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Sunday, November 02, 2003

Tragedy of the Social Commons

Immigrants to New England in the 17th century formed villages in which they had privately owned homesteads and gardens, but they also set aside community-owned pastures, called commons, where all of the villagers' livestock could graze. Settlers had an incentive to avoid overuse of their private lands, so they would remain productive in the future. However, this self-interested stewardship of private lands did not extend to the commons. As a result, the commons were overgrazed and degenerated to the point that they were no longer able to support the villagers' cattle. This failure of private incentives to provide adequate maintenance of public resources is known to economists as "the tragedy of the commons." (Description borrowed from Forbes)

Perhaps I over apply this analogy, but I do see it everywhere in human behavior. Most recently it occurred to me that interpersonal honesty suffers a similar fate--that people tend to be less honest with others than they might because in the marginal analysis it is better to let someone else be the bearer of bad news. The trouble of course being that when everyone does this, there is no bearer of bad news at all, which in turn means delusions not only go unchecked but are encouraged. Further, the few who dare be honest now stand out in stark contrast against the majority and so are easily dismissed--and socially penalized. I.e., the cost to being honest is quite high, whereas in a more "enlightened" society in which everyone were honest, the cost to any individual would be quite low.

So in this respect, the honesty "commons" are much more treacherous than the pastures of the original parable. At least on the pastures, as they are progressively overgrazed they become less and less attractive--the cost of foregoing them goes down. With honesty, it is the reverse--the less honest everyone else is, the higher the individual cost of being honest.

While there is a current stunning example of this which some will recognize, it's not the one that brought it to mind. This principle is rather ubiquitous, having been short-sightedly adopted as a rule of social etiquette probably before the invention of language. What got me thinking about it was a day or two ago when Clare* mentioned someone's odd behavior and I asked if she hadn't inquired about it. "The question would not have been well received" she said. Indeed, she's probably correct. The question would not have been well received. And so it remains unasked, the surface unscratched, the issue unexplored and hence unimproved.

And so it remains and will ever so. Given that the tragedy of the social commons is here to stay, is dishonesty truly the individual's net win? My intuition says no, that in the bigger bigger picture it is still better to suffer the penalties of honesty. But while the penalties are clear, the benefits are less so. Further analysis is required.

I wish people would butt in more, assault each other with unrequested opinions--take it or leave it, here is my impression, something I think might help you. Even if, as it would happen, people would respond defensively more often than not, so what? They're still learning that that's the way you see it; and maybe that's the important thing for them to know, whether or not what you see is actually correct. [One year ago.]

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com