 at 18:50
  • In the example given by OP, not recycling does not benefit anyone. Nonetheless, this is the correct answer for the description, if not for OP's example. Oct 6, 2014 at 23:43
  • @muntoo Not recycling has the benefit of not expending any effort on recycling. It has a non-zero marginal cost. Oct 7, 2014 at 7:59

Thanks to Joe's answer, I was able to follow some links on Wikipedia and found the answer. This is commonly referred to as the Free Rider Problem. According to Wikipedia:

A free rider, in economics, refers to someone who benefits from resources, goods, or services without paying for the cost of the benefit. The term "free rider" was first used in economic theory of public goods, but similar concepts have been applied in to other contexts, including collective bargaining, antitrust law, psychology and political science. Free riding may be considered as a free rider problem when it leads to under-provision of goods or services, or when it leads to overuse or degradation of a common property resource.

(my emphasis as this was the specific usage I was looking for)

Just to clarify how this phrase applies to the example I gave: In the example given, the communal "service" is reduced resource usage. This is a service that everyone benefits from when there is recycling, and yet any one person can be a free rider by not recycling yet still benefit from their neighbors' recycling.

  • 1
    This is interesting, but I've never heard of this term, while I've encountered plenty of times "tragedy of the commons". Sure, this may be anedoctical evidence, but keep that in mind anyway.
    – o0'.
    Oct 6, 2014 at 21:54
  • I haven't heard of free rider in terms of protecting the environment. Oct 6, 2014 at 23:48
  • 2
    To counter @Lohoris, I learned the concept and terminology "free rider" in an undergraduate economics class. It's more broad than the tragedy of the commons, which doesn't exactly fit the original question. Oct 7, 2014 at 0:40
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    I should've clarified that this wasn't the normal phrase request question where I had some concept I wanted to express and was looking for a phrase which fit it. There was a very specific phrase I was looking for, which I often used in my college years while studying political science. I simply forgot the phrase and was looking for help to remember it and "the free rider problem" is definitely the phrase I was looking for.
    – T Nguyen
    Oct 7, 2014 at 1:32
  • In psychology, the term that is used is "social loafing". Oct 7, 2014 at 12:40

Perhaps "critical mass"? As in "Participation hasn't reached critical mass."

  • Critical mass doesn't describe the problem. Oct 7, 2014 at 12:39

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