the TRAGEDY of the commons

no dumping allowed CC heyjoewhereyougoingwiththatguninyourhand
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When we say “the tragedy of the commons” I really think it should be stated “the TRAGEDY of the commons” to indicate that it really is an all caps TRAGEDY.

Summarized on wikipedia as

(the the tragedy of the commons is) a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest will ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.

Hardin’s original article on the tragedy of the commons expands on this.

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

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 toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Rationally it makes more sense for me to pollute. Rationally it makes more sense for me to over-fish. Treachery in fact pays. In a recession it is logical to steal. There is a reason you see “no dumping” signs by the side of the road – rationally it is more profitable for people to illegally dump than to pay the dump fee. It’s wrong, it’s unethical, it ruins the commons, but it is in fact rational.

And there are only three ways to avoid the tragedy of the commons. ONLY THREE.

  1. Legislative (ex: make it against the law/rules),
  2. Material (ex: tax it like a parking meter or a toll road) or
  3. Social Pressure (ex: make a public negative example of the person, Stockades).

That’s it people. That’s it. There are no other solutions.Yes get creative within those three, but that’s it folks.

People are NOT going to sing Kum Bay Ya and do the right thing if it is in their rational best interest NOT to. Period. Some people will, but all it takes is one rational actor hiding behind Machiavelli. And there is always one. I have written about this before in the three motivations of people.

Understanding this makes listening to political debate painful. Tax the rich to provide health care to everyone else? What is the rational thing to do? To use as much health care (the commons) as possible which would bankrupt the system (irrational result). You would need rules (rationing) or fees (taxes and copays) or social disclosure (social pressure, but not a good idea for health care privacy). Ask a sociologist, that won’t work.

But this post is not about health care. It is about a tragedy of the commons in the form of an office break room. And while I rationally understand that it is in everyone’s rational best interest to not clean it at the end of the day, it is still a tragedy to observe. Rationally they are right to observe it is always miraculously clean in the morning regardless of if they participate in the cleaning!All of the benefits with none of the work. Woot! (a tragic woot, but woot none the less).

Hopefully the team will forgive me for using material motivation (removal of coffee) to encourage dialog and transparency (social pressure) to find a solution (process and procedures to ensure cleaning). And as the person who cleans the coffee pot more than any other, hopefully I’ll be down to only cleaning the coffee pot once a week as I lock up and head home. I can live with once a week.