I hardly ever lock my door—which makes me, I think, a pretty extreme example of a freeloader.
I may be wrong, of course. Perhaps lots of people don’t lock their doors. It can’t be so many that the word gets around. If too many of us didn’t lock our doors, then the criminals would lose their assumption that the average door is locked. But as long as enough people lock their doors, I can ride along on the locked assumption. Even in New York.
As it happens, even a place like Omaha has a worse crime rate than Manhattan, and I don’t own much worth breaking in for, anyway: just a lot of books (and only your friends steal your books). There’s a risk factor, certainly, but its cost just isn’t high enough for me to go through the bother of carrying keys. And it is thanks to the key-carriers, all those good-hearted people conscientiously locking their slip locks and their deadbolts, that I can get away with it.
Freeloading is a problem that fascinates economists. In a gun-owning culture, are people who don’t own guns freeloading on people who do? It’s absolutely true that people who don’t get vaccinations are freeloading on those who do—and it’s a freeloading that reaches a tipping point very quickly.
People who belong to voluntary organizations are well-aware of freeloaders: all those casual members who just show up for the parades, skipping all the work necessary to keep the organization going. But the freeloading problem may work on a cultural level, as well.
When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in 1831, he observed with wonder the gentlemen’s clubs, the volunteer fire departments, the aid societies, even the churches—all of what Edmund Burke would call “the little platoons” of society. “Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted. “The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation. . . . It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so.”
If Tocqueville was right about the national culture’s dependence on those voluntary organizations, then everyone who didn’t participate in one was freeloading on the work of those who did. And if too many people freeload on the cultural contributions of the joiners and the organizers, then the tipping point is reached, and they fall into disrepair. Like the boarded-up Odd Fellows hall downtown. And the closed Elks Club along the river. And the shuttered lodge of the Izaak Walton League out by the dam. And without them, American culture ceases to be what Tocqueville perceived it to be.
Churches, like every voluntary organization, are plagued by freeloaders: the people who show up only at Christmas and Easter; the people who want the churches to exist for their baptisms, weddings, and funerals but otherwise ignore them.
Lately, however, I’ve become interested in the question of much freeloading on the churches has cultural consequences. It’s a simple proposition of philosophical ethics that the best of all possible worlds, for me, is a world in which all others are obedient and faithful, while I am free. This is why Socrates tells the story of the Ring of Gyges in the Republic, and it’s why Kant phrases the Categorical Imperative the way he does. When he insists that we must act as though our action could become universal law, what he’s outlawing is Gyges: the man who thinks he gets to be immoral in a world in which everyone else has to be moral.
It may be Montaigne who saw most clearly the Gygian problem of church-going—of belief in God, for that matter. A world in which everyone believes in God and goes to church is a world with the fewest social problems, for only religion can control the mass of men. And thus, for my personal protection, I should desire that world. At the same time, the investment of time, energy, and emotion that religion demands is high. The ideal world for me, then—imagining myself as an urbane sixteenth-century skeptic—would be a world in which everyone else was a God-fearing churchgoer, and I alone was free to sleep in on Sunday mornings.
In fact, as the New Atheists discovered, the best of all possible worlds may be one where I don’t even have to acquiesce in the style of Montaigne. Even better would be the world where I get the moral self-congratulation of being a rebel—without any real dangers for me from my rebellion. Not a quiet Gygian, but a loud one, proclaiming to the heavens my independence while actually depending on the existence of that culture against which I am proudly rebelling.
Freeloading, in other words. How near are we to the tipping point in America these days? In a way, there’s something reassuring about the existence of people loudly declaring their oh-so-dangerous-in-a-not-really-dangerous-way rebellion against Christianity. But, put together, they have reached an enormous mass—enough, maybe, to flop American culture over the tipping point.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.