7.22.2007

A look at a problem that has no right answer—The Tragedy of the Commons

For those of you who may have taken basic economics, this is also commonly known as the prisoners’ dilemma.

Sorry, I’m not educated enough to apply the tragedy of the commons to the development of altruism or evolutionary biology, both of which are pretty abstract topics to me. But reading about these topics would be great—so if anyone has any good info on the topics feel free to share.

Garrett Hardin has written on the topic extensively; however I have only read one of his works, Filters Against Folly. This is a great book although some of the arguments as they pertain to global/environmental problems are dated—it was written in the 80’s. Quoted items come straight out of this book.

As I look at this problem there is one underlying action that causes this tragedy or dilemma, the combined “commonization of costs and privatization of profits.”

The only two ways (I can think of) to solve this underlying problem:
commonize all profits—which I don’t think is the best way to go about it
privatize costs—the free market way

For the sake of argument, assume that burning gasoline in vehicles has a substantial effect on climate change and ecological degradation. This answer will be a gross oversimplification of a complex topic, but hopefully it’ll spur a good debate.

One way to “privatize costs” is to decide on a set of acceptable gas consumption levels, ration use, and enforce these levels by treaty or government force. Or decide on an arbitrary cost of how much money it takes to clean-up the environmental damage caused by each gallon burned and enforce a price floor. These would be government fixes to “privatize costs”— slightly ironic. The main problem with this method is that the process of deciding on a set of acceptable gas consumption levels creates arbitrariness, and would lead to the government picking winners and losers.

Or if you think there is a problem, and there are a huge amount of others who agree with you, pool together and find a method of energy usage that doesn’t commonize the costs. Educate people on the pitfalls of using gasoline; how it will hurt them, others, the next generation—and why your product is rationally a better decision for each individual.

Assuming people act rationally which is a tenet of this problem, tragedy will be averted.