Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Tragedy of the Commons

This blog has only been up for a couple of hours, and I already have a question from a reader:

What is the tragedy of the commons?

Well, there's a pretty decent Wikipedia entry, though the stuff about the "tragedy" not necessarily being a real tragedy is kind of silly. Of course it's a tragedy that something meant for common use tends to be degraded or even destroyed. That's the tragedy of the commons by the way: you have a commons, a public place or shared good for all to enjoy for "free," and if available to and used by enough people it goes to hell pretty quickly. Anyone who's had a roommate (or four) can probably relate. Two roommates have a shot at coordinating with each other to keep utility bills down, to keep the dishes and carpets clean, etc. But as you add roommates, this coordination becomes more difficult. It's not that the problem can't be addressed, it surely can. But it's costly in terms of time and effort. When I lived in a house with five other people, the owner of the house eventually solved the problem by paying someone to come and thoroughly clean the entire house once a week. Governments can do the same thing: hire people to tend to the commons, and collect taxes to pay for it. But there is another way, one that's considered evil and sinful by those who worship at the altar of the state: privatize the commons. All that really means is that people pay for what they get. In the case of the roommates it would mean everybody has his own apartment with metered utilities rather than a shared home with shared utility bills. In the case of public roads, one of my favorite examples, it means collecting tolls rather than allowing people to drive as much as they want for free, regardless of whether and how much they've paid for roads in taxes.

Now on a case-by-case basis we can ask whether the privatization solution would really work. My view is that more often than not privatization does work, especially if a particular commons seems to be over-used and chaotic. London had horrible commuter traffic before using tolls, and traffic certainly got better afterwards. But maybe in rural Kentucky, for example, tolls would just be a pain. Maybe for some groups of people, sharing a house works out well. But I am much happier living in my own apartment -- and I think most other people are, too.