Everybody’s property is everybody’s property

by fp on August 7, 2010

in Economics,Malthusian thoughts

“The modern capitalist system is the most effective motivator the world has ever seen. It is the most efficient system ever designed for transforming natural resources into goods and shipping them around the world, where they are quickly reduced to waste. It is a cycle of constant demand, and it is incredibly successful. Unfortunately, the more successful a flawed system, the more spectacularly it fails. But whereas the wins of the system were private, the losses are now being made public. Because the economy is a commons, in the end we either all win, or we all lose.”
Andy Mannie

Conservatives suggest that everybody’s property is nobody’s property. Boston Common is a park. It hasn’t been a “commons” since the 17th century when too many of the good people of Boston put too many of their cows out to pasture and overgrazed it. They turned a pastoral grassy meadow into a barren and polluted, muddy, fetid wallow.

Garrett Hardin may have had this example in mind when he crafted his essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” an argument for population control and restrictions on common use of public goods. Paradoxically, Hardin’s arguments for regulation and coercion were turned on their head by the true believers of the neoliberal school of economics. The destruction of the air, the oceans, the forests and the prairies was seen as a lesson that effective control could only emerge by trusting to the invisible hand that guides the free market to a fair distribution of goods. The Common had to be privatized in order to save it.

What rubbish.

Hardin’s perspective was that of a wildlife biologist. He was concerned with over-population, the carrying capacity of the planet, not free market economics. He advocated coercion, laws constraining human behavior, not the kind of laissez-faire capitalism that doubtless would doom us all. Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, has helped to reframe our understanding of the commons as common goods that can be saved and managed through cooperation. Economist Joseph Stiglitz, another Nobel prize winner put it this way,

What Ostrom has demonstrated is the existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights.

Brothers and sisters, can you give me a big “Well, duh-uh!”

Professor Ostrom wrote a book, at least a half a dozen books actually. It seems to be a prerequisite for the Nobel prize. I like what she has to say about governance and cooperation. The book I’m on about is “Governing the Commons” (1998). In it she writes about “the prisoner’s dilemma” game, that old standby for the “life is nasty, brutish, and short” and nature is “red in tooth and claw” crowd. I’ve spent a lot of energy debunking that Bonnie and Clyde game theory b.s. since one of my ‘greed is good” business school professors tried to cram it down my class’s collective throat. As I told George Partington on his blog eight years ago

I finally saw “A Beautiful Mind” last night with Beth. Great movie, even if the Nash equilibrium has been over-valued as an economic construct… (see, in the Prisoner’s dilemma, Bonnie would never rat out Clyde, nor vice versa, so the whole thing goes down the shitter in the face of human behavior based on emotion (love) instead of rational economic behavior… but it makes for some interesting algebraic matrices and Russell Crowe did a great job, and we cried).

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{ 1 comment }

Betty Jo August 9, 2010 at 9:27 am

What’s to be done?

It seems we have an economic system that depends on, nay demands ever increasing consumption of goods.
Yet we have an earth that demands we consume less, especially of those things produced by our economic
system. The “Conservatives” (how come THEY get to have that word?), are of two minds – Tea Partyers seem
to think hunger and desperation is the best motivator for work, others support astronomical corporate salaries
on the theory that Greed is the best motivator. Equal opportunity is disparaged as a lefty notion, even when it isn’t, the justification for Equal Opportunity seems to be “you may be desperate now, but keep working and someday you too might be greedy instead”.

We are short hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country. But as you suggest, not all jobs are equal. Some
are dangerous and highly polluting. Too many “products” produced by those jobs are at best useless and more often actually harmful. All over the world Small farms suffer from insufficient labor to produce food, while big cities burst at the seams with hungry unemployed people.

How is the human condition improved by more “service jobs” feeding out those bigmacs, frys and other empty calories. Why should this be the best our young (and older) folk might hope for – working at mind numbing jobs.

It’s so depressing. I wish there were another way. We might say draconian control is the way to prevent greedy excess, but that seems to turn out badly, with corruption and loss of creativity and imagination it’s inevitable result. We might say that fair mindedness might be the way to avoid draconian control, but that seems only to work within a like-minded subculture (tribe). We can love
the folk we know, or even the folk who seem most like us, but get too far beyond that local-ism, and altruism begins to breakdown.

The early Puritans had this notion of ‘sufficiency’. One sought enough but not more. That broke down by the 3rd generation as sneaky notions of earthly wealth being some outward sign of God’s blessing and hence one’s superiority in the Heavenly order of things changed the objectives away form sufficiency to greed.
Heavy sigh.

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