In this essay, I will outline my understanding of the two related concepts of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and ‘collective action’. This essay will argue that these concepts are at the heart of politics and will seek to prove this through illustration. I will relate the concepts to a variety of political examples in order to demonstrate that they can help one to understand what politics is essentially about. In the conclusion, I will review how helpful these two related concepts are in understanding what politics is about. Tragedy of the Commons
The tragedy of the commons refers to a situation involving the exploitation of common resources by individual actors. The basic idea is that each individual acts in their own self-interest and exploits the resources even if this leads to a situation where everyone suffers due to exhaustion of the common property. Garrett Hardin originally explained the situation using the example of a common pasture which herdsmen used to graze their sheep. Each herdsman seeks to maximise their own utility, and faces the choice of whether to add an extra sheep to the common resource at the risk of overgrazing and depleting the pasture.
By adding an extra sheep each individual can reap the benefit of having an extra sheep while the cost of overgrazing is shared among all. In this way, the rational choice for each actor is to add an extra sheep as the cost is only a fraction of the benefit. This situation ends with sheep being added until the commons is depleted, resulting in the worst situation for all. This is the tragedy Hardin speaks of: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited… Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. Collective Action Collective Action refers to the collaboration of individuals in pursuit of a goal. This goal is usually the provision of a public good. This may be because it is not in any private actor’s interest to supply a good which benefits all, as may be the case with a railway service. It may be difficult for an individual to produce a good without collaboration, eg. The shipping industry. This is also an example of how sometimes the sheer amount of resources needed to provide a good mean collaboration is necessary.
Another important reason for collective action is that often it is in the interests of fairness. In the case of water supply, which is vital to the survival of all, it would be unfair if supply was restricted to those areas where it was most profitable or to those people who could pay the highest price. How the Tragedy of the Commons and Collective Action Relate to Politics These two concepts are central to politics. Politics can be seen as the process by which groups of people make decisions.
These decisions involve the allocation of scarce resources in order to best satisfy the infinite desires of humans. On a national level, this is the process by which governments rule states. Politics is inextricably linked with collective action, as it involves the collaboration of people in pursuit of common goals. Political systems exist because people can achieve a higher standard of living through the benefits of collective action and protection of the state. Health systems are an obvious example of a service individuals could not provide by themselves.
The complexities of treatment and expertise required come only with collective action. Goods and services for which collective action is advantageous often end up being supplied by the state. The state promotes the common good through the collaboration of all the individuals in it; this is the very definition of collective action given above. The Tragedy of the Commons is a crucial element of politics. It illustrates the inherent disadvantages that occur when people act individually without governance.
Politics provides the means by which a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons can be achieved. Many such solutions exist, each subjectively depending on whether the goal is equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, maximum freedom for the individual etc. The situation depicted in Hardin’s description of the Tragedy of the Commons naturally occurs in a variety of situations, including depleting fishing stocks, environmental damage and pollution. These problems can be overcome by means of a contract.
The social contract is the basis of all political states. Through this contract, the common good can be advanced. The pasture can be preserved by the intervention of the state to impose regulations on its usage or to provide disincentives to individuals. These rules are enforced by the state which has legitimate authority, accruing from the social contract. Examples of the Concepts Today Politics involves governing people and resources. Different political systems interfere in different ways to provide solutions to ‘tragedy of the commons’ situations.
Balancing the individual interest with the collective interest is an essential part of politics. Political systems often do this by transferring the externalities or costs to society to private costs through means which include taxes, as is the case with carbon emissions today. Alternative approaches include introducing quotas (as the EU did to maintain food prices in the Common Agricultural Policy) and privatising resources. We can see an abundance of examples in modern societies where politics provides solutions to the tragedy of the commons.
One such example can be seen in the Japanese fishing industry. Fishing stocks serve as the pasture in this scenario, with each fisherman having a private incentive to deplete the stocks by overfishing. One solution that has developed in Japanese coastal fishing communities is the ‘income-pooling system’ whereby fishermen pool all of their incomes together and divide them equally between them. By exiting the fishing race in favour of cooperation, they “can prevent fish prices from collapsing due to oversupply and avoid overinvestment in fishing gear.
They also gain long-term benefits like stock sustainability or income stability”. (Kaneko, 2009) This is a classic example of collective action, as the fishermen collaborate in pursuit of common goals. This solution evolved independently in small communities without outside regulation or coercion. Politics is not only about decisions made at national level, but also the interaction of smaller groups. In this case social pressures motivate individuals to stick to the agreement rather than the external coercion of governments.
Internationally, fishing territories are divided up to avoid competition between countries to exploit the common resources. An issue which has been getting a lot of attention of recent times is environmental degradation. Regarding pollution, as Hardin observed that “The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. ” The original pasture problem is resolved in most societies by privatisation of property, ensuring each landowner bears the full costs of exhausting the land.
Hardin explains why this approach cannot solve issues such as pollution: “the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means… ” The possible solutions suggested by Hardin included “coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated. ” In the December Budget 2009, the government introduced carbon taxes to discourage pollution. On a supranational level, the Kyoto Protocol uses quotas and fines to combat carbon emissions.
This collective action is an essential part of politics. Solutions are not easy however, as demonstrated by the USA’s refusal to sign Kyoto. This is akin to all the farmers but one agreeing not to overuse the pasture, and it undermines any solution attempts. The two concepts are at the heart of politics on a personal level also. This can be seen when two people are given a packet of sweets to share in a cinema. Both people have an incentive to eat more than half even if this means they are all eaten before the movie starts.
Through dividing the sweets up, which may be seen as privatisation, this tragedy can be avoided. Alternative Views of the Tragedy of the Commons and Collective Action Recent study by Elinor Ostrom, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, has argued that users themselves can both create and enforce rules that mitigate overexploitation, without the need for privatisation and regulation. One example she uses is the case of grasslands in Mongolia where nomadic traditions mean farmers move around avoiding overuse, while privatisation results in settled farming and exhaustion of the land.
Ostrom warns against using state power to enforce solutions from the outside as it often reduces accountability and cooperation on a local level. The Logic of Collective Action points out the problems with collective action. It argues that “unless the number of individuals in a group is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests” (Olsen, 1965). Olsen uses the example of a small group of airlines who pressure a government into bailing them out when in financial trouble.
To the large group of taxpayers, the cost of the bailout costs only a few euros per person, so it is not worth lobbying against it. This is a fundamental problem facing democracies, as large groups are often comparatively weaker. Conclusion The two concepts discussed in this article are crucial in understanding what politics is essentially about. The tragedy of the commons illustrates the recurring situations in nature where politics is necessary to promote common interests. We can see countless examples of this ‘tragedy’ today, and the contrasting efforts by political systems to resolve the classic problem.
Collective action is a concept married to the Tragedy of the Commons, and serves as the medium for all solutions. Politics is essentially about groups of people collaborating to take actions which benefit the common good. This view of politics can be seen directly in the two concepts discussed in this essay. References Hardin, G. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science Magazine. Kaneko, T; Yamakawa, T; and Aoki, I. 2009. Fisheries management using a pooling fishery system with a competitive sharing rule as a remedy for the “tragedy of the commons”.
The Japanese Society of Fisheries Science 2009. Swanson, T. (ed. ) 1997. Economics of Environmental Degradation: Tragedy for the Commons? Edward Elgar Publishing Company, Cheltanham. The Prize in Economic Sciences 2009: Information for the Public, available at: http://nobelprize. org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2009/info. pdf Fafchamps, M. 1998. The Tragedy of the Commons, Livestock Cycles and Sustainability. Journal of African Economies, Volume 7, No. 3, PP. 384-423. Olsen, M. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action. Harvard University Press.