Author: David C. Rose

Protecting Our Cultural Commons from Opportunism

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote a famous essay titled The Tragedy of the Commons. Borrowing from an example first employed by William Forster Lloyd in 1883, Hardin explained why a common pasture is prone to being ruined from overgrazing. His goal was to lay out the basic logic of what is now known in game theory as the commons dilemma. In doing so, he hoped to demonstrate why the problem of overpopulation is so daunting and would therefore likely require the exercise of government power to solve it. These kinds of problems are prevalent in large societies and they are hard to solve. They are not the result of stupidity or irrationality. Most cannot be solved by creating rules against socially ruinous behavior even if everyone endorses the rules and agrees to obey them. The reason why commons-dilemma problems are so hard to solve is that they are the result of perfectly rational behavior. A central tenet of economics is that individually rational behavior is normally consistent with promoting the common good. But when …