The tragedy of the obvious idea reinvented, repurposed, remarketed

Portrait from Toru, early 16th century

I often wondered why The Tragedy of the Commons was such a recent article. After all, it’s not as if the idea is especially difficult or new.  Sometimes an obvious idea does the rounds and gets put in in asides and so on but someone has the chutzpah to write it up as their own idea.  And away they go, repackaged in a quotable meme form (Tragedy of the Commons, Hardin, 1968) – a much cited article is born. 

(I feel similarly about “The market for Lemons” although I admire its author much more. The market for lemons goes back at least to none other than Nicolaus Copernicus who anticipated Sir Thomas Gresham’s law by around 70 years. “Bad money drives out good”.)

Anyway, apropos of the Tragedy I was amused to see this write up of a particularly ferocious (and in some ways unreasonable) attack on it in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Ian Angus provocatively re-considers The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Since its publication in Science in December 1968, The Tragedy of the Commons [by Garrett Hardin] has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. . . . For 40 years it has been, in the words of aWorld Bank Discussion Paper, the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues. . . Its shocking to realize that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that the tragedy was inevitablebut he didnt
show that it had happened even once. Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self-regulation by the communities involved. . . . The success of Hardins argument reflects its usefulness as a pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an explanation that doesnt question the dominant social and political order. It confirms the prejudices of those in power: logical and factual errors are nothing compared to the very attractive (to the rich) claim that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. The fact that Hardins argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus. The website of Monthly Review, August 25, 2008, at http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/angus250808.html

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Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

Aristophanes anticipated Copernicus (and Gresham) by about two millenia. From the first parabasis of his comedy, The Frogs:

Often has it crossed my fancy, that the city loves to deal
With the very best and noblest members of her commonweal,
Just as with our ancient coinage, and the newly-minted gold.
Yea for these, our sterling pieces, all of pure Athenian mould,
All of perfect die and metal, all the fairest of the fair,
All of workmanship unequalled, proved and valued every-where

Both amongst our own Hellenes and Barbarians far away,
These we use not: but the worthless pinchbeck coins of yesterday,
Vilest die and basest metal, now we always use instead.

More generally, what you’re referring to is the shock of the obvious, as previously noted by many people, but (probably) first written down by the Roman playwright P. Terentius Afer in The Eunuch:

Nullum est iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius.

“Nothing is said that has not been said before.”

Funnily enough, I noted this elsewhere just recently. D

derrida derider
derrida derider
12 years ago

Of course P. Terentius Afer was anticipated by some centuries by the writer of Ecclesiastes (Ch1, verse 10) :-)

Fyodor
Fyodor
12 years ago

Of course P. Terentius Afer was anticipated by some centuries by the writer of Ecclesiastes (Ch1, verse 10)

Ha! More proof of the point! For mine, however, Ecclesiastes 1 is more about the fleeting nature of human consciousness when compared to the permanence of the world (e.g. 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun”); it doesn’t discuss the apparently perpetual regeneration of ideas or “insight”. Also, I gather there’s some uncertainty about when Ecclesiastes was actually written.

But has Aristophanes said any more than that the domestic use of Athenian currency has gone to he pot. I cant see Greshams law – which I presume is the cause of the phenomenon of which he speaks – being articulated.

Aristophanes is referring to the hoarding of “good” money and the circulation of “bad”, i.e. debased, money in its stead. That is, bad money drives out the good:

These we use not: but the worthless pinchbeck coins of yesterday,
Vilest die and basest metal, now we always use instead.

The clarity of the meaning suffers a little from Morshead’s more lyrical translation. A more literal version might make it clearer for you:

Many times it seems to us the city has done
the same thing with the best and the brightest of its citizens
as with the old coinage and the new gold currency.
For these, not counterfeit at all,
but the finest it seems of all coins,
and the only ones of the proper stamp, of resounding metal
amongst Greeks and foreigners everywhere,
we never use, but the inferior bronze ones instead,
minted just yesterday or the day before with the basest stamp.

NPOV
NPOV
12 years ago

Hardin himself might not have provided much in the way of solid examples, but surely the classic example is the way so many of the world’s best open-sea commercial fishing spots have gradually been over-exploited to the point that about one third of all fishing stocks have collapsed, a fraction that is still increasing.
That and of course just about every case of atmospheric pollution that has every occurred (including CO2 pollution).

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
12 years ago

Ian Anguss Monthly Review article makes much sense. This in particular:

Hardin assumed that human nature is selfish and unchanging and that society is just an assemblage of self-interested individuals who don’t care about the impact of their actions on the community. The same idea, explicitly or implicitly, is a fundamental component of mainstream (i.e., pro-capitalist) economic theory.

I am sceptical that there is nothing new under the sun but, on the evidence above, the jadedness or cynicism of saying so is not new, and the (over)enthusiasm for the free market of recent decades was also not new.

So if Hardins message is an old one, in 1968 he struck a nerve at the cusp of the rise of Hayek and Friedman.

What I have to ponder a bit more is that he pulled off the significant feat of simultaneously appealing to the left.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

That and of course just about every case of atmospheric pollution that has every occurred (including CO2 pollution).

Interesting to note that the worst cases of atmospheric pollution happened under Communism in both the Soviet Union and China in a situation where (at least in theory) the central authority was in a position to avoid the “tragedy of the commons”. What happens under Communism is that the central authority merely ignores the resident’s dislike of heavy haze hanging over their town and declares pollution to be a non-issue. Any sufficiently powerful central government will regularly find it easier to just shut down discussion on sensitive subjects rather than take positive steps to solve problems.

After these nations made moves towards Capitalism, they have also made a big effort to clean up the coal smoke and chemical haze around their cities.

I would argue that public health issues such as immunization, education or disease containment is another tragedy of the commons. Once again the central authority of Communism should (in theory) be in an excellent position to manage these issues but what we see in practice is drug-resistant TB rife in Russian prisons (and steadily moving into the wider population) and Chinese authorities deciding that denial is a good strategy for dealing with AIDS and bird-flu. Capitalist nations handle these issues better, not because self-interested individuals automatically contribute to the public good, but because generally those nations allow the freedom for individuals to collect information, do honest research and openly discuss social problems. Many individuals have voluntarily donated towards AIDS research and other similar charities, partly out of self-interest and partly in the hope of contributing to the common good and overall the system has worked pretty well.