How The Tragedy Of The Political Commons Is Destroying Our Country


Have you ever heard of the Tragedy of the Commons? It’s a classic lesson of economics that was, believe it or not, best summarized by an eco-hippie named Garrett Hardin:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. 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.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.

2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision making herdsman is only a fraction of – 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. 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.

Now, if someone owned that pasture, would the same thing happen? Perhaps. There are certainly some foolish, desperate, and irresponsible people who would overgraze their own land to ruin. However, the overwhelming majority of people will not deliberately destroy something they own that is valuable to them.

There is a myriad of other lessons that can be learned from this analogy if you break it down further. Just to name a few examples, people respond to incentives. When the effects of the market are distorted, usually by the government, bad things happen. It’s better to create situations that allow people self-interest to work for you than work against you. You can go on and on with these and those are all useful lessons.

However, here’s one of the most alarming lessons we can take away from this analogy: We have created a tragedy of the political commons in D.C. and it is destroying our country just as surely as the overgrazing destroyed that pasture.

So, what do I mean by that?

Well first off, our politicians in D.C. have become very, very good at evading individual responsibility for their actions. Yes, you can sometimes make them take tough votes that clarify where they stand. However, many of the most damaging political policies in D.C. have no one’s fingerprints on them.

For example, who was fired over the government-created housing crash that caused our latest recession? Nobody.

And there’s an assumption in there that really isn’t true: That our extremely corrupt, partisan media will even agree on the facts. There are plenty of people in the media who deny that the government was responsible for the crash at all. Of those that do, many of them are deliberately blaming the wrong people for ideological reasons.

Moreover, once you get beyond that, even in an election cycle like this one, when the political winds have whipped up into a tornado, the vast majority of seats are safe. For example, the GOP could run a blue chip candidate in San Francisco and spend 5 million dollars on the seat, but Pelosi’s seat would still be safe.

What all this comes down to is that between the difficulty of assigning blame, the distortions of the media, and the relative political safety provided to many politicians, these pols have very little individual responsibility. For most members of Congress, no matter how bad their decision making is, they generally don’t pay a big price for it.

Worse yet, because of our incompetent media, which the public doesn’t trust anyway, most people are unable to fully comprehend the facts about what’s going on in D.C.

Is this country in a deep fiscal crisis that requires major changes to the way we do business? Conservatives say “yes.” Liberals say “no.” Are illegal aliens bad for the economy? Conservatives say “yes.” Liberals say “no.” Have Barack Obama’s policies hurt the economy? Conservatives say “yes.” Liberals say “no.”

In this environment, where the truth seems murky to most people, politicians can greatly profit by lying, by promising something for nothing, and by promising to deliver an easy way out.

For example, this country is headed towards complete fiscal disaster and bankruptcy. We DESPERATELY need to do something now to stave it off. But of course, there are people who deny that. So, if you’re not quite sure whom to believe and — one person who genuinely loves his country and wants to save it, is telling you that we need to make painful changes while another one is saying, “All is well, so why don’t you kick back and let us give you some goodies” –it’s very tempting to take the latter path.

So, we have a situation where politicians are more likely to benefit if they lie to the public and they’re not likely to pay a price for their lies down the road. So, why not be Barney Frank? Why not be Harry Reid? Because of ethics, right? But, what happens when the ethical politicians (Ha, ha) run up against the Alan Graysons of the world? Usually, they lose, because we have created a system that rewards dishonesty, just as that village created a system that rewarded overgrazing.

The sad fact of the matter is that we now have a political system that rewards politicians for behaving badly. Until we take steps to fix that system, we’re never going to have “good” governance in this country.

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