Individual Responsibility and the Tragedy of the Commons

I’ve been thinking about the Tragedy of the Commons recently, and with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (oh, what a snarky name that is!), I think the concept is particularly relevant.

From Wikipedia:

The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

The Tragedy of the Commons can be seen wherever there is a shared resource of some kind, or at the very least not a clear owner to a resource. The ocean is a great example. Fisherman working in their self-interest go out and catch as many fish as they can, in order to make as much money as possible. Provided the population of fishermen in an area is sufficiently small, they can continue like this for an indefinite amount of time. However, as the world population has grown, the demand for fish has grown as well, while the ocean supply of fish hasn’t. Fishermen have to go further and further from shore to make their catches these days, and some fish stocks are outright depleted.

Its obvious that the reason is simply too many fishermen, catching too many fish, reducing the supply and further exacerbating the problem. For the supply of fish to increase, they would need to catch less fish. But what fisherman will agree to that? That will decimate his way of life; his livelihood.

The problem stems from the fact that each fisherman receives a direct benefit from the shared resource (the ocean), but the cost of maintaining the resource is dispersed equally among everyone who shares the resource. Therefore, from the fisherman’s perspective, its still more advantageous to keep catching fish and bringing them to market than to catch less fish in order to help save the resource.

The underlying problem is a lack of clear property rights. The ocean belongs to everybody, which in some sense means it belongs to nobody. Each fisherman is a tiny cog in the wheel of fish stock depletion, and its only through sheer volume that any of their actions make any difference at all. Indeed, one fisherman dropping out of the trade in order to save the fish supply wouldn’t make a difference at all. What this amounts to is nobody maintaining the resource because they don’t really own it. The fisherman doesn’t own the fish in the ocean; he only owns the ones that he can get into his boat.

Contrast this with, say, a cattle farmer. The cattle farmer owns the cattle to begin with, and its his responsibility to make sure they’re fed, housed, etc. No one is concerned about cattle going extinct. The property rights when it comes to cattle is clear; the farmer raises them on his land, and the cattle are his property and responsibility.

Why am I talking about fish supplies and cattle? Well, what if the Tragedy of the Commons applies in other areas as well? What about something completely different, like caring for the poor? As a Christian, I believe strongly that the poor should be aided. The question, to me, is how is that end best achieved? Is it through massive taxpayer funded bureaucracies, or is is through private organizations and individuals?

If caring for the poor is everyone’s responsibility, in the collective sense, then what does this mean? Is it possible that everyone becomes apathetic to the idea, because the burden is shared by everybody? Is it easier to ignore the need when in the back of our mind we know that the government will pick up the tab?

A Christian’s faith is an individual one. We are a part of the church, of course, and we’re called to fellowship with other believers. However, on the day of judgement, we stand alone. Our salvation, as best I understand it, is on an individual basis.

If that’s the case, then what of caring for the poor (or any other number of things that we’re called to)? I believe that the call to aid the poor is ultimately an individual one. We don’t “score points” simply because we were part of a group that provided aid, if we ourselves weren’t individually sharing that burden. The responsibility should be felt individually because each and every Christian is responsible for caring for the poor.

I think this is rather different from how many people approach things. Certainly I am not saying that we are not to work in groups in order to try to aid the needy. However, I am asking: Do you feel the burden on an individual level? Do you feel that it is your individual responsibility, and not just a problem that someone else will deal with?

I’m not here to tell you  what you’re going to have to do differently. Maybe nothing. Maybe you’re already a missionary and you feed hundreds of hungry people a day (that’s great!). Or, perhaps you’re more like me; selfish, not terribly generous, lazy, apathetic.

However, I feel the weight of that responsibility. Do you?


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4 responses to “Individual Responsibility and the Tragedy of the Commons”

  1. necessaryandpropergovt says :

    EC, I don’t remember if I’ve told you about a Christian blogger in Boise who has recently (starting with her September 9th post) been focusing on discussion of how to approach solving this need for private alternatives to government welfare. She’s a breath of fresh air:
    – Jeff

  2. Andy says :

    EC, this is a great post. I agree, the tragedy of the commons has been overplayed by statists for a long time. There is a great book you may have read by Marvin Olasky titled The Tragedy of American Compassion about the history of the church’s giving before and after the welfare state. It is a damning indictment of the church with regard to caring for the poor.

    P.S. Why is this tagged “Bacon”? Genius.

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