One of the problems that faces individuals and groups who are seeking to accomplish some sort of meaningful social change—whether in terms of ideology or actual policy—is the challenge of free-riders. The free-rider theory holds that there are a number of people who will not feel compelled to participate in collective social action because they assume that they can benefit from the collective action of others without having to expend energy, effort, time, or money themselves. This theory rests upon the assumption that people are, generally speaking, more interested in themselves as individuals and their immediate needs than in any sense of the greater good or long-term benefits that can be shared. In order to get people involved, this theory posits, individuals must be offered some sort of tangible incentive to become engaged in the collective effort, and that incentive must be more than the hope or promise that one’s participation will “make a difference” for the cause. One example that may support the free rider theory is the Freelancers’ Union in New York City. The Freelancers’ Union is, as its name suggests, a union that uses the power of the collective to bring issues pertinent to freelance workers—issues such as health insurance coverage, taxes, liability protection, fair wages and much more—before city and state legislators. In order to attract and retain members, however, the Freelancers’ Union has had to offer a wide range of incentives, including networking events, roundtable discussions where gifts are given to attendees, and tickets to arts and cultural events.

While there is evidence that makes the free-rider theory compelling, Stone argues that its logic is betrayed by reality because the theory fails to explain the persistence and success of particular interest groups that have organized and which have been cohesive and active in the pursuit of mutual goals for decades. Although he acknowledges that some people will always be free-riding, Stone contends that people are influenced by many sources, and make their decisions based not simply on material gains in the short-term, but based on other intangibles, such as their reputation among family and friends. Among the groups that have had lasting power, Stone cites examples such as environmentalists, anti-nuclear interest groups, pro-life groups, and other special interests. As Stone points out, many of these groups do not offer any particular benefits to their members, but have loyal members who have achieved significant and lasting social change, not only for themselves as individual members, but for society at large. For this reason, Stone finds the free-rider theory inadequate for explaining social participation and collective movements.