The Tragedy of the Commons

[Editor’s note: This post is the first entry by the Times’ newest contributor and friend of the blog Halifax Shadow!  I’m sure that all of our readers will join me in welcoming him aboard!]


Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining enclosures?” – William Lloyd Forster, in 1832 

I’m sure that most readers are familiar with the “tragedy of the commons.” This concept is a simple one that describes a situation in which a resource that is to be used for profit and is un-owned tends to be overused, potentially to a breaking point. Furthermore, the resource will be under-invested, as any improvements made to it will provide returns for the common good and not for the specific individual(s) making the investment. 

As an example of this, we’ve recently heard serious allegations regarding the complicity of Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the Sackler family in aggressively pushing opioid prescriptions – up to and including knowingly encouraging doctors and pharmacies who were moving irregular amounts of the product (likely to addicted people) to move even more. This opioid epidemic – which claimed 130 American lives per day in 2017 –  is the greatest drug crisis America has ever seen.

It is worth asking why the Sackler family looked at the citizens of the nation as mere consumers, who could be used up for profit and ultimately destroyed by their product. The Sacklers could not or did not perceive of their relationship with their customers as a bilateral one, with a potential upside involved for investing in their success. This behavior looks remarkably like the tragedy of the commons applied to human beings.

In liberal democracies, “freedom” is an individualistic endeavor which means “freedom from” obligations to other people. We have progressed beyond serfdom to become citizens, with notional equality. Citizens are free of formal obligations to the elite and, crucially, the elite are free of obligations in return. We are all “equal” in our freedom from one another, which gives us license to act as individuals but also makes each of us an “un-owned,” common asset. We have not even begun, as a nation, to think clearly about what are the opportunity costs of our “freedom,” namely, reduced investment in each other and in particular a predatory approach from our elites.

I suspect feudal lords would never have considered addicting their serfs to opiates a smart trade-off, because people were an “owned” resource, one to be developed (or at least not destroyed) in the interest of future generations.

The backbone of the feudal system was the concept that nobility, clergy, and peasantry were to be locked into long-term obligations, by custom or by oath, to one another that could rarely be abrogated. No tragedy of the commons here.

This is not to say every feudal lord treated all of their people well all of the time. We can never guarantee benevolent or even intelligent decisions, but political engineering can bring elite incentives into better or worse alignment for society. It’s safe to say elites who have binding obligations from and to their people have interests more deeply entwined with them, and thus better alignment. Compare this with the Sackler’s relationship to the rest of the nation as mere “units of consumption” and it is difficult to disagree.

Recognizing that feudalism was eclipsed by irreversible changes in economics and military technology, we cannot wind back the clock. Instead, we should explore measured steps to create deeper obligations between people up and down our own contemporary hierarchies. For example, we could usher in a return of apprenticeships – which represent a mutual obligation over an extended period of years – being an option for both employers and employees alike. Furthermore, we could make employment contracts mutually binding for multiple-year increments.

Even if such changes to employment relationships were optional, we could build this parallel system of mutual obligation to displace “employment at will” relationships which either party can walk out with only cursory justification. Combine this with other changes to employment law to ban the use of university degrees as “gating criteria” for hiring staff, and all of a sudden we have employees and employers who both have a tremendous mutual interest in developing talent from the entry level.

I suggest a broader discourse needs to take place to identify other areas in which we could encourage the return of long-term commitments between people, even under the framework of liberal democracy.

In Conclusion

Every time we see elites making decisions which degrade the value of human capital in their domains (another example is mass immigration) it is worth asking whether or not our “freedoms” have been worth their lack of positive interest or outright hostility. I for one, think not.

3 thoughts on “The Tragedy of the Commons

  1. Democracy is pretty much the logic of communism applied to government. Once I realized this, it became obvious why it tends towards economic leftism and also why the small/big government debate is not really carving reality at its joints. As long as government is communist, of course one should want it to have as little effect on society as possible, because big governments equals a communist takeover of society. But this not true for a non-communist, owned government. In that case it largely becomes a technical issue, very much like what style of managing a corporation is best, with no black or white answers because it really depends on the circumstances. On what kind of people it rules over, mostly.

    Liked by 1 person

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