Tragedy of the Commons


The Tragedy of the Commons.

I don’t remember when it was that I came across the specific term, when I read about it.  But I resonated with it immediately.

In short, it’s the idea that a shared resource made available to the whole of the community will languish and suffer abuse in a manner that would not exist if that same resource were owned and used by a single individual.

The classic example is that of a pasture.  Multiple shepherds begin by grazing their sheep in the common pasture.  When the shepherds grow their herds, they begin to understand that the pasture will, in time, become over grazed.  However, because the pasture is communal there is no incentive to preserve the pasture; if Farmer Johnson doesn’t increase the aggregate herd size by one, surely his neighbors will.  In time, the incentive is perverse, the shepherd accelerates the growing of his herd to make sure that “he gets his.”

The tragedy of the commons.

Of course, there are two solutions to this problem:

  1. Privatize the pasture.  Assign an owner of it all or simply divide the pasture into plots.
  2. Form a government and regulate it.

I don’t wanna get into the 1’s and 2’s right now.  Rather, I’m interested in why the Tragedy occurs to begin with.  For example, if we begin the story with a single shepherd and a pasture that he alone owns, he will expand his herd to the size at which the pasture is able to sustain it.  At that point he either begins to cull the herd or expand the pasture.  Now, we can assume that this shepherd has a family, some old enough to be responsible for work and productivity.

Why doesn’t each member of the family act in the manner described above?  Why don’t individual family members engage in the destructive activities of the Tragedy?

Because they have stronger social bonds that hold them together.  A family has the ability to shape expectations, to punish members who fail to live up to those expectations.  A family can control behavior.

No one minds sharing. Hell, we TEACH our kids to share.  However, the unspoken, perhaps even unthought of corollary, is that the sharing is done among a group of people whose actions we can influence.

We are willing to share with those people who would react in the same manner should our circumstances be reversed.  That is, I am willing to share my good fortune with friends and family should they be equally willing to share in reverse.

Note, this does not mean they “owe” the sharer.  Only that, found in similar circumstances, they be willing to share back.  And should they fail, the “social” penalties would be significant.  Up to and including exclusion.

We find that socialism or communism works in the family or small groups of communities.  But when expanded to the point that social penalties lose bite, those constructs breakdown.  They breakdown to the point that people begin to act in rational ways to existing incentives.

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