Tragedy of Commons -Freedom in commons brings ruin to all

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”

Tragedy of commons sounds like something out of Broadway (widely recognized as the home of American Theatre industry) where millions of lights on theatre marquees and billboard advertisements help brighten the night sky and echoes of musical burletta rents the air.

But hold that thought though!

The concept has much deeper connotation and impact on our everyday lives and may provide some insight into some of the social and environmental problems that has besieged many generations. Simply put it is an economic problem that occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of the society in pursuit of personal gains.

How does this relate to anything then? You may want to ask.

This is where we delve deeper into what the “Tragedy of Commons” really is.

– The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming.

It results in overconsumption, under investment, and ultimately depletion of a common-pool of resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits.

Generally, the resource of interest is easily available to all individuals.

The concept highlights the conflict between individual and collective rationality and it is taken from the title of a scientific article written by Garret Hardin (an evolutionary biologist by education) in 1968. The paper addressed the growing concern of over-population, and Hardin used an example of sheep grazing land, taken from the early English economist William Forster Lloyd when describing the adverse effect of over-population.

Hardin was concerned with human population growth and the inevitable environmental degradation resulting from overpopulation.

He compared shared resources to a common grazing pasture; in this scenario, everyone with rights to the pasture graze as many animals as possible, acting in self-interest for the greatest short-term personal gain. Eventually, they use up all the grass in the pasture; the shared resource is depleted and no longer useful.

The tragedy of the commons is an accurate description of the human nature; we will always opt for an immediate benefit at the expense of less tangible values such as the availability of a resource to future generations.

For more clarity on the definition of the concept the following will provide more insight;

-“Commons” in this sense has come to mean such resources as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, the office refrigerator, energy or any other shared resource which is not formally regulated; not common land in its agricultural sense.

– Hardin used the word tragedy, to refer to a dramatic outcome that is the inevitable but unplanned result of a character‘s actions. He called the destruction of the commons through overuse a tragedy not because it is sad, but because it is the inevitable result of shared use of the pasture. ―Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all

The tragedy of the commons may occur when an economic good is both rivalrous in consumption and non-excludable. These types of goods are called common-pool resource goods (as opposed to private goods, club goods, or public goods).

A good that is rivalrous in consumption means that when someone consumes a unit of the good, then that unit is no longer available for others to consume; all consumers are rivals competing for the good, and each person’s consumption subtracts from the total stock of the good available.

So what was Hardin’s thoughts?

– Hardin pointed out the problem of individuals acting in rational self-interest by claiming that if all members in a group used common resources for their own gain and with no regard for others, all resources would still eventually be depleted.

– Hardin’s essay asserted, without proof, that human beings are helpless prisoners of biology and the market. Unless restrained, we will inevitably destroy our communities and environment for a few extra pennies of profit. There is nothing we can do to make the world better or more just.

– Overall, Hardin argues against relying on conscience as a means of policing commons, suggesting that this favors selfish individuals – often known as free riders – over those who are more altruistic. In the context of avoiding over-exploitation of common resources, Hardin concludes by restating Hegel’s maxim (which was quoted by Engels), “freedom is the recognition of necessity.” He suggests that “freedom” completes the tragedy of the common.

– In furtherance to Hardin’s position, history also illustrates that the destruction of the commons will not be stopped by shame, moral admonitions, or cultural mores anywhere near so effectively as it will be by the will of the people expressed as a protective mandate; in other words, by government.

– Tragedies of common are real, but not inevitable. Hardin proposed government intervention, regulation, privatization or direct control of the common-pool resource to avert the “tragedy”. He concludes that regulating consumption and use or legally excluding some individuals, can reduce over-consumption and government investment in conservation and renewal of the resource can help prevent its depletion.

Let’s look at examples of the Tragedy of Commons;

– Some scientists consider the exponential growth of the human population to be an example of a tragedy of the commons. In this case, the common resource is the planet Earth and all its shared resources. The world’s population has reached a whopping 7 billion individuals.
Examining population growth as a tragedy of the commons illustrates that the depletion of common resources isn’t always the result of greed. Just by existing, each person uses water, air, land, and food resources; splitting those resources among 7 billion people (and counting) tends to stretch them pretty thin.

– To bring this closer home, quickly take your mind back the few weeks into the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic worldwide in 2020. Where people rushed to panic buy all sorts of essentials and non-essentials leaving stores out of hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes along with basic food items like bread, eggs and the likes. Shoppers bought as much as they could fill into carts, much more than they would ever need. Stores shelves turned bare and looked like a hurricane swept through as shopper emptied almost all items.
There were reported (and even recorded) incidences of people trading invectives as others packed essential goods while some settled this with fisticuffs.

Basically in an attempt to ensure their own comfort and safety, individuals quickly depleted limited supplies of resources. That chaos brings the tragedy of commons right into our faces.

– Traffic congestion; Public roads are an excellent example of common property shared by many people. Each of these people has his or her own interest in mind — typically, how to get to work as quickly and easily as possible. But when everyone decides that public roads are the best way to meet traveling needs, the roads jam up and slow down overall traffic movement, filling the air with pollutants from idling cars.
Turning public roads into private roads or toll roads creates a different scenario. With a toll to pay (especially if the toll is higher during peak-use hours such as rush hour), drivers may consider a less-direct route or choose to drive to work at a different time

– Water; Water pollution, water crisis of over-extraction of groundwater and wasting water due to over irrigation.

– In the wake of the civil disobedience and unrest in Lagos, Nigeria in the final quarter of 2020, in the aftermath of the widely peaceful #endsars protest, graphic images of vandalized retail stores and looted small scale businesses and pillaging of the COVID-19 palliatives from government warehouses around the country echoes the adverse effect of the tragedy of commons.

Other examples include;

– Air Pollution whether ambient air polluted by industrial emissions and cars among other sources of air pollution, or indoor air.
– Forests – Frontier logging of old growth forest and slash and burn.
– Animals – Habitat destruction and poaching leading to the Holocene mass extinction.
– Oceans – Overfishing.

I am sure these examples provides even more clarity. It reinforces the position where utility maximizing (whether forcefully or not) behavior of few individuals ruins the common for all. It occurs in any situation where benefits are primarily received by one party, while the costs are spread out over many parties.

In order for a tragedy for the commons to occur the goods must also be scarce, since a non-scarce good cannot be rivalrous in consumption; by definition there is always plenty to go around and non-excludable.
Goods that are non-excludable means that individual consumers are unable to prevent others from also consuming the goods.

It is this combination of properties (scarcity, rivalry in consumption, and non-excludability) that creates the tragedy of the commons.

Each consumer maximizes the value they get from the good by consuming as much as they can as fast as they can before others deplete the resource, and no-one has an incentive to reinvest in maintaining or reproducing the good since they cannot prevent others from appropriating the value of the investment by consuming the product for themselves. In the end, the good becomes more and more scarce and may end up entirely depleted.

Controversies & Solutions

Free market capitalism teaches us how to better our lives, and those of other people, by reaching out and taking, and by doing so more efficiently and productively. Capitalism is however very bad at teaching us when to refrain from taking. That part simply does not form part of the free market system.

Capitalism may contribute a large part of human welfare and progress, but it cannot do so without some external constraints.

Hardin’s essay has been widely used as an ideological response to anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and discontent among indigenous and other oppressed peoples everywhere in the world.

-It has been used time and again to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations ‘tradable permits’ to pollute the air and water, and much more.

-it’s shocking to realize that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that the “tragedy” was inevitable — but he didn’t show that it had happened even once.

Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self-regulation by the communities involved.

– he offered no justification for his opinion that privatization would save it. The implication is that private owners will do a better job of caring for the environment because they want to preserve the value of their assets.

Solutions to the tragedy of the commons include the imposition of private property rights, government regulation, or the development of a collective action arrangement.

A critical aspect to understanding and overcoming the tragedy of the commons is the role that institutional and technological factors play in the rivalry and excludability of resources. Human societies have evolved many varied methods of dividing up and enforcing exclusive rights to economic goods and natural resources, or punishing those who over consume common resources over the course of history.

One possible solution is top-down government regulation or direct control of a common-pool resource. Regulating consumption and use, or legally excluding some individuals, can reduce overconsumption and government investment in conservation and renewal of the resource can help prevent its depletion.

For example government regulation can set limits on how many cattle may be grazed on government lands or issue fish catch quotas. However, top-down government solutions tend to suffer from the well-known rent-seeking, principal-agent, and knowledge problems that are inherent in economic central planning and politically driven processes.

Institutionally this depends on developing some mechanism to define and enforce private property rights, which might occur as an outgrowth of existing institutions of private property over other types of goods.

Technologically it means developing some way to identify, measure, and mark units or parcels of the common pool resource off into private holdings, such as branding maverick cattle.

This solution can suffer from some of the same problems as top-down government control, because most often, this process of privatization has occurred by way of a government forcibly assuming control over a common-pool resource and then assigning private property rights over the resource to its subjects based on a sale price or simple political favor.

Collective action can be useful in situations where technical or natural physical challenges prevent convenient division of a common-pool resource in to small private parcels, by instead relying on measures to address the goods rivalry in consumption by regulating consumption. Often this also involves limiting access to the resource to only those who are parties to the collective action arrangement, effectively converting a common pool resource in to a kind of exclusive good.

Bringing this home, our society is sadly awash with conflicts that justifies Hardin’s thoughts as stated in the Tragedy of Commons. Over the last few decades in the history of many African states, unrestricted access to mining of mineral resources, such as crude oil in the Niger-delta wetland of Southern Nigeria, has caused untold hardship and damages to the environment causing massive loss of farmland and contamination of aquatic marine. Thus denying the future indigenes a sustainable source of livelihood. Unfortunately this has gone unabated for too long and despite media expositions and outcry the cleanup has been more on paper.

This is the same with fishing in the water bodies within the territory of the country. Without recourse to the seasons and breeding cycles, fishermen have trawled the waters every day uncontrolled yet over-fishing and selling all sort of fishes not bred or suitable for consumption.

Leaving the environment and addressing other common resources also plundered daily in our clime, we cannot but make reference to the stolen wealth amassed by those in leadership position from “ OUR national cake”. For many decades, a few persons in position of authority have amassed our commonwealth for their personal use.

For as long as these pillages and looting continues, Hardin has made it succinctly clear that the depletion of common resources is inevitable. Is this when the import of the Tragedy of Commons will be appreciated?

Well, give this some thought.

One thing is clear though, collaborative effort is key to sustainable management of our common resources. Balancing concern for the well-being and interest of individuals with concern for the wellbeing of the group and of shared environment will create long-term outcomes for everyone.

We must rethink our approach to managing our resources in Africa-especially Nigeria.

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