The Republicans and the Tragedy of the Commons

Every once in a while, someone invents an operative metaphor, and is gratefully remembered ever after. Garrett Hardin did it in 1968 when he wrote his article Tragedy of the Commons.

Hardin postulated an agrarian community where all citizens graze their livestock on a commonly owned field. The field can only support a limited number of animals before it is denuded and ruined.

Hardin pointed out that the cost benefit analysis performed by an individual townsperson using the commons will always lead to the conclusion that the immediate benefit of adding another animal far outweighs the remoter, less visible harm of degradation of the commons. Whats more, the benefit from the additional animal belongs to the townsperson alone, while the harm to the commons is shared proportionally across all its users.

Looked at from a slightly different perspective, the tragedy of the commons is an illustration of a Prisoner's Dilemma. Adding an animal is playing the betrayal card, while all players deciding not to add an animal represents cooperation in preserving the resource.

It seems self-evident to me that Republican environmental policy promotes the tragedy of the commons. The Contract Republicans, by moving to slash the government's role in environmental protection, are putting the decision-making back in the "invisible hand" of the marketplace, which will always, inevitably decide to add that additional animal to the commons. One wishes that politics included an annual ritual in which all of our elected officials took scopalomine, then answered questions. I would like to hear Mr. Gingrich's honest critique of Hardin's metaphor.

I looked at Mr. Gingrich's To Renew America (Harper Collins 1995) hoping to find the answer. Sure enough, he has a chapter entitled "Tending the Gardens of the Earth: Scientifically Based Environmentalism". But, like most of the rest of the book, its a lot of empty words; he never so much as acknowledges that there is a tragedy going on. Instead, in classic Gingrichian style, he's all over the map, alternating between homely (and somewhat strange) anecdotes, attacks on his adversaries, and crackpot recommendations:

Mr. Gingrich is arguing what lawyers call the "kettle case". Sued for breaking a kettle he had borrowed, a man defended himself as follows: 1. I never borrowed the kettle. 2. The kettle was never broken. 3. It was already broken when I borrowed it. Mr. Gingrich says that business is an excellent steward of the environment (never borrowed the kettle); the environment is fine (never broken); and that nothing can be done to address environmental problems anyway (already broken when borrowed). The most charitable thing I can say about the Speaker is that, had he lived in the 4th century BC, he would have been a passing rhetorician, but no Socrates.

Coincidentally, today's New York Times carried a description of the end result of a tragedy of the commons allowed to play itself out over the decades. The Pacific island of Nauru was rich in guano, and its residents authorized it to be strip mined, with no thought for their future. "Inch for inch, Nauru is the most environmentally ravaged nation on earth. So much of the island has been devoured by strip-mining begun 90 years ago that Nauruans face the prospect that they may have to abandon their bleak, depleted home. If it comes to that, they are expecting the outside help them find a new island." ("A Pacific Island is Stripped of Everything", NYT December 10, p. A3.) They have millions of dollars stashed away, no place to live, are racked with diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity due to an unhealthy diet of imported, canned foods, and have a life expectancy of less than 60 years. They are the Yorick's skull to our Hamlet (perhaps Mr. Gingrich is Polonius). And there are no new islands out there.