The “Tragedy of the Commons”: The idea of scarcity…or the scarcity of ideas?

A recent issue of National Geographic presented an example of what ecologist Garrett Hardin called the Tragedy of the Commons, which is “when many individuals act in their own self interest, everyone suffers.” That idea must assume: 1. The scarcity of a given resource, be it water or food or even space; 2. A closed environment–one which, for purposes of the theory, inhabitants are stuck in. 3. If certain individuals use more than their “fair share” of the limited resources, and everyone will suffer more than when every individual shares, there must be a “fair share”. How it is determined, and even more so, by whom, and on what evidence, is critical. 4. Discovery of more of the resource that was thought to be scarce, or of new technologies which may find more of the resource or even replace it with a better alternative, or of more efficient ways to use and/or conserve the resource, is not assumed. 5. Why should we assume that “self- interest” means hoarding and selfishness? 6. The most problematic aspect of the so-called Tragedy of the Commons is that scarcity is usually temporary and often artificial, but measures to ensure that the more self-interested individuals (or nations) don’t get too much are usually long term, self sustaining (because power corrupts), and, in hindsight, often create even more artificial shortages (rationing/wage and price controls anyone?). 

The example in the magazine was that of a college class in which every student was given a choice to pick either two or six extra credit points on their term paper. The catch is, if more than 10% of the class chooses six points, then everyone gets nothing, but if all choose two points, they all get those points. The teacher explains that over the years, every class but one has failed to get any points. In 2016, the teacher added the option for students to choose no points, and for each student who chose no points, one of the six-point choosers would lose all points. This “altruistic punishment” idea allowed any student to sacrifice their good for the good of the group. What do you think happened? Suddenly, half his classes were all getting the two points. Even when no student exercised the self-sacrificial option, just knowing it was there increased the number of classes getting two points each. 

This classroom exercise was used by the teacher to persuade the class of the importance of working together to mitigate the effects of climate change. The author proudly proclaimed he is a member of Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), a group which is dedicated to reducing “carbon use” through a “steadily rising tax on consumption of fossil fuels, and passing that revenue back to families to help them afford the higher cost of living that will inevitably result from such a measure.” So what happens when, in the normal course of events, the tax (they call it a “fee”) works? Consumption falls, but the government had begun using the tax fee money for something else, which gradually becomes an entitlement, and then falling revenue becomes the problem? Example: Gasoline taxes are supposed to be used for road improvements, yet somehow much of that revenue ends up in the general fund, the euphemism for “funding political promises” i.e. votes. The real problem, as usual, is human nature itself, though not in the way you might suspect. 

According to the teacher, 80% of his students routinely chose the two points no matter what, so that majority were altruistic and/or practical. Yet, only one class ever got the two points each, so 10-20% virtually always chose to… what? By choosing six points, they acted as if they believed that less than 10% of their class would do what they did, but is that rational? Why wouldn’t you assume that most people would choose as you did? Probably because you think of the majority as suckers compared to you, or you denigrate the whole idea of consciously asking for less to benefit others, because that’s weakness. There will always be people who want more stuff, power, money, anything; there will always be those who want to keep anyone from having more. Which group has caused more havoc and misery? It’s a trick question, because those two groups are usually the same. The most infamous of history’s tyrants were avowed communists (today they are closet socialists), whose religion was “anti-more”, and were themselves hoarders and thieves of other people’s wealth. They were hypocrites, in short. They viewed everyone else as fools and suckers, and they as superior. 

If we are going to apply this class experiment to history, 80% of the people tend to be mildly altruistic (choosing two points), as many as 10% are truly self sacrificing (no points), and 10% or less are not only “more for me” oriented but believe in the superiority of their choices (six points). Isn’t it inevitable that those who believe they are superior, also believe they deserve more, and since their power is based on a zero sum philosophy–more for me means less for the rest–they can justify suppressing the desires of the many? If all that follows, their power is based on accumulating a scarce resource. But what if the resource isn’t really so scarce?

Here are my lessons: 1. Almost nothing is really zero-sum. Scarcity is, and historically has been, largely the result of totalitarian measures to control distribution. 2. Human ingenuity, implanted by God, has overcome almost every scarcity not caused by tyranny. 3. Almost any problem of scarcity historically has proven to be of shorter duration than the solutions undertaken to cure it. I submit the “ultimate example” of #3.

In 1968, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich (with his wife Anne), at the suggestion of David Brower (Sierra Club), wrote a book that became titled The Population Bomb. Early editions of The Population Bomb began with the statement: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Ehrlich argues that as the existing population was not being fed adequately, and as it was growing rapidly it was unreasonable to expect sufficient improvements in food production to feed everyone. He further argued that the growing population placed escalating strains on all aspects of the natural world. “What needs to be done?” he wrote, “We must rapidly bring the world population under control, reducing the growth rate to zero or making it negative. Conscious regulation of human numbers must be achieved. Simultaneously we must, at least temporarily, greatly increase our food production.”

Fast forward to 2018. The greatest scarcity for many countries is young blood. Data from the Population Reference Bureau showed in 2006 that there were 20 countries in the world with negative or zero natural population growth expected between 2006 and 2050. In 2017, the Population Reference Bureau released a fact sheet showing that the top five countries expected to lose population between then and 2050 were: China: -44.3%, Japan: -24.8%, Ukraine: -8.8%, Poland: -5.8%, Romania: -5.7%. While China instituted the draconian “One Child Policy”, the others became more selfish.

Author: iamcurmudgeon

When I began this blog, I was a 70 year old man, with a young mind and a body trying to recover from a stroke, and my purpose for this whole blog thing is to provoke thinking, to ridicule reflex reaction, and provide a legacy to my children.

One thought on “The “Tragedy of the Commons”: The idea of scarcity…or the scarcity of ideas?”

  1. I think the author of the Nat Geo article misinterprets the “Tragedy of the Commons”. In general, there are four kinds of goods, based on whether they are, or are not, rivalrous or excludable. Rivalrous goods are those that can be used by only one person, and that person’s consumption of the good makes it unavailable to others. Excludable goods are those where people can be excluded from consuming or using the goods.
    A private good is both rivalrous and excludable.
    A common pool resource is rivalrous, but not excludable. These are goods where you can’t prevent others from consuming them, but consumption means using them up. In the case of a common pool, there’s a very strong incentive for everyone to consume as much as possible, before the supply runs out.
    In the case of the extra credit points, given the likelihood that more than 10% will try for the maximum, no one has anything to lose by making the same try.

    In the case of a private good, it’s possible, using a free market strategy, for trading to reach an equilibrium where the supply matches the demand. If the supply of the good drops, the incentive to conserve, find more, produce more, find substitutes, and so on, increases. If the supply increases, people will naturally use more of the good. Because a free market creates a number of information processors equal to the number of people trading in the good, the price adjusts automatically to an equilibrium based on the available supply and demand. When anyone talks about the tragedy of the commons without observing that it applies to common pool goods and not to private goods, I’m less inclined to trust any conclusions they reach.


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