Thursday, April 26, 2012

Systems: Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons
One for all - that way is best.
Take what I need and leave the rest.
The commons had what we could take.
They overlooked a key mistake.

I did not need the golden ring,
or any other golden thing.
But they enhanced my mental health,
and raised my group's entire wealth.

Now they say there's not enough.
Some took too much of all that stuff.
The commons theory, well, it's done.
Not one for all, but all for one!

Tragedy of the Commons is recognized as far back as the writings of Thucydides and Aristotle (really! - see the Wikipedia). Basically the problem is that individuals take care of their own property and view their own interests ahead of property that is held in common or shared interest.
Go all the way back to early village agricultural days and see how the example works. Some of the villagers have cows. Since everyone in the town benefits directly or indirectly from the cows (they get the milk or buy the milk, for example, not to mention the fertilizer!) the town sets aside a small field for the farmers to put their cows in. Now, at first, all is good. Farmer A and Farmer B each have a single cow and the field is pretty large, so there's plenty of grazing available. Everyone is pretty content. The field takes little or no maintenance, I have to point out.
Then each farmer gets a calf, so now each has two cows on the common field. There is still no problem, since the field can support the four pretty well, although Farmer B brings a bale of hay once in a while and tosses it in the field. Since he only brings the occasional bale, he doesn't care about the cost or if Farmer A's cows eat the hay too.
Farmer A, however, is a clever and industrious fellow. He sees opportunity and buys two more cows and puts them in the field. Pretty soon the field is overgrazed and the cows of Farmer A are eating most of the bales that Farmer B drops off. On top of that, Farmer A is making twice as much money from the milk and produce as Farmer B.
You can see how this works. You might think this could become an Escalation Archetype (and it might, if it comes to blows between the Farmers) but there is an inherent limit to what the field can produce and how many cows it can support. A common resource becomes pillaged by individuals who are maximizing their own gain, regardless of the common good.
In fact, this is the basis for why true socialism fails ("From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need."). It is a fine theory, but in practice takes something that most of us lack - a true sense of altruism. I've always addressed socialism this way: in theory it is a perfect system, but in practice it takes perfect people. It just can't happen here.
The Causal Loop Diagram
From Wikipedia, of course
If you thought Escalation looked bad, this should make you bury your head in your pillow. In this diagram both Farmer A and Farmer B figure out they should add cows to the field. Neither wants to add support to the grazing, so the natural resource limit (grazing capacity) eventually ruins the Commons for both of them, and pretty rapidly.
That was the classic example, but there are examples more appropriate for our current world (unless you have some cows grazing on public land, I suppose). Here's one that might hit closer to home for some people.
Friends of mine had a favorite fishing spot in one of the local lakes. For years they've been going there, successfully pulling in a nice quota of fish and enjoying themselves. The trick is that they didn't tell anybody where the spot was.
But somebody else did.
As soon as word got around, boats regularly anchored and fishermen from everywhere began to fish the spot. Before too long the spot was fished out.
This happens in the oceans too, doesn't it? Or the coal mines? Or the oil wells? Except that in coal mines and oil wells there is no system of natural replenishment. There is a fixed resource limit.
The behavior over time is not too complicated for this archetype either.
The benefit of the Commons increases for each group until, ultimately, the benefit disappears for everyone.
We actually see something similar in the world of MMORPG gaming, like World of Warcraft™ (now FREE to play up to level 20! - I had to do that). The main difference is that the "Commons" is owned and operated by an individual company.
I think back to the earlier days playing WoW, though, and remember when we used to try to logon and play and there would be a wait time to get onto the server! WoW had a certain number of servers available to the players and the popularity of the game took off faster than they could meet demand. I played. I got my friends and family to play. Eventually the servers were so busy that none of us could play!
There was a technical fix for that problem. Blizzard™ spent some money and provided more and faster servers to meet demand. Essentially, they expanded the Commons so the resource limitation was avoided.
We do see this problem somewhere else in the United States, though. Workers for decades contribute money to Social Security. As workers retire they get to draw from this common pool of money so they are not destitute in their old age. The problem is that the common pool is now "overgrazed" and cannot support the people drawing from it.
So now a real tragedy looms, and the government is afraid to deal with it directly. That will take us to another system archetype, though.

1 comment:

  1. Do you remember how I said I didn't think this one applied as much to real life?

    Campus cafeteria.

    I take it all back! Let loose a few chicken nuggets in a campus cafeteria and suddenly the whole thing is tragedy of the commons. Everyone thinks that they can take ONE EXTRA chicken nugget, and then ONE EXTRA more than the guy before (so it's also escalation). And no one thinks to utilize another commons, such as waffles or pizza, to give chicken nuggets a rest. And then everyone is at the front of the line and the chicken is gone.

    Is this a good example? :)