The Tragedy of the Poorly Stewarded Commons

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A long-standing theoretical debate has surrounded what has come to be called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The question raised is the capacity of individuals to sacrifice personal advantage for the benefit of the larger community.

Simply summarized:

In economic science, the tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action.

The contextual history of the “Commons” relates to animal husbandry — farmers in ancient communities often shared “common” grazing areas for livestock, incentivizing individuals to increase their flock or herd size at the expense of the collective. Modern environmental theorists have broadened this “economic science”:

For many decades, capital flows have followed a simple rule defined by the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman: All that matters is shareholder returns. But the continuing viability of this maxim has been called into question by unprecedented wildfires, more frequent and severe flooding, increasingly visible social inequities, and other worrying problems. … There is now growing support for the idea that capital should be used for more than just financial returns, as demonstrated by the explosion of interest in ESG (environmental, social, and governance) standards for corporations.

Recent environmental initiatives demand “environmental action” by government which will supersede and thus erase individual liberties. Much of this is built on the theories of ecologist and biologist Garret Hardin, particularly his 1968 essay in the journal Science entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin had extremist positions:

Hardin speculated that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only through total privatisation or total government control. … He compared wealthy nations to lifeboats that couldn’t accept more passengers without sinking.

The Green New Deal, Global Warming Solutions Act, Environmental Justice Act, Transportation Climate Initiative, Net Metering, EV Car subsidies, Heating Fuel Taxes, and many other federal and state government efforts favor the solution of “total government control” over “total privatisation.” The model of human behavior metaphorically analyzed by the Tragedy of the Commons yields useful insights, but exposes many ancillary problems.

Total government control imagines a trustworthy government, yet the entire American Republic is structured on the belief that governments cannot be trusted. Climate Justice Warriors claim (falsely) that the entire governmental “system” is white supremacist, and seek to replace it with more government. It is axiomatic that government cannot effectively eliminate subconscious prejudices. Equally obvious, government cannot efficiently address all aspects of environmental deterioration: local problems require local solutions, not top-down totalitarianism.

The more realistic metaphor for today is that the bureaucratic behemoth that was created to manage the Commons — government by the People, for the People — is devouring the fields. Taxes and fees increase, always in the name of rescuing the poor. Vermont has passed laws mandating one half of all land be set aside for conservation by 2050; boasts some of the most expensive per-pupil school costs in the nation; consistently increases state employee salaries at faster rates than the median income of Vermonters; imposes regressive and inequitable tax and other policies. Recent initiatives sought to expand sales taxes to include groceries — bureaucracy always seeks new places to harvest wealth away from those who earn it.

It is not the peasants with sheep who are nibbling down societal resources to naught — it is the runaway government. The fox is rapaciously feeding in the government henhouse, both locally and nationally. And the Achilles Heel of the economy is monetary supply. The federal government has monetized debt — printed money — during the Biden administration, and distributed it frivolously: now the chickens come home to roost in resulting stagflation.

The temptation to print money is obvious — it can be doled out liberally to favored recipients such as, say, arts and museums or liberal charities and state bureaucracies; or perhaps in checks to citizens to squander for short-term consumption and long-term pain. Then the blame for resulting inflation can be vaguely allocated to COVID, or Ukraine, or Russia, or used cars, or Donald Trump — or whatever President Biden has shifted focus to lately.

Thomas Friedman devoted a book (Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History) to this subject of money supply abuse in which he warned:

Perhaps the single most important and most thoroughly documented yet obstinately rejected proposition is that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” That proposition has been known by some scholars and men of affairs for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Yet it has not prevented governmental authorities from yielding to the temptation to mulct their subjects by debasing their money – taxation without representation – while vigorously denying they are doing anything of the kind and attributing the resulting inflation to all sorts of other devils incarnate. … Rapid increases in the quantity of money produce inflation. (pp. 262, 263).

Government seeks to expand its power over not just economic but social and environmental matters, when it has visibly failed to manage merely fiscal matters. How can it account for carbon dioxide when it can’t account for money? The tragedy of the modern monetary commons is that it is being destroyed more rapidly by the poor stewardship of big government than could possibly be achieved on the local level.

That devil will become increasingly carnate, impacting the poor most severely.

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