The Free Rider Problem

We’ve all experienced this. You’re at a crowded party, parked (wisely) next to the bar. A new guest comes in, quickly shoves a middling bottle of wine into the cooler amidst the “hi, how are you” chaos, and then makes a beeline for the good stuff. You watch in disbelief as dude or dudette pours a giant glass of the $25 Riesling you sprung for, smiling at you over the brim—we’re talking bowl-full here—before taking his or her first big gulp of your hard-earned Austrian minerality.

Or maybe it’s not wine. Maybe it’s an ironic six-pack of Miller High Life, shoved unceremoniously into the fridge, never to be seen again, while New Guest takes her keychain church key to your $14 bourbon barrel-aged stout four-pack. What you’re witnessing isn’t simply an egregious party foul. It’s a longstanding sociological phenomenon, and quite possibly, the downfall of polite beverage civilization, known simply as the free rider problem.

“The Free Rider” is actually an economic term referring to those “individuals in a population [who] either consume more than their fare share of a common resource, or pay less than their fair share of the cost of a common resource.” And while said Free Rider would be, and generally is, a far greater drag in more serious socioeconomic and political contexts, we can’t deny he or she exists in the (relatively) muted tragedies of uneven BYOBs.

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So how does the Free Rider come to be, let alone get away with it? It’s all about the groupthink of the BYOB. For most of us, the basic thought process of the BYOB is “How much do I have to spend without seeming impolite?” Nobody wants to set the bar too high, and not just because bringing a $50 bottle of Grand Cru Chablis to a potluck would be too much, like wearing a velvet gown to karaoke night. If you buy too high, you might outpace the vibe of the night, or even embarrass the host, whose booze selection might top out at $20. Buy too low, like a $10 box of Franzia “Chillable Red,” and you’ll spend the night avoiding evil glances from host or hostess as your wine box quietly gathers dust. (And then you’re the one sneaking off to secretly pour something decent.)

BYOB is a balancing act, which most of us tend to take fairly seriously (as seriously as the economic/social balancing act of group drinking should be taken). But for the Free Rider, group considerations are moot, surrendered either by economic necessity or just casual jerkery. In the worst-case scenario, they treat BYOBs like open bars at a wedding (and chances are, they didn’t bring a gift).

So what do you do if you’ve spotted a Free Rider at a party? Do you call him or her out? Do you stop the music, unearth the Andre Cold Duck Sweet Red he or she hid deep at the bottom of the cooler, and hold it up for all to see? Or do you just pull one of the weaker options left to the socially disappointed—the passive aggressive angry glare? The answer, at first: none of the above.

Because, let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been the Free Rider at some time or another—lean times, the Great Recession, rampant job insecurity. Sometimes we just can’t afford good stuff, even decent stuff, and (on the opposite side of the Free Rider problem) it can be nice, and economically appropriate, to occasionally benefit from the communal booze wealth. That’s society, man. But it’s a slippery slope, one that might find any of us going from temporary Free Rider to Molson Golden six-pack hider.

So if you do see a repeat Free Rider offender, it’s time to take action, for his or her sake as much as the party’s. Maybe start with something casual but forceful, like “Hey buddy, glad you’re loving those Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpins I brought, but I was also hoping the host got to taste a couple…” and/or “Hey, cool, didn’t realize you liked Scotch so much! What did you bring? I’d love to try it. I’m a bit of a booze nerd…” Not that we advocate passive aggressive beverage shaming as a regular corrective measure. But the only thing that’s gonna stop the Free Rider from treating your house party like it’s her personal bar is you. So maybe just, next time she pours a glass of the good stuff—and leaves the $9 oak-bomb Chardonnay she brought to die alone in your fridge—do that thingy where you point to your eyes with two fingers, then to hers. Because it’s kind of cool-looking and quietly effective. Like, “Free Rider, I see you…”