Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dilemma 18: The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons

Dilemmas need not involve only two people; some dilemmas can involve an entire society at once. Unfortunately, mass dilemmas have a worse outlook than pairwise dilemmas. Garrett Hardin tells this tragic tale:
Once upon a time there was a village with a green commons. All the villagers grazed their cattle there; so long as everyone grazed only one cow there, then the common can support all. However, if enough villagers graze a second cow on the commons, then the commons will fail, and all will suffer.
The dilemma is: everyone is tempted to “free ride” by getting a second cow; after all, they reason, one single extra cow won’t ruin the commons. True enough; but enough second cows will. At first only a few free-rode; but as time went by, more and more did. Eventually the commons failed. That is the tragedy.
Alas, strategies like TFT no longer work for these many-player dilemmas; for it is often difficult to identify whom to retaliate against. Group truces are in general far more vulnerable than individual truces; the more players, the easier it is to “free-ride” with relative impunity, until all are punished. Experiment shows that people allowed to communicate in experimental group dilemmas show more fear and greed statements than they do in individual dilemma encounters.
Even if we were to institute a social sanction method to punish free-riders, still that very mechanism is vulnerable to free-riding; and corruption from the top can go very far. (The mayor of the above-mentioned village can have as many cows as he wants!)

This dilemma of social cooperation (also known as the “Volunteer’s Paradox”) is a political problem, with at least three political semi-resolutions:
This is a Market-based solution. Here, the community decentralizes and localizes social dilemmas, preferably down to the level of personal Parley exchanges. The Silver rule (mixed with a little bit of Gold) corresponds to reciprocity, the “natural” justice of  the marketplace. This method’s flaws include: externalities; when one player can make every other player pay his real costs: coordination of masses of agents to work in synch: and monopolization of key elements of the economy by the power-seeking few.
This is a State-based solution. Here, the community empowers a “legal system”; i.e. institutions designed to dispense artificial justice. The local powers dispense rewards and punishments according to agreed-on rules. This method’s flaws include: corruption; when the influence of money undermines the legitimacy of the law: tyranny; when the power of the State is used by the few to rob and oppress the many: and bureaucracy; when competing political interests promote inefficiency, waste and gridlock in public service.
This is a Church-based solution. Here, the community seeks consensus; its citizens try to set a “good example” for others, and invite others to do as they do. This method’s flaws include: vulnerability to challenge by marginal elements: false consensus arising from social error: and hypocrisy arising from the subversion of principle by privilege.

Theory and experiment confirm what history demonstrates; that the human is a semi-social animal. We are social as individuals, yet anti-social as groups! This is the paradox of social perversity; most individuals have higher social ethics than most societies. Anarchism is not a naive prescription of what should be; if only it were! In fact, anarchism is a cynical description of what is, like it or not.
The human species is only locally socialized. We’re just civilized enough to be aware of our collective barbarism. The problem is not “man’s inhumanity to man”; if only it were that simple! The problem is men’s inhumanity to men.
We, in our collective folly, have given ourselves the name “Homo Sapiens”: Wise Man. When we are inspected individually, such a name might perhaps be justified; but when we are inspected collectively, the misnomer is obvious. Mankind’s social state resembles the fluid state of matter; locally ordered, globally formless. This compares to the gaseous social state of solitary species, and the solid social state of the social insects. (Yet even the social insects limit their loyalties to the nest; beyond the nest, it is nest versus nest.)
Individual dilemmas prosper; thus societies rise. Collective dilemmas deteriorate; thus societies fall. Social dilemmas create freedom within chaos; the Middle Way.
So accept people one by one, but not all in all.
Trust each I; suspect each We.

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