In 1968, an ecologist from Texas, Garrett Hardin, published what is considered the classic paper on the dilemma of individual gain versus community gain.
Published in the journal Science, Hardin’s paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” describes a scenario in which individuals acting alone in their own self-interest ultimately destroy a shared resource.
The characters in his scenario are cattlemen. They share a free and open common parcel of land on which they are all entitled to let their cows graze. Because they are “rational beings,” Hardin posits, each herdsman will add animals to his herd to increase his personal wealth, even though he knows this will cause overgrazing, soil depletion and the destruction of the common pasture. Each herdsman reasons that he alone will benefit from the sale of additional animals, whereas the damage to the commons will be shared by all the herdsmen.
Therein lies Hardin’s “tragedy” of the commons: where there is a free, open, shared resource, individuals inevitably will act alone — “appropriately” — in their own self-interest, causing the destruction of that resource. That can explain how we arrived at the subprime mortgage crisis that triggered Wall Street’s nosedive and the worst economic recession in the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the pain spreading worldwide to developed and developing economies alike.
What Hardin does not consider is the capacity of the same rational individuals to act in a way that thwarts tragedy. History is no stranger to self-regulation, where individuals facing a dangerous situation create institutions and rules to preserve resources and ensure that the “commons” community survives through good times and bad.
Today’s outcry for a change of behavior in the wake of the crisis gripping the world runs counter to Hardin’s theory of inevitable tragedy. It is precisely this quest for behavioral change that caused U.S. voters on Nov. 4 to choose a consummate community organizer as President, to the relief of much of the rest of the world. “The current crisis provides clear evidence of the close interlinkage between the nations and economic regions of our globalized world. We must therefore involve all stakeholders in the search for new solutions and create the conditions for implementing them,” says Werner Wenning, chairman of the Board of Management, of pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, and co-chair of this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.
Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1, under the theme “Shaping the Post-Crisis World,” the WEF made much of preserving the “commons.” “These are unprecedented times and our global community has never been more interdependent. The need for effective collaboration, coordination, cooperation and communication has never been greater. It is the power of collaboration and learning that enables constructive solutions to be debated and developed for the benefit of communities everywhere,” says Jim Quigley, global chief executive officer of accounting consultants Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.
Here at home, the new administration urges a community-based effort to thwart the social and economic catastrophe toward which we seemed headed, saying “It will take ordinary citizens working together with a common purpose to get this country back on track.” For those who see this as a descent into the dreaded socialism, substitute the capitalism-friendly term “stakeholder” for “community.” They mean the same thing, but who wants to nitpick. In the final analysis, it’s whether you accept the personal responsibility to avoid tragedy.