Tragedy of the Commons


Some time ago {okay OKAY!  It was this morning!} I was arguing with Liberals.  We were talking about what a government can do, should do and then, what they WILL do.  In our examples, we specifically were speaking about the “common good” as it relates to non-National Defense.*

For example, can/should/will the government regulate medical doctors?  How about florists?

Another example, can/should/will the government regulate the workplace safety?

And even another.  Can/should/will the government regulate food quality in our grocery stores?  How about stereo component quality?

As you can imagine, a very clear divergence of opinions evolved.

During the conversation, my Leftist friend brought up the concept knows as “The Tragedy of the Commons.”**

… 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 carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. 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 idea being that when a certain set of natural resources is n’t managed by the government, humanity will act in their inherent self-interest and destroy “The Commons.”

My debating friends tried to bludgeon me that while a farmer is only a small player in the world, the example is illustrative of the natural vices of man to selfishly use and abuse the natural resources around us.  Corporations will continue to deplete our forests, multi-national oil companies will continue to pollute our waters and global capitalists will destroy the planet through Global Warming.

They argue that we NEED government regulation to protect us from the “greedy farmer.”  That without oversight, we’ll use up all of the gifts of nature and be left without anything.

Left to their own devices, the capitalist will simply destroy the world around them.

So I asked my friends, “Would you trust Dick Cheney to ‘regulate’ the Commons?”

“No,” they said!  “We would NOT trust Dick Cheney to regulate the Commons.”  They exclaimed that “He would simply take care of his cronies, give extra consideration to his friends and prohibit our cows from having a fair share!”

Of course I was able to demonstrate that politicians of all stripes abuse their office; that trusting government to handle something like managing the Commons is a fools’ errand.

I asked them, “If a single farmer owned the Commons rather than it being available to the general public, would he over graze the land?”

Heads shook no.

“So if you want to preserve the Commons, why not let the land be kept in private hands, where the benefit of the manager is in keeping the Commons preserved?”  I added, “It doesn’t even matter that the owner of the Commons even GRAZES the land, he could lease it out!  it would be in his best interest to keep it whole!”

I’m not sure I convinced ’em, but they were far less enthused about Government regulation as they walked away.

* I am ALWAYS willing to trade “Proper Role” of government when it comes to national defense in exchange for “The defense budget should be reduced.”

** The full article is here, very hard reading.

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