Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Tragedy of the Commons

The other day I saw a piece of crap panel van with the bumper sticker "Go Galt" on it. All I could think of was "Please, yes, stupid motherfucker, Go Galt, the quicker the better, go hide in your fucking hole in the mountains, so that we can be rid of your incompetent services, and someone better than you can do your job a lot better than you ever could, you fucking moron".

I honestly don't understand how these snaggletooth dipshits can consider themselves indispensable. I just wish they would find out soon, by running away, how fucking replaceable their studid fucking asses are.

Garrett Hardin wrote the Tragedy of the Commons in 1968. The essay is basically a Malthusian-tinged plea against the continued despoliation of the planet, the continued exploitation and extraction of every available resource for human need and greed until the world is scraped clean down to bedrock. Clearly, the essay has been ineffective.

Over time, the essay has since been mangled, manipulated, and mutilated to fit as supporting evidence for various political and economic agendas. The most egregious argument typically comes from  the free market capitalists, most stridently from the seriously fucked-in-the-head libertarian arm of the free market fundamentalist cult. They will present the argument as against communism. I find this distasteful. Not that I have any strong love for communism, I don't. I just find the idea of a fucking lie as distasteful. Which, of course is what the libertarian argument is - a fucking lie.

Ignoring the fact that the argument contained in the essay is against a libertarian way of life (rationally self-interested individuals seeking to maximize personal happiness through private wealth creation) is easy for libertarians to do - considering their ability to ignore every single shred of empirical evidence stacked up like a fucking Japanese tsunami against the shabby rickety seawall of their political philosophy. But then, living in denial is easy to do when you consider that the idea that being a selfish inconsiderate asshole is a virtuous and laudable thing.

But really, the argument is thus. Take a meadow open to all in a village for grazing sheep. Each shepherd wishes to graze the most sheep, so he can grow the most mutton and wool, and thus maximize his profits. this is a rational thing to do. But, all the shepherds acting as rationally self-interested individuals, grazing as many sheep as possible, quickly destroy the meadow. Too many sheep eat all the grass. A rational individual course of action has yielded an irrational destruction of property for all.

The libertarians argue that, had the meadow been parceled into plots of private property, the tragedy would never have occurred. (Ignore the fact that there is no reason for a shepherd to despoil his own private property in pursuit of maximum profit - as happens so frequently in real life). They ignore the fact that, out in the real world, where these types of things occur all the time, individuals will band into communities, work out a common solution,  regulate themselves and others with a social contract or agreement, and so the tragedy does not occur. (They choose to ignore this because there is just too much of the C-word going on here - common, commune, community).

The other aspect that is ignored is that, even though this is an open resource, the ownership that causes the tragedy is not one of common "property" (the grass), but of private property (the sheep). Again, there are plenty of examples where, through the unrestricted operation of individual action, a common resource becomes depleted - oil fields, fishing grounds, aquifers. In other words, without some type fo communal ownership, the private actions, unfettered and unrestricted, result in tragedy.

Take, for example, Sainik Farms, an "unrecognized" neighborhood within the city limits of Delhi, in India. This once illegal settlement, now surrounded by metropolitan Delhi, must make do without city services. The residents themselves must provide their own electricity, garbage collection, lighting, water supply, etc.

At one time, each individual homeowner drew their water from private wells. But over time, with so many wells drawing water, the aquifer had drawn  down. Each  home owner, competing with all others, was forced to drill deeper and deeper wells, until finally, no water could be drawn at all from any well.

(A similar thing happened in Texas at the beginning of the last century in the oil fields. A forest of oil derricks sent the pressure of the oil field down to zero, and no oil could be extracted).

This is an exactly equivalent situation with Hardin's. "And you see?", say the dumb-as-shit libertarians, "this is why communism won't work. The shared resource cannot be managed well. Had the water been owned by each individual, and parceled up privately, there would have been no problems!"

But the water ownership was not the issue, just as grass ownership is not the issue in Hardin's argument. The well ownership is the issue. Those were privately held, privately owned, on private property. Each well - unmetered, unbilled, unmonitored, taking as much water as it can, without regard to the needs of any other property owner or the health of the aquifer - is a monument to unfettered capitalism. It's winner take all, every man for himself, I am the biggest selfish asshole and Fuck You if you don't like it, raw, free, unfettered, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness capitalism. And that's what you get from that. The destruction of an aquifer.

Fortunately, the residents of Sainik Farms were not libertarians, were not selfish assholes. They realized that the solution to the problem was something that all of them together had to work out.

The solution was twofold. First, operating with a group called FORCE (Forum for Organized Resource Conservation and Enhancement) they set about replenishing the aquifer through rainwater harvesting. The overabundance of the heavy monsoon rains, which caused a great deal of flooding, was collected, filtered, and pumped down the dry bore wells to restock the aquifer. Talk about a win/win!

Second, the residents gave up most of their private wells, and have moved to a system of twenty community wells, with distribution pipes and monthly fees. By abandoning the policy of selfishness, by changing the attitude from one of being a selfish asshole individual with entitlements, to a member of a community with obligations and responsibilities to other members, the residents of Sainik Farms now have water. Better water. Cleaner water. Water all the time, for everyone.

This is a lesson your average infantile libertarian (nee Republican) just isn't going to get, and perhaps we should just slag them off and let them go fend for themselves, as they threaten to do with bumper stickers.

I give 'em a month. Then it's all rampant homosexuality and cannibalism.


  1. I've never quite understood how John Nash's paranoid schizophrenic game theory came to be enshrined as the quintessence of libertarian economic theology.

    Was the contrived threat of "communism" really and truly ever so great as to warrant this deep ideological fuster cluck of a response?

    Truly an instance of magical thinking for the record books...,

  2. You've also got to ask why the University of Chicago is still trying to push teh myth of the rational efficient market... that turd won't hunt.

    The Nash equilibrium, -bria, -bra, is optimal only in non-cooperative games. So as long as you are saying "Fuck You" to everyone else, it's the optimal lose-lose reponse. However, if you go and do something irrational like trust other people, oh, now you've done it. A fucking golden age where they can't jack their splooge on your leg anymore? Uh-uh. Huh. Uh.

  3. 'every man for himself' reminds me reminds me os a cartoon I saw guy armed to the teeth left on the planet with destruction all around him and he says 'I think I won!'

  4. Ellen, that was a Gahan Wilson cartoon. Not sure if he is still alive, but, yes, anyway, that scenario is pretty much where the sentiment leads us.

  5. Didn't Dr Seuss explain this in ' The Lorax'?