Saturday, August 29, 2009

On the Triumph of the Commons

I have always hated when, in basic economics classes, professors hasten to raise ecologist Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons", as the definitive argument against voluntary collective action on environmental issues. An article in the New Scientist, disputes Hardin's thesis and suggestions and instead poses that the effective management of the environment and survival the human species depends on our ability to reason and find common ground. Author Mark van Vugt writes, that over-exploitation of natural resources is not inevitable if we act collectively.
Today we understand human nature and motivation far better than we did in Hardin's day. In particular, we know that individuals do not always act selfishly but also have some regard for the interests of others and the natural environment. Games such as the prisoner's dilemma and the public goods game demonstrate that under certain conditions people do behave altruistically (New Scientist, 12 March 2005, p 33). Besides, countless success stories attest to the fact that communities can overcome the tragedy of the commons without a great deal of coercion.
Neo-classical economists love to conjure the "Tragedy", when they want to undermine any call for collective social or environment action. I doubt van Vugt's article will change many of their minds. Nevertheless, it sure is great ammunition for poking wholes in the basic assumptions in one of their favorite amoral theses.

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