Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Real Tragedy of the Commons

"The Tragedy of the Commons" is an economic principle which states that scarce resources to which anyone has access will be depleted by individuals, acting independently, rationally and according to their own self-interest, even though they understand that the depletion of this long term resource is not in the long-term best interest of the group.

Ecologist Garrett Hardin first coined this phrase more than a century ago when he wrote an essay about herders grazing their flocks in a common area. Each individual herder got benefit from grazing more animals, but the costs of over-grazing ruining the production of the common area was shared by all. The result of this mis-allocation of costs and benefits was that individuals made choices that were rational for them, but in the long term were not good for them or the group. Other examples of this include over-fishing and highway congestion. The concept has been used to justify government intervention and regulation and it has been used to support privatization. Though the original essay and the application of the theory have gotten a lot of criticism over the years, there is little doubt that it describes a real phenomenon.

Hardin wrote his essay before our present human experiment with massively inflated government was underway. The "commons", that is resources that are available to all without individual cost, are now most often found in the form of government properties and programs. And as government has changed from a limited means of enforcing justice to a vast and growing cloud over all private landscapes, a new tragedy of the commons has emerged. All of the little "common areas" of life now have a big advocate- government itself. No longer are they in danger of being "over-grazed and under maintained." No, the danger is now is quite the reverse. The traditional "commons" are over-maintained, and the new "commons" facing tragedy are the taxpayers.

If you will think about it, government buildings from Congress to the State House to the School House, tend to be much nicer these days than the homes of the individual taxpayers who bore the costs of their construction. Go to a nearby university and notice the dollars put into their architecture, their furnishings, their construction materials. You will find that the buildings by and large have higher dollar "production values" than do the private residences whose taxes paid for them. And the same is true of federal buildings, with a few exceptions like post offices. Even high schools these days are often being constructed to look like buildings you would find on college campuses - even if they serve students who go home to run-down apartments.

This is not limited to education. Except for local government, which varies but is generally more modest and more accountable, we find that government structures are built to lavish standards at a time when citizens find that they can no longer afford homes anywhere nearly as nice. Go to the state borders and enter a "visitor center" along an interstate highway. The "common areas" are no longer over-grazed and under-maintained. They are over-maintained and under-used relative to the average private property because the old commons has a powerful new advocate in bloated, post-modern government.

I believe that a societies architecture speaks to its values. In the middle ages, we might find that the most elaborate structure in any community would be the church. It would often be in the center of the town too. The most important government structure, the castle, was big but utilitarian. In time, in places, the state got bigger, but so too did the private estates of the wealthy. If ever you are in Newport, Rhode Island take time out to visit the Summer Homes of America's very wealthy from 100 or so years ago. For that matter, go to neighborhoods near to the town square of any number of old Eastern towns in the United States. The private residences from this period in America are usually run-down now, but it is still clear that in their day, the upper-crust of even modest communities lived in homes whose size, grace, and architecture compare very favorably with the "McMansions" which Americans have recently discovered they cannot afford.

Today, the witness of our society's architecture is that two institutions are the most important- government and the largest corporations. It is no accident that those two are often working together. Giant institutions have prospered, and individual families have lost ground. This is the lesson that an observant and well-traveled person in American can conclude from the witness of our architecture.

Today the government has expanded, to protect the old "commons" and do many other things. The result is that the last "commons" left is the common wealth of the nations' taxpayers. They are being over-grazed and under-protected because, just like with the herders, the benefits of using the system benefits each individual but the costs of destroying the commons is put off and will be shared by all.

Obamacare is just the latest and one of the most blatant examples of this tragedy. Each state knows that the plan is unworkable and that the nation does not have the money to sustain it, but many are still trying to find a way to rush their flock in so that they might fatten themselves on the last few square feet of grass left to exploit before the commons has been trampled. They know that the growth of government will result in the ultimate destruction of the nation, but that cost will be shared- the benefits they extract from the national treasury until the nation's destruction will be theirs alone.

What is the Real Tragedy of the Commons? We are.


Blogger Mark Simon said...

Hopefully, you can see the irony that the same “masters of the earth,” who would have you bow and scrape to them and not allow you to “own” anything, are quite rich and own quite a lot. Does Ted Turner come to mind? Even mid-level bureaucrats make more than the average Joe and usually own a chunk of property. One of them I know, in my county, lives in a cushy $450,000 + house on a lake. Last I looked, university professors with tenure make quite a lot of money. Bureaucrats in financial planning organizations are doing quite well on our tax dollars.

4:59 AM, April 01, 2013  
Blogger Andy Climacus said...

I believe Garrett Hardin wrote his essay in 1968.

Anyhow, I'd tend to say that government buildings are nicer than our own humble abodes on account of how so many people are going to be using them. May as well make them last for a while, and be easy to look at for those hundreds of years they should last.

9:26 PM, April 02, 2013  

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