The Failing of the Unregulated Commons

Okay, going on a weird tangent today. Somehow I ended up reading the entire wikipedia article for the “Tragedy of the Commons.” My title, I feel, is a more accurate name for this economic/social science concept and is based on other proposed names for it.

Originally framed in 1833 by William Lloyd in the specific context of overpopulation and resource management and later revisited by Garrett Hardin in 1968, the fundamental “tragedy” is the assumption that any commonly held resource would be depleted by the selfishness of each individual user. The original context in particular was the common grazing area shared by a communities livestock, but has come to mean any shared resource.

There are a lot of interesting examples where this may or may not apply. It’s so fresh in  my head at the moment that I haven’t had time to properly sort through and draw conclusions. I was at first thinking of things such as large public chat spaces like MMO server chat and how some of them seem fairly misused by the selfishness of the individuals, but the principle specifically applies to a finite resource. I’m having a hard time making a case for a chat channel, in the typically usage, being finite. Maybe it’s civility or usefulness could be said to be such.

Then I tried comparing it to several other examples both at work and in the political arena, only to ultimately settle on public restrooms. The unregulated restroom is, well, bad. The sum total of humanities activity there is certainly a net negative. Now, this “unregulated” part is important because it’s not explicitly stated in the earlier forms of this, but rather assumed to be the case.

It has actually been shown to not always be the case. Elinor Ostrom received the 2009 Nobel Prize of Economics for showing this. Specifically that there are several traits that individually and/or combined lead to some form of regulation.

There are also a few classical top-down solutions to the problem as well. Privatization, Regulation, and “Internalizing the Externalities” aka sharing the cost.

In the case of privatization in our restroom example, this would be putting someone in charge of maintaining the facilities. This has the advantage of assigning the sometimes horrific task of managing a resource to a known individual, but it’s only as good as the manager. Having poor ownership isn’t really any better and could possibly be worse.

Regulation would be, I dunno, having to sign in to get the key to the restroom? That actually sounds slightly absurd, but possibly effective. One of the things working against the public restroom the anonymous nature of the user. Research of common resources shows less exploitation when it’s usage is of a more public nature. Still kinda weird though.

Internalizing the Externalities would be making you pay the average per capita cost of maintenance in order to use it, or making you perform some small part of it’s maintenance. Yeah, try making people pay to use the restroom and see how well that works for you. On the bright side, it’ll probably stay pretty clean.

Obviously each situation is different. There have been many criticisms, including the possibility that it’s been used to create a pro-privatization narrative that has been detrimental to indigenous peoples and/or the overall public good. To be honest, I barely understand most of what’s said in economics anyway. That’s part of how I ended up here. Someone mentioned it in a comment somewhere and I was like “that sounds interesting, what’s that?” Economics seems to be this large web woven from all these weird little notions and studies that are referred to by name. I didn’t know what the heck a “Laffer curve” was and still don’t really know how to apply it. It amounts to a lot of technical jargon that really only makes sense if you’re already in on it.

Either way, that’s enough for today I think. I can’t imagine any of this was interesting to anyone but me anyway. It’s so dry lighting a match might cause the computer to catch on fire. Y’all take care, try not to fall asleep at the keyboard.

2 thoughts on “The Failing of the Unregulated Commons

  1. A game example might be the resources in a sandbox game near the spawn point of all players, assuming they aren’t infinitely regenerated. e.g. this guy left his Minecraft server open to the public to join for a week to see what happened –

    In fact, Eco the game is a sandbox centered around the Tragedy of the Commons dilemma and if and how individual shards can solve it. Still in paid early access, so there’s an entry barrier that probably limits the potential carnage, but sounds interesting in theory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, I hadn’t considered Minecraft an immediate example, but it’s mineral resources aren’t renewable in vanilla. Iron in particular, but coal also, tend to deplete quickly when multiple people are using them as they please.
      I also really like the look of Eco. It’s never been on sale, so I’ll have to give some thought to it, but given my current line of thinking it seems worth it to get at least one copy. Thanks for pointing it out!


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