tragedy of the commons





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On Private Property, English Version
Tateiwa, Shinya (立岩 真也) 2016/09/21
 On Private Property, English Version
 Kyoto Books
 Chapter 2 Section 3.3

2.3.3 "Tragedy of the Commons" ?

The discussion above has been limited to the efficiency of private ownership of labor (and its results) and cannot be assumed to necessarily apply in other situations. In the examples I have considered so far, resources (abilities) have been thought of as being inside the bodies of each individual and non-transferable (@), but there are obviously other cases in which this restriction does not apply. I will begin my examination of such cases by taking a look at the idea of the "tragedy of the commons"◆20, since this concept might seem to negate some of what I have stated so far. The claim is that if there is no one to manage resources and the land on (in) which they are found they will be used up without restraint. And since even someone who is formally given responsibility for a resource will not carry out their responsibilities unless they are paid to manage and increase the production of the resource under their care (C→B), it is best to assign private ownership of land and give the profits made from the use of its resources to the person who is designated as its owner.

First, let's start by agreeing that in some cases "private ownership" is indeed effective. Assuming C is true, whether we are talking about farmland or factories it seems likely that in at least some cases the management of land and resources will be performed better if the person (or people) designated the manager is also given ownership of the results of production. As was stated earlier, production is improved when the results of production are given to the managers of land/resources. The protection of resources or the environment is also facilitated by this kind of ownership if this protection is connected to maintaining and expanding production. Even if there is no direct connection with production, people may feel the need to take care of a something simply because it is theirs ("looking after my garden is important to me because it is mine"). How well this concept compares to other forms of ownership or regulation depends entirely upon the particular case being considered. (This idea can also be thought of as the internalizing of "external diseconomies", similar to actions like charging fees for the disposal of garbage or forcing people to write their names on their garbage bags).

Second, However, the discussion above tells us nothing about how to answer the question of to whom the land/resources are to be distributed. Let's assume the private ownership of the results of labor is indeed effective. Neither farmland nor factories, however, satisfy condition @. It would seem that having the ownership of such property (frequently) change hands would make it significantly less desirable, and as such should be (for the most part) avoided. If people expect their possessions to be given to someone else then in some cases they will not consider them as their own property and will neither manage them appropriately nor seek to increase their production. (Even in cases where we consider the transfer of ownership of the body possible) individuals look after their own health and try to remain strong due to a recognition of their ownership of their own bodies, and this mechanism also works to maintain the health of society as a whole. I will examine this argument further in the next section. It is basically the same as saying that people wouldn't study very hard in school if they knew that after graduation they would exchange brains by lottery.

This argument, however, neither indicates how property should be divided nor serves to justify the present distribution. Even if (in some cases at least) it can say someone should owns some goods, it can't say who should own them. This argument is not used to say, for example, how each person's labor could best be distributed across a given piece of land (in other words, any assignation of private ownership of the land can be said to be effective). This point has been obscured by the contrasting of private ownership with shared use. What is actually found in our society, and what has been examined in this chapter, is in fact a particular system of private ownership, a system that awards individuals ownership of what they produce. The idea of the "tragedy of the commons" is not only used to argue that each individual should get by on the resources they possess, but is also connected to arguments for each country being responsible for managing its own resources and environment and dealing with related problems. But this theory does not provide justification for the fixing of national borders (preventing people from immigrating/emigrating, declining to distribute aid to other countries), or, in other words, for the fixing of vested interests.

What we have seen in this section is that each individual's private ownership of what they produce can be justified based on its "effectiveness". But while some things can only be used by one person, the human body, for example, can only be made to move by the person it belongs to, in cases where this condition does not hold the arguments presented have shown only that private ownership itself is necessary without giving any indication of how we are to determine who gets what.

◆20 Hardin [1968] cites Llyod's discussion of the "tragedy of the commons" (Llyod [1833]), in which each individual's attempts to maximize their own benefit from shared (pasture) land result in the land being overused and ruined, as a framework for considering environmental issues. Methods of avoiding this kind of problem include privatization and/or restrictive regulation, and the latter has been proposed in the form of restricting the "freedom to give birth" as a means of combating overpopulation (for criticism of this see Callahan [1972]). A "lifeboat ethics" which aims to ensure the welfare of the environment has also been proposed in contrast to "frontier (cowboy) ethics" in which nature is seen as being under human subjugation. Support of developing countries by wealthy nations (acceptance of those who have fallen off of an overcrowded lifeboat and swum to one which is better equipped) is rejected. The idea of the "tragedy of the commons" is employed in stating the reason for this rejection. The closing off of national borders (the selection of nations as units of privatization) serves to limit the use of natural resources and inhibit population growth (Hardin [1972] [1974][1977]. An explanation and criticism of these ideas can be found in Callahan [1974] and Schrader-Frechette [1991a][1991b] - the latter examines the contrast between these approaches and "spaceship ethics". The translator of Hardin [1977] (trans. 1983) refers to his ideas favorably in Takeuchi [1989]).
Within fields like sociology the "tragedy of the commons" (formulated as a generalized game with two players known as the "prisoner's dilemma") has been thought of as a "social dilemma" (see Hasegawa [1991a][1991b:30-33], Kobayashi [1995:261-271]. For more on "social dilemmas" see Moriyama and Umino eds. [1991], in particular Yamaguchi [1990] and Umino [1991]).
The following has been pointed out regarding theories of private ownership:
"We must indeed accept the economic necessity of a system which guarantees for the laborer the fruits of his or her labor. When no such system exists, if resources are produced as the result of an "investment" like the sort of long term labor involved in things like the cultivation of land then from the point of view of an individual it is more reasonable to adopt a strategy of seizing the fruits of the labor of others than to do the cultivating oneself, and once this is understood there will be no one who chooses to cultivate. Of course, once everyone has adopted this strategy the land will not be cultivated and what is targeted by the strategy will cease to exist, but if it is nonetheless pointless for each individual on their own to do the work of cultivating a kind of prisoner's dilemma emerges. If it is then argued that everyone should agree to designate "each individual's land" at the start and guarantee that they receive for themselves whatever they produce on that land through their own labor, then this amounts to a focus on the element of "exclusivity" (or its corollary rights of obtaining what is produced) found within the right of ownership and becomes an argument for its justification in terms of efficiency or economic functionality." (Shimazu [1992:61-62]).
For a discussion of the limits of privatization as a solution to environmental issues see Yamada [1996]. Toda [1994] includes a thorough discussion of environmental fairness. cf. Takahashi [1995:288ff].

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