Generally, I avoid to discuss old blog themes again. However, this can happen because I had forgotten that I had discussed the subject before or because I have a reason to do so. Therefore, last week I wrote again about the trolley problem, since it is relevant for the coronavirus crisis, and now I’ll discuss another old problem for the same reason: The Tragedy of the Commons, a theme that I treated in my blog dated 29 October 2018. Why is it relevant?
I’ll start with an observation. As yet, there is no medicine or vaccine against the coronavirus, so it’s effect can only be limited by following certain rules of conduct. The most important rules people have to follow are keeping distance from each other and avoiding groups and big masses of people. The authorities explicitly ask to follow these rules. The coronavirus is dangerous but not extremely dangerous like the ebolavirus, or as the plague was in the past; I mean in the sense that complete populations can be decimated. In the end most people will survive. The victims will be mainly older, already weak people. However, many people do not realize that this is a statistical connection. It is quite well possible (and it really happens) that young healthy people die as well. Moreover, the coronavirus disease is a nasty illness, by far more serious than a flu. You can better try not to get it. Nevertheless, many people think: It’s not that bad and I am not in the age group of the victims, and they ignore the rules, through carelessness or even wilfully. Especially younger people do.
What does this have to do with the Tragedy of the Commons? In order to make this clear, let me first repeat, what it is about (see also my blog just mentioned).
The Tragedy of the Commons, first presented by Garrett Hardin in 1968, runs as follows: In many parts of the world, it happens that herdsmen pasture their herds on the common grounds of the community. If every herdsman increases his herd, sooner or later the commons will reach the maximum capacity for grazing. However, “as a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, ‘What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?’ ... The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another….” (Hardin, p. 169). Now it is so that the effect of adding one animal on the quality of the pasture lands will be so small, that nobody will notice it. Moreover, the costs of the damage of each animal added is shared by all herdsmen, while the gains go to the owner of the added animal. Usually these gains are higher than the additional costs (for the owner!). Therefore, it is rational for each herdsman to add livestock to his herd beyond the capacity that the commons can bear. This will go on till the system crashes and each herdsman earns less than he got before the commons had reached their maximum capacity.
Let’s suppose now that you are a young man of 25 years old. You like to go out, to hang out with your friends in the park, and to do there what you like. If you stay at home, you become bored and maybe even depressive. So you think: I must go out and meet friends. And so you do. Or, another case, it’s a nice sunny day, a bit cold yet, but it makes that you want to go to the beach for a stroll. Staying at home on that beautiful day will make you unhappy. I think you can add lots of such examples: Going outdoors is personally (individually) better for you than staying at home. Going out has a positive utility for you, as philosophers call it. However, once you are there where you wanted to go, you see that so many people got the same idea and that the rules to get the coronavirus under control cannot be kept. You think: “Should I go home? No, I’ll stay here. My contribution to the spread of the coronavirus is so little that its impact cannot be measured. Moreover, the chance that I’ll become ill can be neglected. If I go home, I’ll miss my fun. The best for me is to stay here.” And that’s what we saw last weekend a week ago: Many people went out and broke the rules of conduct against the coronavirus. We saw it here in the Netherlands, in Germany, in Belgium, in Australia, and so on. I will call this I-don’t-give-a-damn behaviour, or “No-Damn”, for short.
Back to the Tragedy of the Commons (or “Tragedy” for short). I think that you see the analogy between the Tragedy and No-Damn. Both in Tragedy and in No-Damn it is advantageous for individuals to ignore what is useful for all. For just as in Tragedy the commons are damaged by individually advantageous behaviour, in No-Damn the coronavirus will be increasingly spread by individually profitable actions, with the consequence of more ill and dead people: Individual rationality leads to collective irrationality. That’s what we see when too many people ignore the rules to get the coronavirus under control.
However, both in Tragedy and in No-Damn I have supposed that individuals are isolated entities that don’t communicate with each other and take their decisions independently. Of course, the practice is different, and this brings me to three ways to prevent No-Damn (partly following Maclean p. 227):
- Privatizing the problem. In the case of Tragedy this means subdividing the commons, so that each herdsman has to pay the costs of overgrazing. However, I don’t see how this solution can be applied to the No-Damn case.
- Social pressure in order to change the behaviour of those who ignore the rules to restrict the coronavirus and to make that they (or most of them) behave like responsible citizens. That was the reaction of the Dutch media a week ago when too many people broke the rules.
- Leviathan, as Maclean calls it: The state takes absolute power to set rules and to enforce them. That’s what we see in China, Italy and Spain etc. If that happens, the no-damners are worse off than they thought, when they didn’t give a damn about the rules.
- Bovens, Luc, “The Tragedy of the Commons as a Voting Game”, in The Prisoner’s Dilemma (see below); pp. 156-176.
- Hardin, Garrett, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) in Ekistics, Vol. 27, No. 160, ECOSYSTEMS: man and nature (MARCH 1969), pp. 168-170.- Maclean, Douglas, “Prisoner’s Dilemmas, intergenerational asymmetry, and climate chance ethics”, in Martin Peterson (ed.), The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015; pp. 219-242.