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Tragedy of the Commons July 6, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , ,

Every time I hear some tea-party bloward spouting off, every time I hear someone speak with admiration about Ayn Rand, and every time I hear the right wing going on about how government regulation of anything is evil, I realize that the lesson of the tragedy of the commons has just not gotten through to people.  And it needs to.  Along with confirmation bias, I think this is one of the more important basic concepts that get skipped over in most people’s education.

The classic example, and this is lifted straight from Wikipedia:

 …involving medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the quality of the common is damaged for all as a result, through overgrazing. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

The only real solution in this example is if there is a central authority over the herders who makes all the herders operate within rules, and that also has the ability to enforce the rules.  If we make a rule that we simply ask people to follow, with no penalty for cheating, then the only way that the rule works is if everybody both is willing not to cheat, and also has confidence that nobody else is cheating either.  A person who is convinced that all his neighbors are cheating will feel at a disadvantage if he does not also cheat, which leads to everybody cheating and the problem still remains.  Even if nobody really wants to cheat, everybody feels like they have to cheat.

This idea obviously applies to any situation where there is a need to share a limited resource.  Land claims, fishing, petroleum, forests, water for irrigation.  It also applies to situations where we’re not looking at consuming a resource as much as ruining a shared resource for others, such as air or water pollution, and especially global warming.

But it goes farther than that.  Anytime someone faces a situation where there is a change they would like to make that would benefit them in some way, but also carries a cost that would make them less competitive, this idea also applies.  For instance: bike races.  Once, no bike racers wore helmets.  Helmets were certainly a safety improvement, but also added weight and drag.  Even if one cyclist wanted to wear a helmet, being the only one doing so would slow him down enough to put him out of competition.  The only way to wear a helmet and still be competitive is if all the cyclists wore them, and the only way that would happen was if they were required to. Even if everyone had wanted to wear a helmet, no one would, because one racer could always take off his helmet and jump ahead.  Fortunately, there are racing organizations that can and do enforce rules, and now cyclists all wear helmets.  Many of our modern rules about safety and fairness are like this: things most or all people agree we should do, yet no one can realistically do them on their own unless it’s required of everybody.

A complete absence of regulation means we are left with a kleptocracy, in which everyone has to grab everything they can get, because if they don’t everything will be taken by others grabbing everything they can get.  And everyone will take unfair advantage of other people, because it they don’t, everyone else will still be taking unfair advantage of them.   I’m all for minimizing unnecessary rules, but the idea that fewer rules is always better is just not workable.



1. Daz - July 6, 2012

Something about this post nagged at me for hours, and then I got it: You’re the only other person I’ve seen use the word ‘kleptocracy’. Thank you! It proves I didn’t just make it up.


2. Paul Sunstone - July 23, 2012

This is the first time I’ve seen someone apply the tragedy of the commons to the issue of government regulations. Very thought provoking!



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