The Tragedy of the Commons

Star Parker
Star Parker


An essay that appeared in Science magazine back in the 1960’s explains clearly and concisely the self-destructive path we’re on in our country today.

The essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons“, showed how individuals, rationally pursuing their self-interest, could unintentionally destroy their own common existence.

A simple problem is put forth: A common grazing field is available to a community of herders. Everyone brings his or her cows there. Because there is no clear ownership, the only incentive each herder has is to bring all of his cows to graze and consume as much as possible.

With everyone doing it, and no one having any incentive to consider the implications of their behavior beyond consuming as much as possible, the final result is obvious. The field is destroyed.

(Credit: Howard F. Schwartz)

(Credit: Howard F. Schwartz)

Only when there is ownership and private property do individuals working in their own self-interest also make everyone else better off. When it’s yours and you have responsibility for it, you think about tomorrow and how to make best of use of resources.

Today’s equivalent of the common field is what we call the public sector — government. And our grazers are politicians and interest groups.

Whereas a businessman will be out of business in short order if he delivers a poor product or mismanages his firm, politicians just graze in the public pasture doling out other peoples resources.

There was a lot of flowery talk recently about Senator Kennedy on occasion of his passing.

Kennedy was a man born into wealth who spent a life in politics growing government. What was the personal consequence to him of what he did in politics? By personal consequence, I mean on his bank account, his survival. None.

He could convince poor people that he was working for their interest by fighting against school choice while everyone in his family attends private schools.

Or he could declare, as he did, that everyone has a “right” to health care. The personal costs of this to average Americans in the way of massive new intrusion of government into their lives and in major new taxes to pay for it all had absolutely no personal consequence to Kennedy. Does anybody think he ever sat in an HMO waiting room?

The public sector — government — was just a sandbox for Senator Kennedy to play in to seek personal power and glory.

President Obama has just submitted a 10-year federal government budget projecting our national debt burden to reach $17 trillion. This is greater than our entire GDP today.

Does anyone think Barack Obama manages his personal finances this way? Or if he were president of his own company that he would be running it this way?

The bigger government gets, the more “special interests” we have grazing for personal gain.

Federal government spending is now twice what it was ten years ago. Can it surprise anyone that over the same period expenditures on lobbying more than doubled and the number of lobbyists in Washington increased 50 percent?

Or that with the major new push for government managed health care that Washington is crawling with health care lobbyists? Health care lobbying expenditures in 2008 were a half billion dollars. The spending pace so far this year exceeds that.

A hundred years ago the “public sector” was less than ten percent of our economy. By the 1940’s it was almost one quarter. Soon it will be one half.

Our people and resources are being increasingly diverted from the productive private economy to the public pasture, where they graze and consume for personal gain and in total destroy a once great country.

It’s our “tragedy of the commons.” It’s why we should fight at all costs to slam the breaks on this massive government hijacking.

Star Parker is president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal & Education and author of the new book White Ghetto: How Middle Class America Reflects Inner City Decay. Prior to her involvement in social activism, Star Parker was a single welfare mother in Los Angeles, California. After receiving Christ, Star returned to college, received a BS degree in marketing and launched an urban Christian magazine.

11 Responses to “The Tragedy of the Commons”

  1. Ms. Star Parker –

    We understand why Barrack Obama and his associates on the left intend on passing healthcare reform. They are playing to their conscience as they are sincerely concerned about those individuals whom are not covered. However, to add another 20 to potentially 40 million more people to a system (which we can call the “healthcare commons”) via the public option would create the exact scenario as outlined by Hardin’s article “tragedy of the commons”. If Barrack Obama insists on the public option, we are bound to overpopulate the healthcare commons, leading to the inevitable misery and destruction of the current system – a system which most Americans are quite content with.

    What president Barrack Obama and his reformists don't seem to realize or address is that, like any other goods, services and commodities, there are limited resources for Healthcare (e.g. lack of doctors, technicians, pharmacists, etc). So what do we do when there is a limited resource? Certainly we don’t increase the use of a finite resource or tax the whole society to death, do we? That would be absurd. Sure, we can tax people more and required that they join the government public option, but money is not the only problem here. The problem here is overpopulation and the prospects of rationing healthcare.
    To address this issue we first we need to pass legislation to utilize the limited resource more effectively and to cut excesses where they exist. Efficiency is part of the solution, but we need to also keep in mind that we cannot cut salaries and money funding vital research in health. Doctors and pharmaceutical industries should be getting the best salaries as they play a vital role in human health in America. If we cut salaries, then there are no incentives for people to spend 10 years to become a doctor for only a $60,000 salary.
    Secondly, what we need to do is to tackle the issue of why, according to those in favor of healthcare reform, that nearly 10% of the American population cannot afford or choose not to join a private insurance group. Additionally, we need to address the issue of should we help them at all? Are they eating out every day, buying iphones, flat screen TV’s and gaming consoles over purchasing health insurance? We need to look over this and see why it is people are not purchasing healthcare coverage. Personally, the prospects of any government intervention in our lives, especially on issues of health, are awfully frightening. Why? Because once the government has that power and control, it will never let go until its destruction. The major problem with all of this healthcare reform is that while we’re playing to our conscience of helping those in need, it does not address the underlying issues of too many people and not enough resources. I don’t really agree with the government aiding those who cannot afford healthcare insurance. In fact, what I think is best it to let the healthcare system work out its faults and let the individuals figure out what is best for them. Sure, some reform will be required to increase competition and ensure that the individual has more options.
    The truth, which no one seems to be able to stomach, is that there will be winners and losers with this ideology, but life is all about winners and losers – and we simply cannot afford to continually help and support the losers on every issue of life (healthcare, housing, etc). This sort of morality will bring everyone down. The only place where I think government should have intervention to help solve this issue is in the education system. The government should bolster the idea of being a responsible individual through tax incentives. Furthermore, the government should be spending all their time, efforts and money on reforming education because it is education that will save us from healthcare doom. We should be allocating money to reform education and encourage people to become doctors, scientists, mathematicians, pharmacists, lawyers, etc. And the only principle that should rule is survival of the fittest.

  2. Under “all” the circumstances, I find the “survival of the fittest” philosophy to be non-applicable to our present situation. A person who unfairly wins over competition is not a winner. A cheater maybe, but certainly not a winner. Neither is someone who loses, necessarily a loser. Results do not always define or represent the truth.

    An innocent man is innocent, no matter what a jury decides. A lie is a lie, no matter how many people say it is the truth. Likewise, a hardworking person is a hardworking person, no matter what an observer might perceive to the contrary. And, being poor does not necessarily mean that a person is stupid or lazy. It could mean that those in control created an unfair situation that made the person poor. A situation where, at least for the present, nothing the person could/can do is going to alter the immediate outcome.

    People can work all their lives, carefully managing their money and saving for their retirement, only to find themselves penniless due to events and actions outside of their control. People with insurance can find that their portion of medical bills wiped them out. An unexpected closing of a business can leave people unemployed and unable to readily find a new job, especially with all the people also looking for employment while a great many of our jobs are now in China and places such as that.

    Laws have protected the powerful/wealthy and given them too much advantage over the average person. An advantage that can allow the wrong-doer to come out the winner and the wronged party the loser. However, the loser is not necessarily a loser in character or effort. The person, in this example, lost because our system has taken “fair play” out of too many things. Until that is corrected, we cannot rightfully rely upon the philosophy of “survival of the fittest,” as something to justify the results of the world around us. The world has gone mad and we need to restore it to sanity before we are all — one and all — destroyed in the infectious madness of life in the new world.

  3. Carrie –
    I think you have a great point from a moral standpoint, but my use of the “survival of the fittest” model was to make the point that we should let things take its natural course, with minimal, if any, government influence. Yes, “being poor” does not imply that one is “stupid or lazy.” In fact many successful people start out poor and work their way up to success. I think you are taking my survival of the fittest philosophy too literal, so let me restate my points.

    I know it sounds harsh to those emphasizing morality, but the principles of individualsim and personal responsibilty should be valued much more than that of “fair play” and giving the poor greater opportunities to succeed than the average person (unless, Carrie, you want to empty your wallet for us all – I could use the money to repay my student loans). Now I get the feeling that you think the American society is unjust, being that you think the wealthy have such an edge over the poor and that the world has gone mad, but to imply that having an edge is “cheating” and that the current system is “unfair” as grounds for legislating “fair play” is ridiculous. Have you forgotten what America stands for? Or are you that blinded by morality? America only guarantees freedoms, not handouts, bailouts and to indemnify losers on the backs of the tax payers. It is up the individual to use these freedoms given by America to pursue success and keep it. Hopefully such individual success can help the less fortunate, but it is not guaranteed. Sure, the government should ensure that people don’t profit from illicit behavior (like the Kennedy’s did from selling alcohol during the prohibition years or, a more contemporary example, the ponzi schemers like Madoff) and that justice is served when a crime is committed, but your mistaken if you think that the average American is going to give up their success to provide a more fairer and just society for the other 10% of the population struggling to make ends meet.

    Should we punish those whom are successful and still have an edge because of their hard work? Should we steal from future generations by spending ourselves into unimaginable debt? Your view for a more just society is communism at best, even though I and everyone else know that you’re just blinded by morality. When communism took afoot in Russia, they actually believed in wealth distribution and handouts. But we well know that such a system not only requires trampling every basic human right, but will crumble over time too.

    Carrie, here is what I would like you to consider. Let’s say you live in a small town that was hit by an F5 tornado and your neighbors lost their homes and food supplies as a result. Now help will arrive no earlier than 2 weeks because the authorities are busy aiding others whom have been hit the hardest. Your neighbors are starving and realize that your house is the only one that remained intact – and surely there must be water and food there. You and your family know that your food supplies are low and there is no way that you’re going to be able to feed your kids and all the other neighbors for 2 weeks. The neighbors are desperate and decided they will do anything to take your supplies to keep their family alive. Now you have the option of distributing your limited supplies to your neighbors or hiding your stash. Clearly you would opt to distribute your stash on moral basis, but you and I know that such an action would jeopardize the lives of your children. Will you take that risk? Are you prepared to lose everything for others misfortunes, mistakes and/or misjudgments? Now I’m sure it hard for you to put yourself in those shoes, and obviously this is an exaggeration, but I’m sure you would defend your stash if it meant death to your children.

    Carrie, the survival of the fittest philosophy doesn't care about morality or ethics – which is what you are trying to use to make your arguments for government intervention, bailouts, handouts, fair play legislation, etc. Look, I wholeheartedly agree that we should help those in need to a degree (we already have plenty of “fair play” regulations such as affirmative action, rights to file suit for damages, etc), but here is a fact we need to grasp: if we try to make life fair for everyone (like providing universal healthcare, bailing out banks that rolled the dice on the housing market, bailing out the stock markets, bailing out those whom build their homes near flood-prone areas and in areas where wildfires are a constant threat, etc) we're going to put our future in peril.

    As stated previously, life is all about winners and losers – and we simply cannot afford to continually indemnify the losers on every issue of life on the back of tax payers. The losers will need to adjust to their new reality and move on. Hopefully they have purchased insurance and have extended family members and other compassionate individuals and organizations to help them get back on their feet, but this cannot be guaranteed. Government insured liberties and a focus on individualism and personal responsibility, not government sponsored “fair play,” is the cure to fix your perception of a mad and infectious world.

  4. sarkendressler, I don't know where you got all of that “assumption” out of what I wrote, but aren't you way off base and then some.

    To point out that the judicial system is full of corruption and bias, therefore creating an unfair balance, is communism?

    A person can go to court with truth on his or her side and still walk out a loser because of the problems within the system. That does give the wealthy an unfair advantage that should not exist. But you are saying that it is okay for the government to either create or allow these things and for me to suggest it needs to be fixed is communism?

    When insurance companies enter into an agreement with an individual and then do not pay off as promised — you just consider that business as usual? You consider that breach of contract acceptable and for me to point out that is wrong is leaning towards communism?

    The government involvement has created and thus far protected what shouldn't even exist. A court system, for example, that is often easily manipulated by variables that have absolutely nothing to do with “the law” itself. There is corruption in the system. A corruption, bias, indifference, ineptness, whatever that allows for what equals “stealing” from individuals. Stealing what is rightfully theirs — not denying some “handout” sought.

  5. Carrie –

    I think you should read my previous posting again. Your going off on a tangent about our judicial system and how it is corrupt? Did you have some sort of family member wrongly accused of something?

    What are you trying to point out here and how is any of this relevant to my article about how all this spending is putting our future in peril? Can you please clarify how your latest response addresses the point of Ms. Parkers article? Can you let us know what your suggesting? Do you hate America?

    I'm really enjoying our debate, but I'm not following any of your logic.


  6. Your article?

  7. You had an article on the Dakota Voice? Please point it out to me.

  8. Carrie –

    Yes. Article means either a story, report, or opinion piece in a newspaper, magazine, journal, internet etc. If you look above, both you and I have opinion pieces on the internet. Once again, you are diverting from the real issues. Its a common thing people like to do when they have nothing else to say and want to fight over semantics. You're clearly at a loss for words.


  9. No, I'm not at a loss for words — I simply took note of yours! I'd really like to see the definition you claim for “article” in a dictionary. Once again… you are making claims based upon your assumptions and attempt to distract, when proven wrong.

  10. It is interesting to note that just today, a $20 million budget item was placed in the Defense Budget to help pay for some Kennedy memorial institute at Boston U. Now even Senators, tomorrow Congressmen, will get these wonderful subsidies from we the tax payers to glorify their memories. Kennedy, as you point out, hardly needs the money to help glorify his questionable contribution to this country. But how do these politicians have the nerve to expect that taxpayers, at a time of extreme economic difficulty, no less, should have to pay for this egotistical Democratic Party self-glorification of politicians, the most disrespected group in the country.


  11. It is interesting to note that just today, a $20 million budget item was placed in the Defense Budget to help pay for some Kennedy memorial institute at Boston U. Now even Senators, tomorrow Congressmen, will get these wonderful subsidies from we the tax payers to glorify their memories. Kennedy, as you point out, hardly needs the money to help glorify his questionable contribution to this country. But how do these politicians have the nerve to expect that taxpayers, at a time of extreme economic difficulty, no less, should have to pay for this egotistical Democratic Party self-glorification of politicians, the most disrespected group in the country.