Free Riders In Flight of the Phoenix
The "Phoenix" had already arisen from the wreckage in the Sahara, of course, long before Dennis Quaid's accidental crew recycled their scap metal and built their escape airplane of the same name in the Gobi desert. But that is allright because a good story deserves to be told and retold many times over. And so a Phoenix, too, should be allowed to rise more than once.
Now I do not yet know whether the new version actually flies, for I have not seen it, but I do know that the original with James Stewart was a masterpiece. This sociological drama dug deep into the roots of the "free rider" dilemma. Through stress, impatience, disappointment and, ultimately, distrust, one individual after another loses their commitment to cooperate. The defectors become "free riders" in that they focus, quite rationally mind, on immediate personal benefit at the expense of the common good. All those who thus shirk from their "duty" towards the group actually hurt the chances of every individual member of the group. Their rational selfishness will be their downfall. And in the end, of course, everybody loses.
That is the dilemma which faces us all. We either join forces based on trust, without credible trustworthiness even, or we each go it alone, in which case we will all go down. The figure of the "free rider" dilemma is, if I may, particularly relevant to the current situation in the Netherlands. The figure of the "calculating citizen" is a hero in many people's eyes. Yet he will remove common interest from his equation the moment he feels it conflits with his personal interest. So he evades his taxes but does not want anyone else to unduly benefit from the tax-payer's money; he drives an SUV with a bad temper but laments that people nowadays no longer know good manners; he does not prevent pollution, though he would want clean air for his child. The calculating citizen complains and defects. People are dropping out like flies in this country. We will all emigrate to Canada next!
The old cast, meanwhile, crawls up against the stranded airplane in a sun-baked sea of dunes. The selection of the individual characters seems random but of course it isn't. All virtues and vices are distributed in varying degrees among the members of the group. They are all uncomfortable and afraid, but they each deal with the situation in their own unique way. And this is precisely why they drive each other crazy, willingly or unwillingly, in spite of the efforts of some to keep calm and to keep the peace. (Yes, it is much like Sartre's image of "hell", i.e. three people share a single room with just two chairs for all eternity.) Of course they disagree about everything. Should they stay with the wreck or should they walk out of there? Should they listen to this man or to the next? Is it not reasonable that I should get greater rations because I also put in more work? Conflicts inevitably arise, then, over strategy, water, work, duty, respect and leadership. Repeated efforts to promote cooperation and group solidarity are constantly thwarted by personal pride and stubbornness. Trustworthiness is hard-won and easily lost. The film therefore seems to be about struggle for leadership. But I wouldn't say it is a demonstration of the survival of the fittest. It is, rather, the survival of the humblest – if you will pardon my Netherlish. The survival of the individual depends on the survival of the group. And the group can only survive if the individual members cooperate. The very flight of the Phoenix is, therefore, a tribute to man as a social animal.
So to me, the film is about hubris. It brings a classical theme into a world which celebrates individualism. Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with striving towards higher levels of individualism. The status awareness fuelling this process of mental emancipation tends to lead, however, to pride, stubbornness and intollerance. And if he is not careful, the social animal turns into a brute. A free rider.
This is probably why I think that the 1965 film directed by Robert Aldrich is still so very powerful. The story is solid and the cast is superb. I think this film is very exciting. It makes most role-playing survivalist-like TV-shows, at any rate, look like silly Sissi-movies. I already loved this movie when I was young. The film may be old but it is NOT slow. And, as you will have gathered, I fanatically recommend it.
Postscript. For those who would like to know more about the "free rider" dilemma, here are some references. The problem became fashionable among game theorists and sociologists by about 1965 (coincidentally?) when the term "free rider dilemma" was coined by Mancur Olsen. Most of my understanding, however, is derived from Robert D. Putnam's "Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy" (Princeton & Chichester 1993; Princeton 1994, 163-185). I am, furthermore, greatly influenced by the discussion of this problem in, again, a wider context by Douglas C. North, "Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance" (Cambridge 1990; 1995, s.v. "free-rider problem" or passim, really).