Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of You're A Dick

The Tragedy of the Commons is a situation in which reasonable people, acting in their own best interest, use or otherwise exploit resources shared by the whole – leading to negative results for everyone, including themselves. The term was first coined in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin, but the idea can be documented much earlier – all the way back to the Greeks, I’m told, if one looks hard enough.

The classic example involves overgrazing a plot of common land. Each individual benefits substantially and personally from adding cows or sheep or whatever, although in the long-term they suffer when the land is no longer useful due to overgrazing. The bad stuff is shared in common, however, while the benefits are individualized.

Also in play is the awareness that an individual who decides NOT to take advantage – who limits the number of animals they graze, in this case – will (a) not actually solve the problem, since others will still do it, and (b) will suffer as a result of their community-mindedness, since they’ll have fewer cows.

The motivation for NOT being part of the problem is, therefore, nada.

Libertarians cite this as a fundamental case for land ownership and private property protection – one of the few ideals laid out in both the Declaration of Independence AND the Constitution (which don’t generally agree about much else). If each villager owned a small plot of land, to continue this particular example, they’d take better care of it long-term – or so the theory goes.

Tragedy of the Commons (From This Place)

It is not far removed from the so-called ‘Unscrupulous Diner Dilemma’, in which a group of hungry cohorts agree ahead of time to split the cost of their collective meal. For each individual diner, the cost of ordering a more expensive meal and maybe an appetizer or two is thus greatly reduced. Although everyone will pay more as a result, the negative consequence of the choice is not proportional to the benefit.

The obvious solution is for everyone to pay for their own meal. Problem solved. Unless it's not. Sometimes we want the benefits of collective resources.

Blind Date With Destiny

In both cases, something intended as a collective good has negative results based on people being people. No one involved has to be particularly evil – they simply behave as people do rather than as idealized versions of what we wish people would do. In both cases, the solution seems so simple – to each his own. Everyone gets their own plot; everyone buys their own dinner.

But that’s where the proverbial devil enters into the details.

Someone will fail to take care of their land. Or it will turn out to not be very good land, compared to the next field over. Or one landowner will sell his plot to another to pay off debts, or because they wish to move, etc. Or the river will flood on some people’s plots but not others. Or ninjas. Or this, or that, or something else.

Inequality creeps in.

Even if the imbalance begins with human failure, the consequences are handed down to the eldest sons (keep in mind we’re working with the cow grazing example here – the ‘eldest sons’ part may vary in specifics). One way or the other, it doesn’t take many generations before some people have more land than others, or better land than others, and we’re faced with a disparity completely untethered to the individual choices of the landowners in question.

Faux Last SupperIn the more confined example of the Table for Twelve who’ve decided to each pay their own way, inevitably someone will lack sufficient cash to buy their entrée. They may have enough for an appetizer, but as they return to work slightly less-nourished than their peers, they will produce less – and the next visit to the restaurant may find them ordering a glass of water, no lemon, and swiping a few breadsticks from their cohorts.

Maybe some of the others will feel compelled to buy dinner for this poor chap! No one should starve when we have food – so they’ll share, or someone will step up and buy, no big deal. Or perhaps some of those contributing begin to resent the freeloader, or a sense of expectation gradually develops on the part of the recipient of these kindnesses until he no longer even realizes that he could ever be expected to pay his own way.

The point is that there are problems with communal ownership. There are pretty substantial problems with private ownership. The third option – government ownership – is rife with difficulty as well. Like all things smacking of socialism (which I use not as a loaded term but as an effort to approximate government-directed ‘sharing’), what works in theory and what people do in practice rarely cooperate.

If all men were angels…

If there’s no coordination from above, people don’t cooperate on a large scale – at least not in ways large enough to consistently impact the system. If there is coordination, that means rules, and laws – things that inevitably benefit some players more than others. Rules which are by their nature coercive, and often corrupt.

Pie. Just Pie.Add a more explicit financial element, and the impetus for avarice and corruption is almost irresistible. Laws can attempt to herd in certain behaviors, but can never eliminate them – and can certainly never do so equitably or effectively. Prohibition is only the most glaring example of men working the system for personal gain and the unintended consequences of government ‘help’. Think tax code, or health care, or military bases, or college scholarships.

Or think public education.

Like access to that theoretical bit of grazing land, education has become a basic human right. An enormous pool of resources is dedicated to the task, but despite its size, there are always more cows than grass. How do we distribute these quinzillions most effectively? Or should it be most fairly? Most efficiently?

Public School Cows will always need more – none have too much, and many have nowhere near enough. The field is also open to the Sheep of Charter Schools, the Taipar of Virtual, This Reform Bison, That Reform Gopher, the Reform-to-end-all-Reforms Zebra, and the Reform-to-end-all-Reforms New & Improved Zebra w/ Technicolor Stripes. The Textbook and Testing Goats eat way more than their share, as do various Grasshoppers trying to control everything from what kids eat for lunch to how much physical activity they get between classes.

Actually, maybe those should be Locusts.

Sort of a CowThere’s no motivation to take less, you see – the system is in fact weighted to encourage each and every player to get all they can as quickly as they can, or another player will. There’s no such thing as ‘results’ in the Tragedy of the Commons, but if there were, we’d find that what claims to be a measuring sticks turn out to be more like a lawn mower.

None of our solutions are appealing.  People in large numbers simply don’t play nice with any consistency. Governments are horrible at husbandry.  Private ownership is, in this case, loathsomely immoral. Normally this is where I’d unveil the solution – witty, a bit sardonic, but suddenly so very obvious. Normally, this is where we bring this baby home.


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