Friday, October 4, 2013

THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS

In economics, the tragedy of the commons is the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group's long-term best interests. Economists give such examples as the overuse of common grazing land, overfishing on the high seas, and burning fossil fuels. According to tragedy of the commons theory, in each case, the individual's own self-interest is to use as much of the common resource as possible no matter what happens. If everyone else decides to be good citizens and conserve the common resource, then the rogue individual reaps great profits by overusing the resource. If the individual conserves and everybody else overuses the resource, then the individual perishes. Of course if nobody conserves the resource, eventually everyone perishes.

We have a similar situation right now in Washington. Each individual politician's own self interest is to toe a hard line and not yield an inch on the budget crisis. Let's assume a hypothetical senator named Phil E. Buster. Senator Buster thinks that he is going to curry favor with the voters back home by obstinately insisting on his position. If the other side caves in, then he is a big winner. He looks like a tough politician, the voters back home worship him, and he has gotten his way. If the other side does not cave in, then the country goes to Hell and he still gets re-elected by his adoring constituency. The same rationale works for Congressman D. Magog and President V. Toe. The result is legislative and executive gridlock and everyone loses.

Once upon a time when the world was young there was another republic which fell prey to the sort of gridlock we are seeing in Washington. Warring political factions in the Roman Republic kept the government on the brink of disaster by working the political mechanism so as to produce total gridlock. The Roman historian Livy tells us of factional infighting, governmental paralysis, and petty bickering which seemingly could only be resolved when an enemy army was at the gates of the city. When I recently read the first ten books of his Roman history, I was amazed at how the republic was able to last so long with such a government. It gives me hope that we Americans can somehow muddle through the insanity of Washington gridlock and go on to survive and prosper.

But the Roman Republic eventually reached a critical mass of gridlock and collapsed into a series assassinations (killing your political foes was the only way you could get things done) which led to civil war and the rise of the dictators Marius and Sulla. From there the government slipped into chaos and the Roman citizen's freedom was finally snuffed out with the rise of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus. It is my fervent prayer that we are not embarked upon this same course. I have no love for Obamacare, but if the only way it can be  totally defeated is to set our government upon the same path followed by the Roman Republic, I'm willing to put up with it.

There is an old joke that defines "Statesman" as "dead politician." A true statesman is one who can put the common good above personal interest. I fear that true statesmen are few and far between in modern day Washington.