Revisiting the tragedy of the commons

During the 1990s, the term paradigm became increasingly fashionable as an intellectually upscale replacement for the traditional and somewhat shopworn term model. But decanting this old wine into new bottles can still leave a bad taste in our mouths if we define a paradigm in too simplistic a manner.

Dictionaries define “paradigm” as a model or intellectual framework that seeks to explain some phenomenon in a clear and simple manner. A relevant example for our times is Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. In this paradigm there is a common pasture in which local farmers can freely graze their cattle. Needless to say, each farmer will want to graze as many cattle as they can on the common because each cow, they add will provide them with a marginal economic benefit at no additional cost. So, all the farmers continue adding more cows.

This works only so long as the total number of grazing cows remains within the carrying capacity of the commons. Once that limit is exceeded, the viability of the commons for grazing begins to break down as the grass wears out and provides less nourishment per cow.

So, each farmer finds that his or her herd of cattle is producing less milk for them to sell. Under the circumstances, their only rational response is to increase the size of the herd. Which means adding still more cows to the over utilized commons. When all the local farmers keep doing this, the result can only be an increasingly dysfunctional commons.

In Hardin’s words: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”

By way of a solution, some people may propose expanding the commons if it is no longer large enough to support existing herds and to pay for it out of tax revenues so users of the commons can continue to obtain its benefits without directly paying for them. Such people believe the purpose of the commons is to serve the community’s economy, its size should be tailored to the demands of that economy as it grows.

Others insist that the real problem is not too little grass, but too much demand. They argue that the time has come to “think green” about the future of public commons in the context of the overall environment. People should begin shifting to more sustainable ways of managing their communities so they can phase down grazing and turn the commons into public parks.

Then there are those enamored of the stained-glass verities of undergraduate microeconomic theory. They suggest that the time has come to start charging farmers user fees—so much per hour of grazing time for each cow. In this way, each user will pay for the benefits received from the public facility in accordance with how much they use it.

By using a sensible pricing system to ration the use of these scare resources, each farmer will be motivated to make the most efficient use of it. Meanwhile, the revenue from user fees can cover the cost of expanding the public commons when necessary rather than the government taxing everyone to pay for this.

Hardin’s grazing pasture paradigm appears to go a long way towards answering socio-economic questions about the inevitable tendency towards over-use of public goods when they are perceived to be “free”. It explains why this tendency leads to a condition where supply can never really catch up with demand. It describes how the widespread availability of free public goods can significantly influence the underlying economics of many private activities. And it demonstrates the ease with which an entire society can become locked into behavioral patterns that may turn out to be “anti-social” in the long run.

It’s your call. After all, Rorschach tests are not graded.

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