The Majesty of the Commons: If Only

I remember reading about the “tragedy of the commons” many years ago, probably originally in a sociology class. The “tragedy” was offered as a common grazing area that, if used collectively to its best limits, would provide adequate grazing for a sufficient number of animals to allow each owner’s animals to be adequately fed. But when individuals realized they could benefit financially by putting their interests above those of the collective (by grazing more than their fair share of animals), the result was overgrazing which ultimately led to insufficient nutrition for all the animals and a barren, useless commons. At least that’s the way I remember it; it may have been slightly more sophisticated than that. The tragedy of the commons was presented as an economic problem that led to the creation of governmental restrictions and a host of other societal restrictions to control over-consumption. These strictures were technical solutions to what amounts essentially to a social behavioral problem.

But I wonder whether the problem would have been more permanently resolved through mythology, as opposed to regulations and restrictions. My proposed solution is, in essence, the technique used by religions to establish baseline “moral” behaviors. Many behaviors we consider “moral” today have no compelling basis other than as elements of a moral code. We adhere to the code not because we have evidence behaving outside the code is harmful but because of the fear of censure by a “force” beyond ourselves. Communism is an as-yet-unsuccessful attempt to replicate the success of religion by regulating behavior through belief and mythology (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” or, in the original German, “Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen”). [Author’s note: No, I did not know the German version; I looked it up.]

Really, though, if we could inculcate in people from a very early age a fervent belief that great good would arise from equality, sharing, and careful stewardship of all our resources (versus a belief that incalculable harm and societal collapse would follow behaviors associated with greed), perhaps decency would be pervasive.

Unfortunately, I think the evidence today suggests there’s a flaw in that thinking. People claim to believe in and to follow the admonitions of religious prophets, but their behaviors suggest otherwise. I’m not convinced Marxism failed because it was based on flawed thinking; it has not worked because it depends on people living according to a philosophy that can too easily be abused through corruption and greed. Capitalism, on the other hand, rewards corruption and greed in the same way it rewards hard work and creativity.

The problem is people. In order for a collective system to work effectively and efficiently, greed and the superiority of self-interest over group-interest would have to be eliminated from the system.  But people are people. Some people are greedy and self-interested by nature; you can’t change them. So, for a system to work, you would have to remove those people from it. You’d have to change…I should say exchange…them. Didn’t I just write something like that a short while ago?

Wouldn’t our lives be more satisfying without unvarnished greed? Wouldn’t the collective commons be more majestic and fruitful if we all simply agreed to share and be satisfied that our share was sufficient? If only. If only.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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4 Responses to The Majesty of the Commons: If Only

  1. Interesting, Pa. I will add that to my list of “must read” material!

  2. No, Meg. I intended to say “…withOUT unvarnished greed.” Thank you. I have corrected it.

  3. Meg Koziar says:

    John, Re read the first sentence of your last paragraph. Is that what you intended to say?

  4. Pat Newcomb says:

    John – I am reading Humankind – by Rutger Bregman of The Netherlands – nothing terribly new, but some of his questions augment those you raise here. What’s more fun is that he comes at it with a an early 21st century European spin, rather than an American one. A nice counterpoint to Yuval Harari’s Sapiens.

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