Must there be a Tragedy of the Commons?

January 20, 2009

For years, I have dialogued in my mind as to whether ‘people get the government they deserve.’ The statement is more complicated than it first looks to be.

Coming out of university, my goals were to better the society in which I lived (and this is a common goal fueled by youthful enthusiasm). Later my goals were to better the living conditions of my family and to succeed at a job I liked, another common goal.

Had I not asked so many questions, these goals might have been within my grasp; but, cursed with insatiable curiosity, I persisted in asking questions which I had no way of knowing that the answers would devastate me; answers which would lead to anything but blissful contentment.

Now decades later, I am left wondering if a lobotomy would perhaps wipe these answers from my brain, and leave me sitting in the sunshine, enjoying a picnic with someone nice and listening to the birds chirp. One dimensional existence. Is it preferable to delving into the confusion of the world beyond my personal contentment? Why not blissful ignorance?

The question is ancient and ultimately unanswerable, except as an awareness of one’s freedom to think about the meaning of life and to choose (or choose not to choose) the course of one’s life. A discussion on Greek to modern philosophy would only provide more issues, more questions – it would be long, but fruitless. The internal contradiction in the entire process is this: the number of questions generated will always exceed the answers. It does seem futile to look for truth in such a way.

For decades I looked to Reason as a path to truth – until I realised Reason is a twobit harlot. Don’t be shocked. Ever wonder why four different people can all come up with ‘reasonable’ arguments for the same issue, and all four can be radically different? If reason yeilds truth, how can there be four mutually exclusive truths?

The answer is quite simple: first premises. Reason depends on a -priori assumptions at some point – accepting a value on faith. Often these assumptions are buried so deeply in our consciousness, we are not even aware of what they are. Everyone makes sense to him/herself. And this again is quite common. Life is filled with scheduled obligations and daily living; most dont have the energy or inclination to maintain a dialogue on assumptions about the world in which we exist.

Is this wrong? Are we negligent in some undefinable way? If so, to whom are we negligent? What if we are negligent to ourselves?

In Western liberal culture, the emphasis is on ME, my lifestyle, my family, my job, my house, my car, my stuff. And of course this is what generates corporate profits – an unquenchable desire to increase MEness through labor and purchasing power. In other parts of the world, the emphasis is on OUR – again not difficult to understand as cooperation is required in societies where real scarcity of essentials is present. These are of course sweeping generalisations, meant only as that for the purpose of this blog. (If I were to try to ‘prove’ these assumptions, I would find myself in the predicament of reason again: first premises would produce different answers.)

So cutting to the heart of the matter:

  • Do I have a responsibility to those who experience the conequences of my actions?If so, how far does this extend?
  • Or is my only responsibility to my own pleasure, safety, country, point of view?

For me this is a central question. How I answer this from day to day, moment to moment determines who I am to others and myself. What are my convictions? Do I know them at all? Do I care about some sweatshop worker in Sri Lanka paid dirt wages to manufacture designer shoes? Do I genuinely feel empathy for other people or only mimic the politically correct mania? How honest am I willing to be with myself? Who am I without my ‘stuff’? How do I want to be?

The nagging persistence of all these issues brings me back to a writer who has been dismissed in today’s world as the author of ‘failed socialism’. (Failed is a debatable adjective considering Communist China supports USA capitalism now and Russia is again a superpower.) Karl Marx. His concept of alienation is a lucid paradigm to help understand the universe at large. I believe the age of Marx has really just arrived.

Reading Marx is like tromping through a bog with a pair of ill-fitting sneakers on, so I will over simplify alienation for convenience:

The McUsuable characteristic of labour (real people working) results in people losing touch with themselves, each other and the world. In essence, people in McUsable cultures become one dimensional slaves to consumption. Eventually in capitalist society, we become alienated from ourselves first and foremost. And this does seem to have happened to Western society in general threating the survival of the planet. What is of value beyond consumer ‘stuff’?

Here on the net, perhaps millions of urls deal with this same subject: I don’t have the time to read them all. But I will leave the reader with a riddle – the answer to which may provide much light into one’s basic assumptions about life.

Tragedy of the commons

From Wikipedia

“The Tragedy of the Commons” is an influential article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.[1] The article describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.

Central to Hardin’s article is a metaphor of herders sharing a common parcel of land (the commons), on which they are all entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s view, it is in each herder’s interest to put as many cows as possible onto the land, even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from the additional cows, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and all herders suffer. The model has also been studied more recently, such as in game theory. Read more here.

One could spend years studying this: but knowing one’s own intuitive answer to the metaphor riddle well tell volumes about those unexamined assumptions that are the foundation for all our reasoning.

I personally believe (my first premise) that people are social beings whose individual well-being depends on the group well-being. Not a very popular view to enhance the profits and control of multi-national corporate activity. I believe we are happier when we feel empathy, that losing this one ability in today’s world means we are doomed to be alienated from ourselves, each other and the world. Economies should exist to serve people’s well-being; not people to serve corporate well-being. Our culture must mirror these convictions. But first, we must look in the mirror.

I do not believe there must be a ‘tragedy’ of the commons.

Ah…but the devil is in the details, eh?

More reading.
Collapse, Jared Diamond

De Young, R. (1999)

Hardin’s original essay

Karl Marx and his theory of alienation: How it can be applied to modern society

Marx’s theory of alienation

Comment on Marx’s Theory of Money and Alienation


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