Putting the life back in science fiction

Tragedy of the…um, what?

This is a short post inspired by a comment train on Charles Stross’ Antipope.

The question at the time was whether Nobel prizes are sexist, with more women than men getting the award. My anecdote was about the late Dr. Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Economics prize for her work showing that Commons could indeed work. I discussed this a couple of years ago in a post about whether to markets could be managed as commons, which was a topic I was playing with at the time.

The previous posts lists eight principles that Dr. Ostrom found worked to allow members of a commons to successfully manage that commons. This goes against the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons (Wikipedia article link). I hear this most often referred to today by people who refer to the idea as a reason why commons should be privatized and market forces should be used to manage them, because otherwise they’re doomed. This isn’t quite what Hardin meant, and later on, he noted that he should have called it “The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons.”

Getting at the question of whether the economics Nobels are sexist, I’d point to three lines of evidence:
1. To date, Dr. Ostrom is the only woman who has received an economics Nobel.
2. As I recall from the references, she caught a lot of flack when she received the award. She was derided as a sociologist, not a real economist, and some said that there were other men who were more deserving who were overlooked that year.
3. More to the point, men in particular still refer to the tragedy of the commons as if it’s a real thing. When confronted with Ostrom’s work, they insist that they mean something that’s real, which is a common defense against any such attack.

Here’s the thing: everyone agrees that unregulated commons can be looted. But this statement is also true for any unregulated market (think illegal drugs, human trafficking, poaching…), and it’s true for unregulated capitalism (think illegal drugs, human trafficking, poaching…). If we’re going to use the term “Tragedy of the Commons” as if it’s real, I’d argue that it’s only fair to talk about “The Tragedy of Capitalism” and “The Tragedy of Markets” as the reason why we should manage as many common resources as commons, rather than having them under private, inequitable control that runs them into the ground for the profit of the few. It’s just as true.

However, I don’t expect anyone to be fair, so the better option is to realize that the Tragedy of the Commons is a term that needs to be retired. The reason for retiring it is that self-regulated commons can work very well. Properly designed and regulated commons are a perfectly reasonable management system for everything from community forests to large scale groundwater basins, and eliminating the “TotC” phrase from our vocabulary frees us up to explore these management options where they’re appropriate. Given how important things like groundwater management are for keeping civilization running, I’d suggest that every good management system should be an acceptable option for managing them, and that includes commons.


8 Comments so far
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Without having read Ostrom’s paper, it wouldn’t surprise me if the objection was that it wasn’t “mathy” enough. Krugman has also noted that economists are doing math that is more for show than explanatory. I’ve observed some very shaky economic work that wouldn’t pass muster in a science paper.

Regarding the issue of the TotC I think you have a good point in that we should retire the meme. It has become almost synonymous with the need to privatize public goods and services to prevent unregulated common usage. This meme is well past it sell by date, and like other slogan-like memes, just shuts down discourse and analysis.

Regarding sexism in Nobel prizes, it is rampant in some disciplines, economics being one example. Engineering, physics and even math are others. The misogyny in Silicon valley is well documented these days, especially by coders. I don’t expect it to change much, even with the increasing number of young women getting degrees, which in a generation will result in women being the most educated, although possibly still not the best paid. Inequality still rules with regards to pay and promotions, and the glass ceiling is still evident despite the successes of a few women.

Comment by alexandertolley

(sarcasm on) You’d retire the meme, and force them to think of a new flaccid excuse for looting the public?

Comment by Tim H.

I learned some years ago that the Tragedy of the Commons did not actually befall the historical commons of medieval England, but I keep using the Tragedy of the Commons term to talk about individual motivations leading to collective failures via over-exploitation of fisheries, CO2 sinks, groundwater, etc. because that’s the name that I originally learned. And it’s the name that other people know. If I start saying the Tragedy of the Cod, will people catch on?

Comment by Matt

You could talk about a Wild West or Goldrush attitude towards a particular resource. That insults those institutions, but it does convey the sense of unregulated exploitation that’s the problem we’re all concerned about.

Comment by Heteromeles

Wild West or Gold Rush is an apt description, but those labels unfortunately have romantic connotations for large swaths of the population that compromise their use as pithy labels for temporal myopia and ruin. Well, it was never going to be easy.

Comment by Matt

Memes usually don’t get retired just because one side in a controversy wants them to. They get retired when one side has definitively lost. Like, the US public will not accept nazi or fascist memes, because they lost. We do not accept communist memes because they lost too. But if libertarians use Tragedy of the Commons to argue against any collective action, we can’t stop them from doing that until after they have lost all credibility.

What you might be able to do, is spread a new meme with a new name that includes the old one and supercedes it.

Disorganized people can’t manage a commons because they are disorganized. Give the commons to one man to defend, and he must spend his efforts defending it from people who want to steal from it. The bigger the former commons, the more employees with guns he needs to defend his borders and area. If a government defends it for him, maybe the same government could defend it for a commons….

Get a clear idea and a catchy name, and then we can look at ways to spread it across Imgur and whatever.

If you can spread the meme with a series of funny jokes, the oversimplified former meme may tend to lose out.

Incidentally, wasn’t the claim that too many men get Nobel prizes, not too many women?

Comment by J Thomas

“Tragedy of the Unprotected Commons,” perhaps? “Unregulated?” A wholly new term with fewer words to sell the notion would be better for [i]catchiness[/i] like, say, “Goldrush Collapse,” but that’s weak for achieving the ideological/political goals. I accept the necessity of discrediting, “Tragedy of the Commons,” and breaking the false dichotomy between private regulation and none that it presents, so we have to try harder.

Comment by anonymous coward

Tragedy of Deregulation?

Comment by J Thomas

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