Three articles about the Tragedy of the Commons
Does everybody know what “The Tragedy of the Commons” is? It’s an economic dilemma wherein multiple people have incentive to work against their own long-term interests. Here, let Walter Williams explain it:
Imagine there are 100 cattlemen all having an equal right to graze their herds on 1,000 acres of commonly owned grassland. The rational self-interested response of each cattleman is to have the largest herd that he can afford. Each cattleman pursing similar self-interests will produce results not in any of the cattlemen’s long-term interest — overgrazing, soil erosion and destruction of the land’s usefulness. Even if they all recognize the dangers, does it pay for any one cattleman to cut the size of his herd? The short answer is no because he would bear the cost of having a smaller herd while the other cattlemen gain at his expense. In the long term, they all lose because the land will be overgrazed and made useless.
On the other hand, if only one person owns the land, that person has incentive to make sure it isn’t over-grazed. Because if it is, he can’t graze his own livestock there, and can’t charge others rent for using it.
Examples of this abound, but Williams applies it to something I hadn’t thought of before. The federal budget:
We can think of the federal budget as a commons to which each of our 535 congressmen and the president have access. Like the cattlemen, each congressman and the president want to get as much out of the federal budget as possible for their constituents. Political success depends upon “bringing home the bacon.” Spending is popular, but taxes to finance the spending are not. The tendency is for spending to rise and its financing to be concealed through borrowing and inflation.
Does it pay for an individual congressman to say, “This spending is unconstitutional and ruining our nation, and I’ll have no part of it; I will refuse a $500 million federal grant to my congressional district”? The answer is no because he would gain little or nothing, plus the federal budget wouldn’t be reduced by $500 million. Other congressmen would benefit by having $500 million more for their districts.
What about the constituents of a principled congressman? If their congressman refuses unconstitutional spending, it doesn’t mean that they pay lower federal income taxes. All that it means is constituents of some other congressmen get the money while the nation spirals toward financial ruin, and they wouldn’t be spared from that ruin because their congressman refused to participate in unconstitutional spending.
So we might as well plunge our heads into the trough as deeply as possible, for as long as possible. It’s going to empty anyway!
Normally, I might have read Williams’ column and, as I tend to do when reading Williams columns, nodded my head in fanboydom. But I’d just seen this column by Jonathan Adler a couple days before:
…the political process often replicates the same economic dynamic that encourages the tragedy of the commons — a dynamic fostered by the ability to capture concentrated benefits while dispersing the costs. Like the herder who has an incentive to put out yet one more animal to graze, each interest group has every incentive to seek special benefits through the political process, while dispersing the costs of providing those benefits to the public at large. Just as no herder has adequate incentive to withhold from grazing one more animal, no interest group has adequate incentive to forego its turn to obtain concentrated benefits at public expense. No interest group has adequate incentive to put the interests of the whole ahead of the interests of the few.
The federal budget isn’t the metaphorical pasture: the combined wealth of Americans is. Remember Michael Moore saying:
“They’re sitting on the money, they’re using it for their own — they’re putting it someplace else with no interest in helping you with your life, with that money. We’ve allowed them to take that. That’s not theirs, that’s a national resource, that’s ours.”
Moore was saying exactly what Alter is describing. None of us want all of that “national resource,” just like none of the cows want all of the grass. Only a tiny part of it, to serve our (their) own individual needs, or (forgetting the cows for a moment) the needs of our group. Problem being: there are so many such groups. So many cows. So many individual needs, all grazing in the same pasture.
So that was funny, seeing both those columns within a few days of each other. And then I read Ramesh Ponnuru, who wasn’t talking about money, or economics, and who never brought up the Tragedy of the Commons. Instead, Ponnuru was writing about children and whether or not it’s irresponsible to have them:
…while many people felt an obligation to bear children or wanted the emotional satisfactions they can bring, they also had an overwhelming practical reason for wanting them: They needed the help. They needed their offspring’s labor. They needed children, especially, to avoid hunger and privation in old age. The bargain was simple: Parents take care of their children until they are able-bodied, and in return get taken care of by their children when they no longer are.
We still need to have children so that we can enjoy a secure old age. Modern societies have disguised the old bargain by socializing it. They maintain expensive government programs to assist the elderly, financed by successive generations. The children still take care of the elderly when they grow up, but now it’s all the children providing for all the elderly, collectively.
Who’s going to keep the money flowing into the federal coffers? Who’s going to keep our precious entitlement programs funded? Our children!
We’re eating our children!
Collectively, that is. We, as a society, are eating the children our society is producing. Because we have every incentive to do so.
It takes a village, right? A zombie village.
Metaphor update: instead of cattle ranchers using a field, we’re all zombies, eating the brains out of the stock of remaining humans. But that stock is declining, because we eat them faster than they reproduce, and because we create new zombies all the time. None of us have any incentive not to eat that tasty human we see trying to barricade himself inside an isolated house off in the woods, even if we still had capacity for that kind of rational thought.
Sooner or later, we’re going to run out of humans. That’s the new Tragedy of the Commons metaphor.
One more thing: the last time I wrote a post based on three separate but related stories like this, I got a massive google bomb from people looking for Valeria Lukyanova, the Ukrainian Barbie. While I do appreciate even those one-off hits I get from google bombs, I’m also rather hoping I don’t get one this time. The “Walter Williams bikini” hit is a hit I’d sooner not get.