The APA’s Free-Rider Problem


American Philosophical Association (APA) Chairperson Cheshire Calhoun (ASU), at the Blog of the APA, writes:

What the APA does for philosophy and philosophers gets done in virtue of the hard work of hundreds of members. All told, more than 200 individuals graciously volunteer their time and expertise in serving on APA committees and task forces, on divisional program committees and executive committees, as editors or associate editors of the J-APA and Blog of the APA, and on the Board of Officers. Many more volunteer their service to the governance and work of the three APA divisions. Nine staff members plus the executive director in the National Office oversee the operations of the APA. The APA operates in a highly participatory, collaborative, and consultative way. To take one example: When the APA issues a public statement or letter, typically a lot of people are involved in that process, including members of relevant committees. I invite you to take 10 minutes to see what people are on the committees, on task forces, on the Board of Officers, and in editorial positions. Send someone a little thank you note for serving our profession. And the next time you read or hear someone say, “The APA should…,” take a moment to think about which among your professional colleagues serving the APA are likely to be called upon to help implement that “should.”

And now for the hardest part—free riding. There was a day when people were proud to be members of a scholarly organization. There was also a day when APA membership meant access to newsprint issues of JFP and hard copies of newsletters, as well as access to widely used placement services. The internet and interviewing by teleconference have changed that. Moreover, in order to serve the profession broadly, there is now virtually open access to the many resources provided at the APA website. The APA now faces a free rider problem where individuals benefit directly or indirectly from what the APA does (or more accurately, from what the 200-plus people serving the APA do) but do not pay dues in return. Some people also free ride by attending (and sometimes also presenting) but not registering for a divisional meeting, despite registration being required.

Despite being the world’s largest professional organization for philosophy, we are still quite small and have a small endowment by comparison to the American Historical Association, American Sociological Association, and Modern Language Association. So the next time you see on a blog or hear a colleague say “The APA should…” do something that requires money—such as support a summer institute or do data collection—take a moment to think about where that money comes from. The next time you benefit, or your colleagues or your students benefit, from something the APA financially supports, again, think about where that money comes from. It comes from the dues members pay, the registration fees meeting attendees pay, and the donations members and others send to support the APA’s work.

In short, while many people contribute their time and money to help the APA do what it does, many more people who benefit from the APA do not—even in contexts in which they are explicitly required to.

Thoughts about this problem, and possible ways to remedy it welcome.

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PhilGrad
PhilGrad
5 years ago

I’m surprised that there is not more rigorous registration checking at conferences. The rules should be simple: If you’re not registered, you don’t get to attend, present, or participate in any way. The awkward but rigorous way to enforce this would be to make session chairs demand everyone to give a show of the conference badge before a talk begins and politely ask those non-compliant to leave or at least affirm that they are in fact registered but forgot their badge. The psychological barrier to lying to a room full of peers ought to at least raise compliance.

Another more controversial point might be that many philosophers feel I’ll represented by the APA (See the metablogs, especially comments about what got funded this year). I’m not endorsing those views, neither do I think that the APA should not address issues of race, gender, and diversity. However, in pragmatic terms of fundraising it is hard to convince people to contribute to an organization that they consider to be overly political.

To use an analogy from U.S. politics: There seems to be a libertarian wing that endorses a minimal government view of the APA – those folks are fine with the APA sticking to organizing conferences, dealing with job posting, and not doing much else. They probably would not want to contribute much since they think the APA should not do much. On the other hand there is a wing that calls for APA involvement in various other matters (Race, Gender, Diversity, Tenure threats, Political statements, etc.) Presumably the APA would do better trying to raise funds in this camp.Report

azar niaz
azar niaz
Reply to  PhilGrad
5 years ago

I am an undergrad who shamelessly walked into an APA conference to hear a philosopher speak last year. I have followed this philosopher’s work for a few years, was extremely excited to hear him speak but was unable to afford the extortionate tickets. I had found floorplans of the hotel somewhere on the internet just in case I was asked to leave at the front and so could return from the back. I would do it again. Without any ethical qualms.Report

M
M
Reply to  azar niaz
5 years ago

Student memberships for the APA are $25/year. Conference registration for students is $25. This is not extortionate. Further, the different divisions have arrangements for local undergraduates/high school students to attend the conference at a discount or for free. Perhaps instead of scouring the hotel’s website for floorplans, you could have scoured the APA’s website for information about discount registration pricing, which I found in about two minutes of looking.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  PhilGrad
5 years ago

I feel about free conference attendance like I feel about literal free riding of the subway in Berlin or Los Angeles or any other city without turnstiles. It’s a really good thing that the good is available for free to people who will very seriously benefit but just can’t afford to pay on this one occasion. But it’s really important for most of us to actually pay both to preserve that good for ourselves and to provide the good for those occasions like the one of azar niaz.Report

Jaded
Jaded
5 years ago

I am almost old enough to remember when the smoker actually was a smoker. I have always found APA to be a cliquish organization that lets you know very clearly when you are not wanted. I understood that message and moved onto other things; a friend of mine did not and suffered for years trying to break in and be taken seriously–and he was as hard core an analytic philosopher as one can find (one with a good tenure-track job and highly reputable publications). Additionally, I have never believed that APA cares about women in the field. Consider that it took until this past June for the organization to issue a letter on sexual harassment. It’s too little, too late for the APA on many, many issues. An organization that does not support all its members can hardly expect their support in return. Report

Free-Rider
Free-Rider
5 years ago

As a non-member, what exactly am I supposed to be getting for my free-riding? I don’t attend the conferences (and don’t want to). The APA is leaching off of PhilJobs, which existed independently (and was about to render JFP entirely irrelevant). The discipline would still exist without the APA. I don’t get the sense that their strongly worded letters of protest have ever kept a Philosophy Department open. I’ve considered renewing my membership but the member benefits seem so paltry (Interfolio for only the first year???) that there seemed little point. Report

Tom
Tom
5 years ago

Another thing we can all do to support the APA: when you buy things on Amazon (and I know you do), use Amazon Smile, and set your donation preferences to support the APA. It’s small fries on any given purchase, but adds up if we all do it.Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
Reply to  Tom
5 years ago

That’s actually really good to know. Thanks.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
5 years ago

I think PhilGrad is right that some philosophers don’t think of the APA as an association for mutual advantage, so do not believe they are free riding. Free-Rider seems to be among these (and is thus inaptly named). Although I do support the APA, I think some of these philosophers are probably right.
Azar Niaz obviously does get an advantage from the existence of the APA without paying his share, so that’s a paradigmatic example of free riding. And I don’t understand Jaded’s attitude – wouldn’t the fact that the APA is now spending a great deal of resources on women in the field mean it was a good time for people who care a lot about those issues to start supporting it?
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Kate Norlock
5 years ago

I’m a mostly consistent member of the APA, though I occasionally have years in which I do not serve on a committee or attend meetings or benefit directly from it. I have not felt obliged to pay membership dues in such years. But an implication of Cheshire Calhoun’s point — that 200+ other people are providing service work to my benefiting students and coworkers — is that I benefit indirectly from others doing the work and paying the fees to make the organization a smooth operation. Now that I’ve read comments on this thread by the students, I find myself thinking that I would like the APA to be a place where badges are *never* checked before sessions start, and undergrad students do not even have to think about registering. Since I want that quite a bit, I’m persuaded that more of us lucky tenured types should pay annually to make sure the APA is the sort of body we most want it to be, whether or not we’re there.

I blinked with a bit of surprise at Jaded’s comment that the APA doesn’t seem to care about women because it took until last June to issue a letter about sexual harassment. I agree that the organization has underwhelmed over the decades, but the criticism seems to prove Cheshire’s point that when one says such things about the APA, one should think about who the actual humans are who do things. If I recall correctly, that letter was the product of efforts of members in the APA including Cheshire Calhoun, herself. There are times when the APA works if we do. (I know that isn’t always true. But sometimes it’s true!)
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PhilGrad
PhilGrad
Reply to  Kate Norlock
5 years ago

I find not checking badges to be the worst solution. We can make the conference free for students or allow students to apply for a waiver scholarship much like the current application for travel grants. Almost all students are poor, but if we design the finances under the assumption that some students won’t pay but don’t make any legal room for waiving the fee then we are essentially designing a system that punishes people who want to “do the right thing” and rewards those who do whatever they can get away with.Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
5 years ago

I don’t quite get it: what is the APA’s free-rider problem, exactly? I see two options:

1.) People who attend APA conferences without paying dues.
2.) People who “benefit indirectly” from the APA but aren’t members. It’s not clear to me what this means, but it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think it might mean all the professional philosophers and graduate students who aren’t APA members. Or perhaps just those in the USA and Canada.

(1) seems like pretty small potatoes to me, but whatever. Yes, people should be paying the conference/membership fees to present work and attend. If tons aren’t, then that’s a problem and shame on them.

(2), however, I find pretty galling. But since conference attendance is presented as an *addition*, how else should we interpret this clause: “The APA now faces a free rider problem where individuals benefit directly or indirectly from what the APA does (or more accurately, from what the 200-plus people serving the APA do) but do not pay dues in return”?

Bugger that. My own professional organization (the ASA) does *far* more for me (both directly and indirectly; hell, *every* grad student presenter and commentator at the ASAs gets travel funding!) than the APA does. I resent the implication that I should be an APA member just because it’s a big organization that claims to represent “American” philosophers as a whole.

I think that the APA does a lot of great work, actually. And most sub-fields don’t have access to a strong national-level organization like mine does, so the APA ends up playing that role for them. From what I’ve seen, the APA is also doing a great job of improving itself and winning back the confidence it lost over the last while. But I don’t see how any of that translates to some kind of duty to purchase a membership.

I feel like (2) is an uncharitable interpretation of those paragraphs on free-riding, but I just can’t see what else the author might have had in mind. I do agree with what’s expressed immediately afterwards, namely, that people are a too quick to say that “the APA should do X”. There’s a lot that the APA could do, but doing things requires time and money, and people tend not to volunteer much of either. I’m not sure that’s a free-rider problem, but if that’s all that was meant, then I’m on board.

Does someone have some thoughts on how else to interpret the (non-conference) free-rider claim?
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TakenHostageByTheAPA
TakenHostageByTheAPA
5 years ago

I see myself as “paying hostage on the bus” — a kind of mirror of the “free rider” problem the APA blog describes. I pay dues to the APA for access to the job market and conferences, but I’m deeply annoyed by many of the side agendas pursued by an organization that ostensibly serves the interest of all philosophers.

While I appreciate some of the non-conference things they’ve stuck their neck in, I don’t appreciate others. Several have been in my view have an agenda that mirrors more the general politics of many philosophers than anything ipso facto about being a philosopher. (For instance, I agree with BL that we don’t need to be issuing statements about “bullying” in general).
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