From Machan's Archives: The Deficit and the Tragedy of the Commons
In the 4th century B. C. Aristotle identified a very important principle of community life. He demonstrated the social value of the right to private property. He said:
"That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37)
This same idea was more recently clarified by Professor Garrett Hardin, in his 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," published in the prestigious magazine Science. Hardin gave the example of a common grazing area used by several owners of cattle to feed their livestock. Because there are no borders identifying what area belongs to which cattle owner, the commons tend to be overused, not because of any greed but because each cattle owner wants to achieve the best possible results, namely, feed the cattle adequately.
The principle at issue has been very fruitfully applied to environmental problems and the conclusion has been drawn by many scholars that without extensive privatization of what are now treated as public properties – lakes, rivers, beaches, forests and even the air mass – environmental problems will remain unsolved. Everyone knows that a problem exists with common ownership but no one can do anything about it without changing what is commonly owned to private property. The political will and savvy to achieve the solution is, of course, lagging far behind the analysis that identified the solution. Still, in this area, at least, such identification has occurred.
What has not been widely noticed is that a tragedy of the commons exists, as well, in our national treasury. We have here what by law amounts to a common pool of resources from which members of the political community will try to extract as much as will best serve their purposes. Be it for purposes of artistic, educational, scientific, agricultural, athletic, medical, or general moral and social progress, the treasury stands to be dipped into by all citizens in a democratic society. And everyone has very sound reasons to try to dip into it - their goals are usually well enough thought out so they have confidence in their plans. They know that if they receive support from the treasury, they can further their goalsso they will do whatever they can to do just that, namely, extract from the commons as much for their purposes as is feasible.
But, as both Aristotle and Professor Hardin knew, the commons are going to be exploited without regard to standards or limits – "that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it." Which explains, at least in part, why the treasuries of most Western democracies are being slowly depleted and deficits are growing without any sign of restraint. Japan, Germany, Great Britain and, of course, the United States of America are all experiencing this, as are numerous other societies that make their treasuries available to the public to use for sheer private purposes. For how else can we construe education, scientific research, the building of athletic parks, the upkeep of beaches and forests and so forth than by the pursuit of special private goals by way of a common treasury?
Some might try to obscure this by claiming that all these goals involve a public dimension. Of course. So does nearly every private purpose –including the widely decried phenomenon of industrial activity that produces the negative public side effect of pollution and contributes to the depletion of a quality environment. Private goals can have public benefits but their goal is to serve the specific objectives of some individuals. When AIDs research is supported from the public treasury, the first beneficiaries of success would be those with AIDs, not those who haven't contracted the disease. When theater groups gain support from the National Endowment for the Arts, there may be beneficiaries beyond those obtaining funding but they are still the ones who benefit directly, immediately. When milk producers gain a federal subsidy by having the price of milk fixed or their withholding of production compensated, they are the first to gain from this, not some wider public.
And so on with thousands of other "public" projects – they are, actually, supporting private goals, first and foremost. One need only observe who lobbies for them. But because the treasure is public property, there is no way to allocate what is in there rationally, with proper budgetary constraints. Instead, politicians embark on deficit spending – taking non-existing funds, ones not yet collected but rather only uncertainly anticipated, and funding the requests without restraint.
And there is no end in sight. Only when the country no longer has the credit worthiness in the world community, so that its bonds will no longer be backed by hopeful lenders, will the Ponzi scheme be called to a screeching halt. We will have to declare bankruptcy and those of our citizens who had nothing at all to do with the enterprise will be left to hold the empty bag, namely, our grandchildren.
Not unless the treasury stops allowing private projects to be funded from its coffers, confining itself to the support of bona fide public projects – the courts, the military and police – will there be an end that avoids the perhaps greatest tragedy of the commons. To reach such a position of financial responsibility, the governments of our society will have to sell off all the unwisely held common assets – lands, parks, beaches, buildings, forests, lakes and such – to private parties. They will thus liberate members of our future generations from the shackles that have been so irresponsibly placed upon them by means of the tragedy of the commons.
Posted by Helix on 08/28/11 01:15 PM
Actually, I'm willing to bet hard currency that I'm at least as old as you are. I watched the moral collapse every bit as closely -- and with as much disgust -- as just about anyone else here. Which is why I can say with some conviction that the moral collapse, and the intellectual collapse that underlies it, is hardly confined to the public sphere. It affects all levels in a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
That being said, I can probably make a case for the public sphere having an overarching rule in that process. As the saying goes, the rot starts at the top. My own disillusionment began with the assassination of JFK, obviously an inside job. Since then, with dishearteningly few exceptions, it's been all downhill. I actually feel sorry for people like Ron Paul. While I don't always agree with him, I do respect him. I believe he says what he means and means what he says, and is one of the few prominent public figures who has not been bought and paid for -- which is the place where private and public corruption join forces. For this reason, he has absolutely no chance of being elected president, even though his principled stands, in my opinion, make him about the only major candidate fit for that office.
Sadly this means that, on one level, I agree with the author, though not for the reasons given. When corrupt government and corrupt business join forces to consolidate privilege at the expense of the citizenry, the only reasonable stand for that citizenry is resistence. The main problem for the citizenry is how to best resist without creating the kind of chaos in which the most vicious faction emerges as a new ruling class.
The privileged classes here in the US, like Rome in ancient times, mollify the citizenry with bread and circuses -- the modern versions being food stamps, unemployment benefits, and television. We shall see how long this game can continue.
Posted by robert wheeless on 08/27/11 11:57 AM
Aaaah, youth and new found wisdom. A few of we older heads watched as this moral collaspe occurred. We recall times long ago when men had the right to protect what he owned. That was a real come-uppance from a time when man had the right to own what he protected.
Seems to me, we are reverting back to the latter.
Posted by rossbcan on 08/27/11 07:37 AM
After pondering this article for a day, I conclude that I disagree that:
"public debt and defects are tragedy of the commons"
First, the commons, defined: Turf, that is accessible to all (nobody owns) and controlled by none. Examples are oceans, atmosphere, common resources, used by all, dumping grounds with no control. Because of "tragedy of the commons", turning into sewers. Statist environmental "regulation" futile because they "license" exceptions for their cronies and buddies, enforcing only against those "not them".
Deficits and debt are not commons because they are not "accessible to all", without ownership. The relationship between who creates debt and who is expected to pay has been legally defined such that:
The contracting parties ARE: "Those who receive funds" and those who "create funds out of thin air" and, foolish investors, trusting and lending to the irresponsible.
The decreed obligated parties are: Captive populations, decreed to be responsible for debt from which they have neither benefited, nor consented to.
So, debt and defects are NOT, in actual fact "tragedy of the commons". The responsibility for has been "decreed" to be common (except for those who incurred it).
Debt and deficits are are private matter between those who incurred it and, those who foolishly lent to the irresponsible.
So, Tibor, contrary to what I believe your intent is, you, by making this fallacious argument are lending credence to false decrees by states that resolve to:
"YOU are responsible for the consequences of OUR actions and, WE, are not."
Posted by jkluttz on 08/26/11 04:30 PM
I do like the idea of a republic. Such is unnatural, however, and thus has failed.
Posted by frick on 08/26/11 03:11 PM
I do not know if jkluttz was refering to a republican form of government or not. But how about republican form of government? Whereby no one's property can be taken away from them against their will, by the initiation of violence if ncessary?
You know, like "love thy neighbor as thy self", or "All men are created equal."???
Posted by jkluttz on 08/26/11 03:08 PM
There is no alternative. What we see around us is what we get, what is natural (human). That doesn't mean it isn't dumb.
We know that free markets and free people bring prosperity, but those things aren't natural and are only transitory in history.
From history it would also appear that we humans aren't capable of any kind of society but an inefficient and overused commons (i.e., regulatory democracy, communism, socialism, facism, corporatocracy, dictatorship, etc.). Who will maintain the commons? Nobody.
Posted by Helix on 08/26/11 02:09 PM
So by your logic, city council members who create a public park benefit disproportionately from it? I fail to see how this follows.
What equals corruption is greed and self-interest at the expense of the common good. Public property is only one of the arenas in which this corruption can play out, but the actions of the major players that lead to the recent financial crisis amply illustrates for anyone who cares to see that corruption is every bit as rife in the private sphere as it is in the public sphere. Any just and equitable society has a strong moral and ethical foundation. It is this foundation that is lacking here. To cast the blame on "public property" is to confuse symptoms with causes.
Posted by Helix on 08/26/11 01:53 PM
And the alternative that you propose is... ?
Posted by Helix on 08/26/11 01:52 PM
Somehow providing for police protection serves the public interests but providing parks for public use is not? How about roads then?
The author's position is entirely predicated on the assertion that the only possible solution to the tragedy of the commons is private ownership, an assertion that he made no attempt whatsoever to support. This being the case, the entire rest of the argument reduces to the author's opinion -- an opinion that is not supported by his argument.
Posted by jkluttz on 08/26/11 01:51 PM
Excellent article. It's always good to return to fundamentals when accessing why "democracy" or any other commons is really a dumb system.
Posted by Avatar on 08/26/11 11:41 AM
A good look from one perspective. He neglects to look at the abuses in military spending and the ponzi scheme run by the FED. The buying of congressional influence by corporations and the resulting stacked laws. The fact that America and most of the world is a Plutocracy controlled Corporatocracy just eludes this author who by the way is most likely benefiting from his public pensions. He is ignorant of the fact that most new discoveries in drugs and medicine are made by public supported institutions. ( Big Pharma just wants to tweek existing drugs to gain a new patent which allows them to mark up costs thousands of percent.) This is my last rant on this page as I have decided not to waste any more time reading this dribble.
Posted by frick on 08/26/11 11:15 AM
"Thou shall not steal."
A Natural Law? Law of Nature? Unchanging and observable.
Nature's God's Law?
Timeless bond of peace and community.
Posted by frick on 08/26/11 11:08 AM
"Thou shall not steal."
Implies private property, does it not?
Otherwise, what's to steal?
Posted by John Danforth on 08/26/11 09:19 AM
The 'Tragedy Of The Commons' is an entirely logical and correct explanation of why 'public property' will always be exploited. But it is entirely too innocent.
The corollary to 'public property' is 'group of people who control it (coercively by definition) and thus benefit disproportionately', who by definition have power to increase their power, and so it always evolves that the people who don't benefit are always victimized by the people who do, and the victimization must always perpetually increase.
Public property must always and everywhere equal corruption.
Posted by rossbcan on 08/26/11 08:33 AM
Of course, a similar, but far greater "trajedy of the commons" fiasco of "private profit, unaccountability, socialized loss" is occurring with the Japanese nuclear disaster the harm of which is vastly understated, with planetary impact.
Part of the factors contributing to the fall of the USSR was the complete loss of credibility (and collective harm) due to the Chernobal affair.
Of couse, the luddites will continue to attempt to plunge us back to the dark ages, with technology bans, when the real solution is cleaned up Tort law, making it clear that everyone is responsible for their own actions and cleaning up their own messes plus paying compensation for harm. Then, we will AGAIN have a culture of personal responsibility and, people will exercise caution and most definately not gamble with the lives of others. Or ELSE.
Posted by rossbcan on 08/26/11 08:14 AM
"environmental problems will remain unsolved"
Still will, even with limited property rights.
For example, in the area near Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, "Licensed" by state polluters were creating massive acid rain, turning vast land area into lunar landscape by defoliation. In fact, NASA astronauts trained there.
This problem was "mitigated" by state environmental "regulation", a massive compliancy "tax" even on non-polluters.
Landowners who were affected by this pollution were unable to use Tort law to sue the polluters for damage, compensation and "cease and desist" because they were liscensed (permission to be criminals) by the state.
So, until FULL property rights are acknowleged and Tort and other areas of law are de-corrupted, "trajedy of the commons" will continue to engulf ALL of us.
Before this systematic corruption, we had the "rule of law", which basically stated "those who cause harm are criminals" and, compenstaion (at expense of the same criminals) is due to the victims WITHOUT any of the false Machiavaillian "neccessary evil" BS.
Its simple, easy and clear: Cause harm and, make reparations. No excuses:
Click to view link
Words are not always REAL nor an accurate description of reality. Actions leading to consequences are measurable, provable and unambiguous. THINK about it:
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