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Mon 26 May 2003
The Tragedy of the Commons
Category : Commentary/commons.txt
I've finished reading "The Third Chimpanzee" by Jared Diamond. Where it ends, and "The Future of Ideas - The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World" (by Lawrence Lessig) takes off, is this concept of "The Tragedy of the Commons". Life is all about making trade-offs. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
"Economists distinguish rivalrous and nonrivalrous resources... A rivalrous resource presents more problems. If a resource is rivalrous, then we must worry both about whether there is sufficient incentive to create it and about whether consumption by some will leave enough to others... If a rivalrous resource is open to all, there is a risk that it will be depleted by the consumption of all.
"This depletion of a rivalrous resource is the dynamic that biologist Garrett Hardin famously termed 'the tragedy of the commons'. 'Picture a pasture open to all,' Hardin writes, and consider the expected behaviour of 'herdsmen' who roam that pasture. Each herdsman must decide whether to add one more animal to his herd. In making a decision to do so, Hardin writes, the herdsman reaps a benefit, while everyone else suffers. The herdsman gets the benefit of one more animal, yet everyone suffers the cost, because the pasture has one more consuming cow. And this defines the problem: Whatever costs there are in adding another animal are costs that others bear. The benefits, however, are enjoyed by a single herdsman. Therefore each herdsman has an incentive to add more cattle than the pasture as a whole can bear. As Hardin describes the consequence:
"'Therein is the 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.'"
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